Should we give up on urban public school districts and replace them with something completely different?

In a recent book, education analyst Andy Smarick argues that the traditional urban school district is broken beyond repair. He advocates a choice-based system that allows for the creation of new schools, the closure of persistently failing schools, and the expansion and replication of the most successful schools.

Photo from Andy Smarick.

In The Urban School System of the Future, Smarick says that despite decades of effort, urban public school districts like DCPS continue to serve the vast majority of their students inadequately. In his view, they will never generate the results disadvantaged kids deserve.

What's needed, he says, is a "portfolio" approach. Instead of having the school district serve as the sole or even dominant operator of schools on a permanent basis, a city would manage a portfolio of its K-12 schools.

The city would remain neutral as to whether a school operator came from the traditional public, public charter, or private school sector. Its goal would be to increase the number of students in high-performing schools year after year.

Smarick is a partner at the DC-based consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners. He agreed to answer some questions about his ideas for GGE.

You advocate closing schools that are failing rather than trying to turn them around, making an analogy to the business world, where failure leads to an exit from the field. But closing a school arguably results in greater disruption than closing a business. And the effects on children could be long-lasting, especially if there's no better school available for them to go to. Is there any way to mitigate those disruptive effects under your proposed system?

This is one of the toughest issues in urban education reform. There's a huge difference between smart closure policies and clumsy, insensitive closure policies—and the latter have unfortunately dominated. I support the former because the success rate of "turnarounds," as evidenced by decades of experience, has been shockingly low.

We just can't rely on turnarounds if we want to dramatically improve student learning in inner-city public schools. This is why I advocate for an approach that has as its North Star the following goal: We will continuously grow the number of students in high-quality schools.

That leads to a set of strategies far more promising than relying on the schools and systems of yesterday. If we have a well integrated plan of smart closures, new start-ups in the charter sector, and the replication and expansion of proven models, we can grow the number of high-quality seats and facilitate families' selections of schools that best meet the needs of their kids.

On the specific issue of closures, I think we always need to have two guiding principles when we've decided a school is persistently underperforming and needs to be shuttered.

First, make sure those involved in the closure are aware of and sensitive to the history of the school and its place in the community. That school could be named after a civil rights icon, it could have been the first desegregated school in the city, it could have had a long history of academic or athletic success, it could provide other services to the neighborhood, and much more.

Second, never close a school unless you can ensure that displaced students have safer and higher-performing school options available to them.

Some say that high-performing charter schools serving high-poverty populations have succeeded because they skim off the best students and most engaged parents, either through active selection or because those who apply are a self-selected group. Is it possible that even a portfolio approach won't be enough to succeed with the students who are hardest to educate?

There's now plenty of research showing that charter enrollment in big cities is overwhelmingly low-income and minority, so this isn't the issue that charter detractors had hoped it would be. But there are a couple of issues we ought to grapple with.

First, it might be the case that in cities with moderately sized charter sectors families with students who have significant special education needs choose to keep their kids in the district because the district is large and has substantial resources. Most charters, even those operating as part of a CMO, are still quite small by comparison, meaning fewer staff and smaller budgets. And keep in mind that nationally, charters get significantly less funding per student than districts do.

If families are making choices based on their assessments of their children's best interests, we need to think long and hard before forcing a certain percentage of students with specific characteristics into any type of school—district, charter, or otherwise—in the name of equity.

But as a city's charter sector becomes dominant—especially if the district becomes a marginal or nonexistent presence—charters, collectively, will have to serve every single student well. With that future in mind, it becomes incumbent upon all of us to make sure we enable charters to deliver.

That will require smart policies and practices related to funding, human capital, parental choice, enrollment systems, and more. In other words, as the charter sector grows from ancillary to dominant sector, its responsibilities grow. And that requires a concomitant shift in the way policymakers, funders, families, and the public treat charters.

Charter schools are more capable of innovation and experimentation, but traditional public school systems have advantages of scale in providing things like special education, legal services, etc. Under your model, which focuses on the success or failure of individual schools, would there be a way for schools to take advantage of the benefits of scale?

I think those opposing charters and defending the establishment often misunderstand the lessons of scale. The way scale works best is if you take something small and successful and then find ways to grow it. They way it doesn't work so well is to take something large and unsuccessful and try to make it better. In other words, quality comes first, and then comes size.

Unfortunately, the benefits of the urban school district's scale have been the reform movement's chimera—something wished for but illusory. It has led countless individuals and organizations to bet on the district. Those efforts have amounted to astonishingly little; we still don't have a single high-performing urban district in the entire nation.

My view on scale is twofold. First, scale should result from great schools replicating and expanding. Clusters of 5 or more schools can then realize valuable economies of scale while getting terrific academic results.

Second, there are things that ought to be handled system-wide, like an enrollment system and the allocation of public-school facilities. I doubt the school district could ever do these things well, so I'd prefer they be housed in other entities. But those entities could and should have scale in the sense that they influence the city's entire portfolio of schools.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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makes you wonder if a good outcome for some of the worst DCPS schools is not reconstitution or whatever but instead temporary one-year closure, full firings, and a ground-up rebuild. Bring in people with charter startup experience - a skill set less necessary after charter sector matures - and task them with these new startups within the district system.

It seems more likely than turnaround.

by ar on May 7, 2014 12:34 pm • linkreport

I wish this interview had been exclusively DC-specific. Would have been much more useful. Any reason why a DC-specific blog couldn't pull this off?

by Evelyn Boyd Simmons on May 7, 2014 1:04 pm • linkreport

they've basically been doing this in Philadelphia, where the state has taken over the school system and gradually turned the schools over to charter school cronies of the governor. It hasn't worked, although it has starved what's left of the public schools.

People have known for years what makes for successful schools even in poor districts, but it's all unsexy stuff--curriculum, classroom management, strong principals, etc.

you probably should interview someone like Diane Ravitch who led the way to earlier cycles of "reform" nonsense and then finally realized how destructive they've been. The way to get faddish, ineffective approach to eductaion out of schools is to avoid people like this guy.

by Rich on May 7, 2014 1:47 pm • linkreport

Charters have minimal accountability.
Charters have between zero and very scant data showing that they work better than the pure public model.

One thing that charters have documented extensively is that they have a profit motive and can lobby strongly for their corporate interest(s).

For profit hospitals, prisons, higher education and now public charter schools are all advocated on efficiency arguments -- the private sector can do it 'better'/'cheaper'. There are 'innovations' that a more agile management (with a profit motive) can bring to the service. This is almost always wrong. They can do it a little better for some few. But when they 'scale up' they no longer do it more efficiently. Instead, they either cause costs to grow substantially or they degrade the quality of the service. As the for-profit prison industry has shown, they will advocate against the public interest in order to increase their profits. And they will lie and cheat and steal public funds in ways that are unimaginable in the public sector.
Examples are Healthcare corporation of America (HCA), CCA lobbying for longer, mandatory sentences and the whole government guaranteed student debt for for-profit trade schools, e.g. Kaplan. The recent theft of funds/non-provision of services for Options Charter School is merely the latest in DC's charter failures -- which is excused because 'we cannot close the school down without causing too much harm to the students'.

by Mike on May 7, 2014 2:18 pm • linkreport

also interesting that the "takes the best students" argument gets a response that charters enroll low-income and minority students.

There's always the the possibility that low-income/minority children include the best students.

And to be blunt about it, in communities with segregation, the communities are often nearly uniform - so if you take anyone from that community at all, e.g., in parts of Wards 7 or 8, you're extremely likely to get poor and minority representation. And probably some of the families who care most about schooling.

by ar on May 7, 2014 2:45 pm • linkreport

Evelyn Boyd Simmons: What sort of DC-specific questions do you have in mind? I did ask Andy one DC-specific question, about how something like this would be politically possible here, given the current outcry over switching away from neighborhood schools and previous outcries over school closures. But I gave him his choice of 3 questions out of 4, and that's the question he chose not to answer.

by Natalie Wexler on May 7, 2014 2:47 pm • linkreport

It is not the buildings that are failing, it is 1) DCPS's policies of prioritizing test prep, to the detriment of a rounded curriculum, maldistribution of the best teachers, central control policies, inadequate enrichment and social services provided to schools in poorest neighborhoods, churning of principals and policies leading to high teacher turnover, disruptions caused by school closings and consolidations and 2)failure up until now to provide needed other services for homeless and other struggling families or caretakers to prepare children for school and give them needed security.
Re choice: how about giving all kids the choice of a great neighborhood public school--one that many only have now in a few wealthier neighborhoods--and this would also involve changes in our housing, health and other city functions besides the schools. More privatization and de-unionizing our schools will provide big profits to business, remove the political power of teacher unions and do-away with the traditional role of public schools in creating good citizens--no doubt desirable outcomes of many of their exponents- but is this working in New Orleans, Philadelphia or DC where it has been fostered on a large scale? The kids who are failing can't get into the best of these private or privatized charter schools, or are kicked out before test time, and many of our mushrooming charters don't do better than the public schools they draw from. There is room for much improvement all around, but it needs to extend to improving teacher training and making it a more esteemed profession and reducing the inequality in our society. No non-comprehensive technocratic "solutions" ala Rhee et al will do more than enrich and publicize their proponents.

by Dorothy on May 8, 2014 8:10 am • linkreport

Andy Samarick is very smart, but he's very focused on pushing the charter agenda, not on improving education (read his twitter feed or any of his blog posts). Notice he never states what can be done to fix education, only what can be done to increase the number of charters.

DCPS emphasizes testing because they have to. The same people who push the charter movement are the ones who pushed NCLB and it's emphasis on testing, and it's many of the same firms that profit from both testing and charter industries.

You should ask Andy how to better hold charters accountable so they don't continue to expel SPED students mid-year. He seems to see, or maybe it's his vision, the public school system serving special ed students and the charters serving everyone else, which is the direction we're headed in DC.

by erik on May 8, 2014 8:57 am • linkreport

@ar: I second your comment. Question #2 is a very real concern and I don't appreciate the interviewee's dodge, which comes off as unaware that there are high-performing minority students or worse.

At the same time, I like the response on scaling up clusters of well performing schools (i.e., "positive deviance") and wish the interviewee could elaborate. This is something that private-sector reformers and public-school supporters could agree on and as far as I understand might be a reasonable way to push forward in DC (e.g., spreading outward from the Capitol Hill cluster, etc.)

by xmal on May 8, 2014 9:05 am • linkreport

We do have an example of this, New Orleans and in many cases charter schools have done better but it is mostly for middle and high performing students. The problem with the choice agenda is that it squeezes out real and fundamental discussion that needs to take place about the home circumstances that reign in so many children's lives.

by DC Parent on May 8, 2014 11:13 am • linkreport

"Charter schools are more capable of innovation and experimentation"

Fact or your opinion? Some charters are innovative, but that's certainly NOT a given. Some of the "innovations" are approaches already in place in traditional public schools.

by anon_1 on May 8, 2014 11:23 am • linkreport

Here is the latest on Philadelphia public schools and charters. Public and Charter School costs up 70% in last ten years - driven by rising charter school tuitions. Average class sizes to go to 41 in public (non-charter) schools. And the bond rating craters. Yeah, that't the ticket!.

"Without $216 million in additional funding, Moody's analyst Dan Seymour wrote in a report to clients, the district threatens to increase the average class size to 41 students and lay off more than 1,000 staff. " This is credit negative because a further deterioration in education services will likely result in additional student flight to charter schools and other alternatives," further reducing district revenues, Seymour added. 3 in 10 Philadelphia students already go to charter schools.
Rising charter school enrollments have been a drag on the district’s finances, as state law mandates that public school districts pay the costs of sending students to charter schools. Driven largely by charter school tuition costs, the district’s costs per pupil have increased 70% since 2004. Further enrollment declines would exacerbate the district’s financial pressure as charter schools capture a larger share of the district’s expenditures," Moody's adds.

"The school district has ... cut costs aggressively, reducing teaching staff by 22% from 2004 to 2013, closing 24 schools in 2013...most of the district’s remaining budget consists of mandatory expenditures, with charter school tuition and transportation costs, debt service, and pension contributions together comprising half of the district’s budget."

by Mike on May 9, 2014 10:26 am • linkreport

I am so frustrated by policy wonks debating school boundaries and urban school planning without any thought for the daily life of a typical child in this city. #1. Many families do not have reliable cars. Very small kids are then waking up before sunrise to schlep across town on buses, likely on an empty stomach, to get to school early enough for their parent to then begin their own work commute on another bus line. Kids eating in transit are eating fast food, processed food or free breakfast at school (if they get there in time and are willing to eat it.) None of which gives them the nutritional basis they need to be successful.
#2. Very few if any DC school buildings have the capacity to handle car drop-offs of any reasonable volume. Those kids commuting in personal vehicles sit in snarled neighborhood traffic on tiny intersections that were never intended to handle that volume of daily car traffic.

These things impact student performance, school atmosphere and children's emotional and physical health. If you show up to school hungry, or having eaten a pop tart on the bus, a kid's behavior is likely to degrade over the course of the morning until lunch. He/she is then in trouble, feels terrible, classmates' behavior degrades. It's a terrible cycle - made worse by early morning cross-town schleps.

by hillmom on May 14, 2014 1:41 pm • linkreport

Let's not through away the baby with the bath water, or blame the couch for a spouse infidelity. The reality is that Charters do better because of parent involvement. Parents go to charter schools with high expectations and these schools are very selective when accepting students. Also they demand fron parents an active role and commitment to support the school and the students. Urban school children often operate on their own. They often feel isolated by theconstant emphasis on parent participation. The problem is that there are no parents and as result the child feels marginalized since only students with "involved parents" are likely to succeed. The child gives up or has a perfect excuse not to try. In situations where parental guidance is missing, talk to the students directly, make them accountable for their own actions, provide them with the necessary emotional and economic support issued directly to them and not the parents. My own experience has shown that once you acknowledge their situation and have serious discussions about their future(it may take several talks) explaining their own role in their success. Students must understand that any achievements or failures are the product of their own actions. Stop the blame game!

by Diana Jacobson on Jun 5, 2014 10:20 am • linkreport

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