Can Districts Be Part of the Innovative Solution, Too? An Exchange Between Neerav Kingsland (New Schools for New Orleans) and Bill Guenther (Mass Insight Education)
On January 23, 2012, guest-blogging for Rick Hess, Neerav Kingsland (New Schools for New Orleans) offered a provocative challenge to urban superintendents: relinquish control of schools in order to create more charter school districts. Over the next week, he and Mass Insight’s Bill Guenther exchanged emails —Bill making the case that school turnaround offers a more scalable strategy, Neerav arguing that such a strategy delays the inevitable because government monopolies are inherently flawed. Their exchange follows. What do you think? Join the conversation below.
You’re right that urban superintendents have an opportunity and obligation to think and act boldly. We agree that the “same-old” strategies are doomed. And yes, charters should be an important part of any city’s strategy. But relying exclusively on charters won’t work — and is unnecessary.
School turnarounds provide a “third way” between the two extremes of top-down, command-and-control vs. the total decentralization of an all-charter district. Thanks to the Obama Administration and Congress, districts themselves have an unprecedented opportunity to become laboratories of innovation. They have all the policy permissions they need to create charter-like conditions within mini-district community clusters of schools. And through the School Improvement Grants, they have the funds to develop new specialized turnaround capacity.
The best charters have proven that they can help all students excel, no matter their background. Now, the challenge is scaling this kind of success — but you simply can’t do it one school at a time. Transforming traditional districts is the only feasible answer. School turnaround is the vehicle.
William H. Guenther
Mass Insight Education
Good to hear from you – and hope you’re well.
I think we probably agree on more things than not – but we seem to disagree about scale.
You believe that turning around districts is the only way to get to scale and we can’t do it “one school at a time.”
I would say two things:
- As I will lay out in the 4th part of the letter, I think most urban centers could charter 5% of their systems a year – potentially increasing as the market matures.
- I’m not sure I understand you’re “one school at a time” comment. SIG is based on turning around individual schools. If you’re talking about governing structures, CMOs have the capacity to do multiple schools a year.
All in all, I think a well-designed charter strategy can turnaround the bottom 50% of schools in a city in ten years. How is this not getting to scale?
Lastly, I think there are inherent structural flaws in government monopolies which will always lead to underperformance. So, in the long-run, I think we need to transition away from this model.
Let me know if I’m misreading you. And, of course, I wish you the best of success in your district turnaround work.
Thanks for following up. I enjoyed crossing paths earlier this month.
Here is where we are:
- District reform: We’re skeptical that larger districts can be turned around in their current form – or all at once. And we agree that the traditional central office culture will not provide the solutions at the school and cluster level.
- Our focus – in a portfolio strategy – is to help districts establish successful turnaround of a cluster of schools as a beachhead and model inside the district.
- Clusters for scale: We believe all the evidence from districts and charters suggests a school is too small an entity to succeed on its own efficiently. That’s why successful charters are creating networks and clusters – and in the process developing their own mini- central offices.
- High school-led clusters support kids better: The evidence argues for “high school and feeders”, community clusters to provide the integrated and continuing support poorer kids need. Again, charter high schools adding middle schools and middle schools adding high school grades proves the point.
Charters have a role to play and will be the outside strategy in a portfolio. The parallel “inside” strategy with a zone and Lead Partner units is based on establishing the same ground rules for performance contracts, accountability and control as charters have. I hope that helps.
Sorry for delay – am digging out of email….
Very helpful – I agree with all of the below re: strategy of clusters / feeders. And given that 95% public school students are in districts I can understand why you choose to work there.
I guess my only question is this: are you just delaying / slowing the inevitable? My take is the urban district structure is flawed and we need to move towards charter districts and transition away from direct run government schools.
As such, our work in charters is twofold: (a) we think it will lead to higher student achievement and (b) it is part of a greater effort to transition from a government monopoly to a more decentralized model.
In terms of evidence, most studies on (a) – performance of urban charters – show they do better than urban district run schools. In terms of evidence on (b) – well the past 200 years of economic history seems to argue against government run industries.
Food for thought. Again, no doubt we agree on a ton. But interesting to discuss the real differences that exist on the margins.
We do agree on a lot. While we jointly press ahead to support portfolio districts that include charters, we need to take our best shot at charter-like district alternatives and either prove they work, along with charters, or once and for all prove the “outside” charter strategy as the only viable alternative (and hopefully do a better job authorizing good charters and closing poor ones in the meantime).
We have included charters in our Massachusetts Advanced Placement STEM initiative. It’s worth noting that even the best charter high schools are not producing at the college ready level that their students need (10 percent qualifying scores on AP math, science, English – average 500 SAT scores). The best charters beat regular public schools on low state standards – but we haven’t really gotten the job done yet closing the “excellence” achievement gaps.
Only to say that “portfolio” is the operative word since we don’t have the ideal solution yet….and high school-led clusters – charter and regular public schools – are critical to capture kids from k to 12, with continuing support through college. Keep up the good work in New Orleans.
Agreed. Look forward to pushing hard on all fronts over next years.
What do you think? Join the conversation.