Thoughts on Petrilli on Ed Reform Backlash


Mike Petrilli wrote a thoughtful piece on the current backlash on ed reform.

This is Mike’s argument:

  1. American schools aren’t failing.
  1. But American schools are often mediocre and lack urgency.
  1. The mediocrity in suburban schools (especially those that serve mostly middle to high income families) is not as dire because the kids generally have access to other supports.
  1. The mediocrity in urban schools is dire because these students already have so much stacked up against them.
  1. Solution for suburban schools: utilizes standards (such as common core) to create a sense of urgency and raise expectations for what student can accomplish. But ditch centralized teacher evaluations, etc.
  1. Solution for urban schools: be more aggressive; transform governance; let the best charter schools scale until they educate the majority of children in these settings.

Where I Agree with Mike

For the most past, I agree that American schools aren’t “failing” in the worst sense of the word. Some cities, such as New Orleans, have faced complete systems failure in the recent past, but most cities have not.

I agree that many American schools lack urgency. I felt this was the best part of Amanda Ripley’s narrative. And studies of American student television watching, homework, etc. seem to also paint this picture.

I agree that common core could raise expectations in suburban schools – but only if rigorous assessments accompany the standards (I assume Mike would agree).

I agree that urban systems should transform themselves into charter systems.

Where I Might Disagree with Mike

I think suburban communities would likely, over time, develop better schools if their systems were charter systems.

Recently, I wrote about the fact that suburban charter schools underperform traditional schools in terms of test scores. But suburban charter schools are small in number and I believe are currently being formed as an alternative to test based schooling.

My guess is that a more mature suburban charter sector would eventually evolve to include many Great Hearts type of schools – schools that exist to provide a more rigorous academic environment than the current system.

In a world without political constraints, I believe chartering suburban education systems would lead to better outcomes than simply implementing better standards and assessments in these systems.

We Each Have Our Own Political Problems

Here’s my political problem: trying to charter suburban school systems will be a wildly difficult battle.

The incumbents are wealthy, politically connected, competent, and providing a decent product.

Incumbents like this are extremely hard to displace.

Here’s Mike’s political problem: he’s saying suburban communities should get light touch reform but urban communities should get hardcore reform.

The race and class dimensions of such a proposal will be clear to all involved.

This doesn’t mean Mike’s proposal is wrong on the merits, but it does mean that (on average) white and black families will be treated differently by (generally) white governors and state legislators.

 Where to Go From Here?

Well, my time (and the time of many other great folks) will be spent trying to help transform the structure and performance of urban school systems.

Plenty of people’s time will also be spent on trying to implement common core.

So that leaves two questions:

  1. Will, per Mike’s suggestion, the reform community retreat from centralized teacher evaluation type reforms?
  1. Will, per my suggestion, a suburban charter school movement swell into a force that can provide much better choices for middle class families?

I’m not sure.


5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Petrilli on Ed Reform Backlash

  1. Joe Connor

    “Will, per my suggestion, a suburban charter school movement swell into a force that can provide much better choices for middle class families?”

    I think Success Charters in NYC has a similar strategy in terms of trying to recruit middle class and upper class parents to enroll their students. Looking at some of their recent school openings, Union Square and Upper West Side and some of their future ones, Queens and more Manhattan locations, you can see that Eva is targeting income levels more typical of a suburban school district than an urban one. Once these parents have children in charters the goals is that they will become much more vocal and active in advocating for more charters and more school choice.

    This tactic reminds me of the Homevoter hypothesis, which broadly holds that citizens are more engaged in local politics when they have skin in the game, i.e. – a house. Or in this case a child’s education. It remains to be seen whether middle and upper class parents will become advocates for school choice, but I think a great way to start is by co-opting them into the system.

    1. nkingsl

      Joe – thanks for your thoughts. And you are right to point to Success. Will be interesting to watch to see if these efforts build momentum.

  2. Mike G

    1. Can u clarify diff b/w chartering a whole suburban district and, say, opening a Great Hearts in a suburban region that takes a few kids from several districts? I think latter seems more possible.

    2. For your own work, it’d be interesting to track down the story of Barnstable. I vaguely recall 10 years ago it was an early relinquisher! But then I didn’t hear much. I wonder if it was re-annexed as traditional district.

    1. nkingsl

      Agree latter is more plausible now – but this is also how urban charters started – and once they start doing better, pressure mounted to expand them… perhaps same will happen in suburbs

      Will check out barnstable… thx!

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