Isaac Asimov, Harbormasters, and Charter Sectors


I’m reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series. The series, at least from what I gather from the first part of the book, is based on one of the main character’s study of “psychohistory,” which involves combining politics, sociology, history, economics, and psychology into a mathematical science that can be used to predict (and manipulate) future geopolitical events.

What I’ve enjoyed most about the novel is how psychohistory predicts the efficacy of different solutions based on different environmental conditions. In one case, a multi-kingdom alliance solves the problem; in another, forming a religion averts the crisis. Great psychohistorians can see centuries of chess moves ahead: they aim to tailor solutions to problems that were a natural outgrowth of the last set of solutions.

In short, the book does an excellent job of demonstrating how strategy must fit environment.

Again, I’m only two hundred pages in the first book, so the series might go in a totally different direction. Please don’t include plot spoilers in the comments.


Last week, I was on a call with a colleague and we were discussing what would be needed to double the rate of high-quality charter growth in the country. At first, we discussed broad, national solutions. Very quickly (and smartly) he then pivoted the conversation by saying: what if we looked at a sample of ten charter sectors across the country?

So we quickly ran through a list of cities and discussed what it would take to double the high-quality charter sector in each of the cities.

While there were many commonalities, there were large differences in optimal strategies between different cities.


At New Schools for New Orleans, we went through (at least) three major strategic shifts in charter school investment. From 2005-2009, we invested a lot in new operator creation. From 2011 to 2014, we invested a lot in growing networks. Currently, the organization is trying to build capacity in  the charter sector to solve incredibly difficult challenges, such as how to best serve students with complex special needs.

This is not to say that the aforementioned strategies were the only types of investing done in the periods; only that in each phase priorities shifted based on sector conditions.


Education Cities is an organization that supports New Schools for New Orleans type entities across the country.

The describe their work as the following:

Our members serve as education “harbormasters” with deep ties to their communities. Like maritime harbormasters, who facilitate safe and cooperative navigation in a challenging space, education harbormasters build and coordinate the efforts to improve education in their city. Together, our members – nonprofits, foundations, and civic organizations – are improving opportunities for millions of children and their families.

Whether or not you like the phrase “harbormaster” – the goal is, I think, a sound one: supporting local organizations that can drive change based on local conditions.


Unfortunately, the charter sector does not have any psychohistorians amongst it ranks. As such, it’s difficult to predict how the next fifty years of high-quality charter school growth will (or will not) occur.

I do think that a rough taxonomy of charter sector maturation will form over time. We’ll continue to build knowledge about what works during different stages of sector development.

But most of this taxonomy will be backward looking, not forward looking. And it will never be perfectly tailored to any individual city’s conditions.

This is why I view well run harbormasters to be of use. By fitting strategy to environment, they can come up with novel solutions to the most pressing local solutions – taking the best from what’s been tried nationally, but always with an eye toward local conditions.

This is something that national foundations, national education organizations, and federal and state government entities will always struggle to do.

The goal of education reform should not be finding and adopting current best practices.

The goal of education reform should be to build learning ecosystems that constantly evolve.

Harbormasters can be a key part of these ecosystems.

1 thought on “Isaac Asimov, Harbormasters, and Charter Sectors

  1. Pingback: Isaac Asimov, Harbormasters & Charter Sectors | Actualization

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