The Charter School Tribe is a Very Odd Tribe


In Yuval Harari’s book, Sapiens, he talks about the increased importance of imagined communities.

Imagined communities involve feeling deep affiliation to others in a community despite the fact that you don’t personally know these people.

Intimate communities, on the other hand, are groups where you do personally know everyone, such as a family.

Imagined communities are old: churches and kingdoms were amongst the earliest to get to scale. However, Harari argues that imagined communities used to be less important to an individual’s day-to-day life: it was your loose band of 30-50 people that most directly impacted your emotional and physical welfare.

Harari claims this has now been reversed: it is imagined communities, as much as intimate communities, that now fill our emotional lives.


I belong to many imagined communities, one of which is the charter school community, or the charter school tribe (another word for a modern imagined community). Millions of adults and children work at or attend charter schools, and I know very few of them. Yet my material existence depends on their success, and, on a daily basis, much of my emotional energy is spent in defending this tribe, and, hopefully, making it better.

As the picture at the beginning of the post shows, our tribe even has a National Alliance.

In historical sense, this is all very odd. I can’t even imagine trying to explain to a hunter and gather that my tribe consists of millions of people that I’ve never met, that we’re all bonded together by the notion that people should pay taxes to an elected government and that this government should provide a free public education, but that some of these free public schools should governed by non-profit corporations rather than government bureaucracies.

An odd tribe indeed.


But a modern tribe can accomplish amazing things.

Currently, the charter school tribe is helping many African-American students achieve increased academic outcomes. This is especially true in cities.


There are also risks in being part of a tribe.

Perhaps the greatest risk is that defending the tribe becomes more important than ensuring the tribe fulfills its purpose.

I think the best way to mitigate this risk is to promote internal debate within the tribe about how to achieve its mission. This, ideally, will have two important effects: first, it will keep the tribe focused on its mission; second, it will reduce the amount of energy spent on zero sum status games with other tribes.

This is why I think it is healthy that the charter school tribe is currently carrying on internal debates about ideal market share and backfilling.


Some of my greatest mistakes in leading New Schools for New Orleans had to do with letting tribal emotions cloud my judgment.

Sometimes these tribal emotions were about defending the charter school tribe, and sometimes they were about supporting specific allegiances within the tribe.

At times, this led to the wrong school being opened, the wrong policy being supported, or the wrong communications message being voiced.

Luckily, I was surrounded by a management team that, overtime, helped me increasingly put mission and data ahead of tribal allegiances.

Of course, mistakes were still made.


Like it or not, imagined communities are the tribes of the modern world.

As such, it’s worth taking time to understand the opportunities and risks that are associated with this feature of modern humanity.

1 thought on “The Charter School Tribe is a Very Odd Tribe

  1. Mike G

    Good post.

    1. Since most charters aren’t very good and not particularly improving, I don’t really want to be part of “charter tribe.” Just subset of high-performing charters (though I realize political need to join whole charter tribe for mere survival). How do you think about this?

    2. What about “Ed Reform tribe.” Charter parents and teachers don’t particularly view themselves with that tribe. Ed Reform tribe is smaller – policy-interested people who care about other edu-topics. Which do you more associate with, ed reform or charter? Is it charter b/c relinquishment is only edu-strategy you care about?

    3. To what extent do you think Ed Reform Tribe is separated b/w those who want to “win battle against reform opponents” versus those who “feel we have to win 2 wars….a persuasion one and a “practice one”? (That like in cancer, ed reform has some promising technocratic treatments but far far away from solutions).


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