Four Ways to Unwind the Allure of Order


Note: the content below is probably better suited for a short book. But I tried to stuff it into a post. Clearly, much I’m still working through. Feedback would be great.


In his book the Allure of Order, Jal Mehta identifies two major problems with American education: (1) elites keep on initiating top-down accountability reforms that only lead to modest performance increases; and (2) the teaching profession has failed to professionalize into a field that self-regulates itself through codification of practice, pragmatic research that leads to performance improvements, and professional standards.

As I noted in a previous post, the problem here is that neither of these conditions appears to be changing anytime soon. Top-down annual testing has the political support of elites, civil rights leaders, and even union leadership. And numerous attempts to overhaul teacher preparation have for the most part been blocked by colleges of education.


How might we get out of this?

In considering different strategies, I tried to predict how a few key variables (which are embedded in Jal’s argument) might be impacted:

(1) Human capital: would the reforms increase our ability to recruit and develop excellent educators?

(2) Innovation: would the reforms increase our ability to experiment, research, and learn?

(3) Accountability: would the reforms increase elite trust in education so that top-down accountability might be loosened?

(4) Time: how long would it take to scale the reforms?


Based on the above variables, here’s the four strategies I came up with. Three of them entail moving away from government operation of schooling, and one does not.

(1) Nevada: Scale the Nevada education savings account model; basically: give every family an education debit card, put minimal restrictions on expenditures, and let the market work.

(2) The Non-Profit Flip: No city has tried this, but I’ve wondered about whether we should create a legislative framework that allowed cities to opt-in to 100% non-profit model. Basically, a state would allow cities to convert all their schools into non-profits over a set time period, say 2-3 years.

(3) Pump Charters: This would entail basically trying to maintain a 10% annual national charter growth rate over the next 25 years, which would get us to around 50% national charter market share.

(4) Fight For Finland: Alternatively, we could try and maintain government operation of schools but achieve what we’ve failed to achieve to date: a major increase in the quality of teacher recruitment and development and a loosening of accountability.


A brief analysis:

Strategy Better Human Capital? Increased Innovation? More Flexible Accountability? Time to Scale
Nevada Probably: for-profit incentives could attract a lot of talent, though likely more at management than teacher level. Yes: Putting funds in family hands will allow for entrepreneurs to create solutions for family needs. Yes, in Nevada reduced accountability (simple norm referenced reporting) is already baked into the model. Presumably, functioning markets could be created in a few years in most states.
The Flip

Not initially: a rapid switch to non-profit model would most likely utilize existing talent.

Not initially: given flip would be result of conversion rather than entrepreneurship, existing model likely to be prevalent. Long-term, new models could replace failed schools. Not likely: this reform would probably be based on portfolio style accountable and performance management.

Few years to convert schools to non-profits.

Pump Charters Yes: best charters have demonstrated ability to recruit and develop great educators; also already seeing codification (Relay), and research (partnering with Harvard, MIT, etc.) Yes: charters have been driving innovation (blended, diverse by design etc.), though more to be done here. Perhaps: if all schools were run by decent operators, elites might be more willing to loosen reigns. Probably 20-30 years.
Fight For Finland Unlikely: numerous calls to reform ed schools have failed, why will this time be different? No: existing government operated model has not led to much innovation; this won’t change. Unlikely: so long as the teaching force and schools feel and perform the same, elites will maintain demands. Probably 20-30 years to overhaul ed schools and influence elites (it took Finland decades).


Basically, you have two strategies that can work fast: Nevada and The Flip.

The upside of Nevada is that you get rapid deregulation, the conditions for a lot of innovation, and a baked in loosening of the reigns. The downside is that there is not an intentional human capital strategy, and there are a ton of risks in the deregulation going wrong.

The Flip gets you educator autonomy very quickly, but it does not intentionally focus on human capital pipelines or entrepreneurship – so while it sets the conditions for rapid change, it will not deliver it overnight. Moreover, given that all of these non-profits would need to be performance managed, it probably maintains need for heavy accountability.

Then you have two strategies that work slowly: Pump Charters and Fight For Finland.

Pump Charters is appealing in that: there is an explicit human capital strategy (alt providers, charters developing their own, Relay, etc.), is based on entrepreneurship (which will drive innovation), and, potentially, could build up enough trust to loosen accountability. If every school in a city was run by KIPP, Uncommon, Summit, and DSST – it’s not hard to imagine moving toward less testing, as there would be less of a need for constant monitoring. The downside here is that the strategy would take decades to even get to 50% market share, and the sector remains uneven in quality.

Fight For Finland is appealing in that it it is a path other countries have taken. Increasing human capital, increasing autonomy, and loosening accountability has worked elsewhere. Though, from what I gather, it takes countries decades to make these types of reforms. Additionally, I imagine they are much harder to accomplish in a large nation with decentralized governance of schools. We should take something from the fact that we’ve failed to accomplish this over the past 100 years of reform in our country.


In sum: it feels like Pumping Charters, with side bets like Nevada, might be the best way forward.

Pumping Charters has a twenty year history, and in Jal’s terms, it is thick (encompasses human capital, instruction, innovation, research, etc). I also think that Pumping Charters has an upside that is higher than Fight for Finland, though this of course remains unproven at scale.

Nevada is a high upside high risk bet, but if it works, we should double down on it.

So perhaps Pumping Charters should be the default path to push down until we can find a quicker method of reform (and we should keep making side bets while we’re Pumping Charters).

Of course, to the extent education schools get better, it helps all of these strategies. So while I remain skeptical that we’ll see any major changes soon, it seems like a side bet worth making as well.

Lastly, note that scaling high-performing charters and reforming are current system roughly work on the same time horizon here. So next time someone tells you we have to focus on districts because that’s where the kids are, tell this person that she is asking the wrong question.  The question is not: where are the children now? The question is: how long will it take to fix at scale?

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