Category Archives: Common Core

The Politics of Populism, Identity, and Charter Schools

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Over the past few weeks, both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have publicly supported a moratorium on charter schools.

Hilary, of course, has separated herself from Obama’s education reform agenda.

So where are the politics of charter schools heading?


First, it’s worth remembering, that charter schools had left-ish origins, though the break with labor happened quite quickly after the first charter law was passed.

Since then, charters have mostly maintained bi-partisan federal support (Clinton -> Bush -> Obama) and generally bi-partisan state support, save for rural red states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, etc.) and very left leaning states (Washington, Massachusetts, etc).

This has led to charters achieving national ~10% year over year growth for much of their existence.

Present Day Populist Politics 

We are clearly in a populist moment. Bernie, Hilary, and Trump all have veered toward more populist agendas, and for good reason: widening income inequality, pressure from globalization, stagnating wages, and other difficulties have increased the popularity of populist policies.

Present Day Identity Politics

Additionally, on the left, we’ve seen an increase in explicit identify based politics, with Hilary (smartly) courting minorities who feel (rightly) excluded from the Republican agenda.

The Values of Charter Schools, Populism, and Identity 

Historically, charters have not benefited from either populist or identity politics.

Populist politics is born out of protecting what we have – or returning to a past golden age – while charter schools are about creating new options that can displace existing institutions and staff.

Identity politics is born out of affiliation – not efficiency – and charters schools have historically been advocated for on the basis of efficiency, merit, and innovation.

In short, charter schools are not well situated for either populist or identity politics.

The values associated with charters schools – choice, freedom, efficiency, innovation, etc. – are simply not the values of populism and identity.

This is not to say that the values of populism and identity are wrong (some of the values, such as community and dignity for all appeal deeply to me). But they are undoubtedly different than the values often associated with charter schools.

Charter School Enrollment Only Moves in One Direction 

In the long-run, charters will continue to grow. As I’ve written before, charter market share only goes in one direction: up.

Charter schools, unlike many reform efforts, have both a teacher and a family constituency, which means that their political power grows with every additional school that is opened.

Of course, the pace of growth will be affected by political conditions, but I’m highly skeptical that the sky is falling.

Growth will continue.

And, if recent trends, continue, overall quality will continue to improve and charters will continue to deliver academic gains for low-income children.

Is There Anything To Do? 

Perhaps. Both populist and identity politics present openings for charter advocates to broaden their coalition.

On the populist side, there is room to build bridges with those who distrust elitist authority. The idea of a group of citizens working together to form a school for their children harkens back to periods of American history that are viewed favorably by many populist.

On the identity side, African-American and Latino families continue to choose charter schools in large numbers, and the charter community could do more to build bridges with race based organizations that consist of, or serve, these families (which are generally poorer than the constituencies of more middle class identity based organizations).

I’m less optimistic that there are bridges to be built with teacher unions. Their support of the charter cap in Massachusetts, which is home to the highest-performing charter sector in the nation, seems to clearly signal that teacher unions are fighting a zero-sum market share game. If this is the case, no bridges will be built.

Keep Your Eye on Growth, Not Press Releases

While reading the headlines of Hillary’s latest press conference, or the NAACP’s latest press release, can provide a temperature check on the national mood – ultimately, the day-to-day actions of dozens of states, hundreds of charter authorizers, thousands of cities, and hundreds of thousands of educators will determine whether or not charter schools continue to grow.

Headlines will always be more fog than flashlight.

Lastly, don’t be surprised if Hilary shifts to the center as she has to govern.

Love It or Hate It, Common Core is Giving Us Interesting Data About Black Student Achievement

Roughly ten states now use PARCC assessments. For the first time, this allows us to get a comparative standards based snapshot of how students are doing across numerous geographies.

Two caveats: because this is the first year of testing, we don’t yet have growth data; additionally, there  appear to be differences in results between the on-line and paper versions of the test, which seem to be more pronounced in later grades.

With these caveats in mind, early Common Core results (as measured by PARCC) indicate that Black students in Massachusetts and *New Orleans* are achieving at higher levels than many Black students across the country, including those in Washington D.C.

Over time, as growth data is included and test administration is cleaned up, we should have an even better data set with which to make stronger comparisons.


I created the table below to compare New Orleans African-American students and economically disadvantages students against the same subgroups in other places across all subjects in grades 3-8, with the hope that looking across grades and varied proficiency differentials might illuminate trends.

It should be noted that New Orleans students used paper and pencil versions, so in later grades especially this might result in inflated NOLA results. But as the chart details, New Orleans did well in 3rd and 4th grade as well (where other states saw less scoring differentials based on test type).

Green cells indicate where New Orleans students outperformed their peers; red cells indicate where they underperformed their peers.The numbers in the cell are +/- differential rates for how other geographies scored compared to NOLA proficiency.

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You can download the spreadsheet here: nola-parcc-data-comparison

Overall, there is a lot of green.


Hopefully, over time, this type of data will tell us more about what’s working and what’s not – as well as what policy makers and educators might do to increase educational opportunity for all students.

So far, it’s exciting to see New Orleans students doing comparatively well.


Last thought: what do you think is the ratio of articles on coverage of the opt-out movement vs. coverage of what we might actually learn from the PARCC achievement results?


Things Overheard at a Crawfish Boil in New Orleans


Take this evidence for whatever it’s worth: recently, at a crawfish boil, I was discussing Common Core with the school leader of one of the highest performing charter schools in New Orleans.

We were standing over a table that looked quite like the picture above.

I asked him two questions: (1) Has Common Core increased the quality of your instruction? (2) If so, would these increases have happened without Common Core?

His answers:

Common Core has dramatically increased the rigor of the instruction; according to him, their students are now tackling material that, just a few years ago, few adults in the building would have thought possible.

He was clear that this shift in instruction probably would not have occurred without Common Core; that state assessments, especially in high-accountability systems, shape expectations.

Nearly all high-peforming CMO or charter leader who I have talked to respond in a somewhat similar fashion.

When it comes to standards and assessments, I’m a pragmatist.

If the instructional leaders I trust most say Common Core is improving the rigor of their instruction, then I will continue to support Common Core.