Category Archives: Relinquishment

A Crisis Reveals the Obvious in Washington D.C.

The Washington D.C. public school system (DCPS) has been rocked by crisis over the past year.

First, came the suspension scandal. DCPS schools were lowering their official suspension rates by simply not recording when students were suspended.

Then came the high school graduation scandal. An investigative report showed that at a single school over 30% of the graduates received a high school diploma in violation of district policy. With more honest record keeping, it looks like overall district graduation rates might drop over 10 percentage points, if not more.

Then came the enrollment scandal. An investigative report found that the superintendent, Antwan Wilson, had violated the district’s enrollment policy when enrolling his own daughter in highly sought after school.

Despite these three crises, I don’t think anyone should wave their hands and say nothing good has happened in DCPS over the past 15 years. Things have improved. The gains the city made in NAEP do appear to be real and significant (the Laura and John Arnold Foundation is funding a research study to further examine this question).

But there were always two fatal flaws to the DCPS approach.

The first flaw is that it was obvious that DCPS was never going to be able to turnaround its struggling schools.

The second flaw is that it was obvious that the district was not going to be able to handle leadership succession.

Both of these fatal flaws having nothing to do with any individual leaders in DCPS. Rather, both have to do with the structure DCPS itself.

As I wrote back in 2015, if you don’t fix the structure of DCPS, you’ll never be able to fix DCPS.

The Most Damning Chart on Struggling Schools in Washington D.C.

Recently, I worked with some colleagues to apply the local charter school accountability system to DCPS schools, as we thought the charter system was more rigorous than the DCPS’s system. Here’s what we found for grades pre-K to eight (where publicly available data allows for reasonable apples to apples comparisons).

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There is a stark difference in the number of children attending Tier 3 schools ( the lowest performing schools) in each sector.

DCPS still has nearly 8,000 students stuck in failing prek-8 schools, despite over 10 years of reform leadership.

The charter sector, on the other hand, has replaced nearly all of its struggling schools with much better schools, having closed or replaced over 21 schools since 2012.

The reason for this is simple and obvious: it’s very hard to turnaround yourself.

The DC Public Charter School Board oversees, but does not operate, the non-profit public schools under its jurisdiction. DCPS, on the other hand, both oversees and operates its own schools.

The structure of the charters system in DC makes it easier to to replace struggling schools with better ones. The structure of DCPS does not.

Political Leaders are Selected for Political Reasons Under Political Circumstances 

The DCPS approach, which consolidates power in a central bureaucracy, relies heavily on strong Chancellor leadership. Leadership is of course important to all organizations: charter school organizations also lean on great leaders.

But there is a difference between how DCPS and charter organizations pick their leaders. The DCPS leadership transitions run through a political process, while charter leadership transitions run through a non-profit board process.

This is why it is often so hard for districts to manage superintendent transitions: it’s rare that a single superintendent lasts numerous political cycles, and it is even rarer that multiple superintendents in a row will share a common strategic vision.

Non-profit boards have it easier. While they are not immune from horse trading and politics, their boards of directors are not elected and are less subject to acute external political pressures.

The charter sector is also composed of dozens of non-profit boards. So even if one leadership succession goes badly, the whole public school system won’t suffer.

Am I surprised that DCPS has had three superintendents in two years? No, the history of urban public school systems made this an obvious eventual outcome.

Creating a Stable, Community Driven Public School System 

Fortunately, Washington D.C. is better positioned than most cities when it comes creating an amazing public education system.

Over the past fifteen years, the city has been home to both improving traditional and public charter sectors.

Moving forward, it should take the best of what the city has seen in both sectors and unify this under one public system.

From the charter sector, the city should take the idea that schools do best when they are operated by non-profit organizations, and, when a school struggles, the best thing to do is to let another non-profit school try and operate the school.

Innovative governance models with real accountability can be applied to traditional public schools. Both Denver and Indianapolis already allow traditional public schools to build non-profit boards that are held accountable through performance contracts.

From the traditional sector, the city should take the idea that Washington D.C. residents value neighborhood schools and expanded pre-k; two areas where the district has made great strides. Giving every public school a non-profit board does not mean every school needs to be a full open-enrollment charter school. Neighborhood schools and community  based early learning centers should be part of the fabric of the pubic school system.

Non-profit public schools can make DCPS better. They can give great educators more autonomy. They can create more accountability within the system. And they are best set-up to manage tough leadership successions.


A thoughtful response from Chris Cerf

Chris Cerf, the current superintendent of Newark and the former state superintendent of New Jersey, posted a thoughtful response to my post on the Newark Harvard study.

A couple of thoughts.

First, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with Chris on and off over the past decade, and I have immense respect for his heart and mind. Kids in New Jersey are better off because of his leadership.

Second, I appreciated the tenor of Chris’ post. A primary reason I write this blog is so that  people in the education reform family can have public disagreements and learn from each other. Chris’ tone and use of data helped me get smarter on Newark.

While there is some cost to this approach (those who oppose our work can try to exploit our disagreements), ultimately, I think the gain of learning through public debate is well worth it.

Over the long haul, our success will have more to do on whether or not we continually delivered great educational opportunities for children than whether or not we win or lose the PR fire of the week. And putting our ideas out there for public testing is a good way to get smarter on how we deliver better opportunities for children.

As for the substance of Chris’ points, you should read the piece for yourself, but I found the below two graphs to be useful.

The first compares Newark’s overall performance to similarly situated districts in New Jersey (DFG A -> the green line). Newark’s relative performance to similarly situated districts has improved greatly over the past seven years.


The second compares Newark’s traditional school performance to similarly situated districts in New Jersey (DFG A -> the green line). Newark’s traditional school performance was fairly flat until 2014, but has grown rapidly since then.


I’m not sure that Chris and I disagree on the data story.

Both of us, I think, would say that the early gains in Newark were driven by the open / close / shift strategy.

As for the improve the traditional sector strategy, Chris points to the last few years of growth to demonstrate that the reforms are starting to deliver for all schools – and that now that the foundation has been set, these gains will likely continue.

I emphasized the flat results for the first four years of the district improvement strategy and wondered whether the improve strategy was worth it – or whether putting more resources into the open / close / shift strategy would have laid an even better foundation for long-term gains.

It’s a great question to grapple with.

Lastly, our interpretations of the study go to an even more fundamental question of how we measure success: should a city’s reform efforts be evaluated on the cumulative gains it achieved during the transformation process, or should it be evaluated on the gains being delivered once a city is through a transformation process?

When we partner with a city, our team holds ourselves for cumulative gains over the initial 5-10 years of reform, but perhaps a more important metric is whether a city achieves a new and better equilibrium by the end of the reforms.

Chris has pushed me to think hard about this question, our team will be smarter for it.

Charters growing in your city? You have 5 options.

Charters schools continue to scale in urban areas. In many cities, charters serve over 30% of students.

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In 44 cities charters serve over 20% of students.

These 44 cities, as well as many others in the future, will have to evolve their educational systems to govern a mixed portfolio of school types.

What options are available to these cities? Here’s five, some of which will be much better for children than others.

1. Implode (Detroit) 

In Detroit, the school district responded to charter growth by bankrupting itself. It lost enrollment, took on debt, and continued its academic and operational dysfunction.

In failing to respond productively to charter growth, the district hurt students and cost taxpayers nearly a billion dollars.

2. Compete (Washington D.C.)

In Washington D.C., charters now serve nearly 50% of the students. During the past decade of charter growth, the district responded by becoming perhaps the highest performing urban school district in the nation.

The district lost nearly half its students and radically increased its performance.

The district didn’t really partner with charters, it just stepped up its game.

3. Coordinate and Collaborate (Denver)

Denver Public Schools responded to charter growth by coordinating with the charter sector.

For much of the past decade, it gave charters facilities to grow in neighborhoods where more good schools were needed. The district also set-up a unified enrollment system that made it easy for families to choose easily between district and charter schools.

While there have been some bumps along the way, for the most part the district has supported the best charters to expand and has closed the worst charters.

4. Blur the Lines (Indianapolis, Camden) 

A few years ago, the Indiana legislature passed a law that allows for Innovation Schools, which are authorized by the district, have many of the autonomies of charters, are governed by non-profit boards, but still sit within the district’s enrollment and accountability reporting.

With its Renaissance Schools, Camden has done something similar: Renaissance Schools are more tightly managed by the district, but still retain most of the autonomies of charters schools.

In both Indianapolis and Camden, the district has co-opted the best of the charter model while still maintaining a tighter form of local oversight and control.

5. Govern (New Orleans)

In New Orleans, the district responded to increasing charter growth by relinquishing its operational duties and transforming into a regulator.

Rather than operate schools, the district sets performance targets, monitors for equity, and annually opens great schools and orchestrates the transformation of failing schools.

This has led to unprecedented student achievement gains.

Which Way to Go? 

While I think the last option (govern) is the best way to go, cities have also seen academic growth by competing, coordinating, and blurring the lines.

These cities are the reason I’m skeptical of people who argue that charter growth will hurt traditional public schools.

There’s an emerging group of cities who are proving this clearly doesn’t need to be the case.

I’m hopeful that their successes will be replicated much more often than not.

Draft Text for a State Constitutional Amendment to End the Education Wars


If the United States could adopt the educational regime of any country in the world, I would not choose Finland or Singapore or South Korea.

I would choose the Netherlands.


In 1917, the Dutch had a national education battle about what types of schools deserve public funding.

This battle, as well as other policy battles, was settled with a constitutional amendment which was passed during what is known as the “Pacification of 1917.”

The constitutional amendment established a fundamental right to open a school and receive pubic funding.

What a remarkable way to end the education wars!


Since the Pacification of 1917, the Dutch government has built a set of regulations to manage the implementation of the constitutional amendment.

Depending on where you are on the freedom axis, you might find these regulations reasonable or tyrannic.

I find some of them to be reasonable (national academic objectives) and some not (negotiating teacher salaries at the national level).

The Dutch have blazed one trail on how to regulate the freedom to open publicly funded schools; surely, other experiments would teach us much.


So here is proposed text for a state constitutional amendment in the United States of America:

“The right to found a school or enroll in a school shall not be abridged by government or any entity receiving government funding. All schools that meet basic education standards shall receive public funding based on a per-pupil allotment that is weighted based on student need and uniform across schools.”


I don’t think every state in the United States of America should pass this amendment.

But I think it would be great if a few states did.

I imagine each state would blaze its own path in determining how to manage a system where citizens had a constitutional right to open schools and where families had a constitutional right to choose amongst these schools.

I also think this approach – passing a constitutional amendment – has much more moral and legal force than pushing for ad hoc funding programs, such as education savings accounts or limited vouchers.

A right is a fundamental, a program is not.


Oh, and for whatever it’s worth, the Dutch rank number 10 in the world in student achievement based on the 2012 PISA results (they’re actually #7 if you throw out Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau, which last time I checked aren’t countries).

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Personalized Learning Will Accelerate Relinquishment and Vice Versa


I believe that personalized learning will dramatically increase student engagement and achievement.

But, as I noted in my review of the recent Rand study on personalized learning, my guess it that, right now, the standard practices of high-performing charter schools are still driving much of the gains we see in great schools, even those that use personalized learning.

But I do think this will change as personalization, coupled with the technology that enables it, continues to improve.

But there are two under discussed issues with personalization that are worth touching on.

Personalized Learning Will Accelerate Relinquishment

Here is how the New York Times covers non-profit high-performing charter schools that serve low-income students:

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Here is how the New York Times covers for-profit private schools that use personalized learning to serve rich students:

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Get the point?

Personalization is the apple pie of education reform. Everyone loves it.

In case you haven’t noticed, not everyone loves common core, teacher evaluations, charter schools, etc.

Right now, No Excuses charters aren’t offering anything that most of America really wants.

By offering something that everybody wants, personalized learning schools may change the politics of education reform.

Over the long-run, it would not shock me if Alt-School is the gateway drug to vouchers.

Relinquishment Will Accelerate Personalized Learning

The top personalized learning schools are, for the most part, either charter schools or private schools.

This is not shocking.

New ideas and models are best brought into existence by entrepreneurs, and charter schools and private schools are much better vehicles for entrepreneurship than are government monopolies.

The more relinquishment we have -> the more entrepreneurs we’ll have -> the more innovative schools models we’ll have -> and, eventually, the more high-quality adopters we’ll have at scale.

I strongly believe that creating relinquished school systems is amongst the highest ROI strategies we have to increase personalized learning. Direct investment in entrepreneurs (in both the school operation and technology sectors) is probably the only other strategy that even comes close.

Of course, the two strategies are best executed in tandem.

In Sum 

Personalized learning will beget relinquishment.

Relinquishment will beget personalized learning.

The Parable of the 3 Blacksmiths


During a time long ago and in a kingdom far away, there once lived three blacksmiths.

All three blacksmiths worked under their lordship, Sir Tuda.

Sir Tuda was a benevolent lord. He wanted his blacksmiths to be as productive as possible, both so they and the kingdom could prosper.

Sir Tuda knew the old adage  – “a kingdom is never better than its blacksmiths” – and he took it to heart.

Unfortunately, Sir Tuda was not schooled in public policy, so instead of issuing a proclamation on his own, he wisely approached his top blacksmiths and asked them how to increase production.

“Tell me what you need from me, and I will make it so,” he told the blacksmiths.

The first blacksmith said: “I need autonomy! If you give me the freedom to run my shop the way I desire, I will increase production!”

Sir Tuda said: “Well then it is so.”

The second blacksmith, wanting to outdo the first blacksmith, said: “I need autonomy too! But I also need a board of directors to guide me!”

Sir Tuda said: “Well then it is so.”

The third blacksmith was actually not yet a full blacksmith. She was only an apprentice and she would not have even been invited to this meeting but for the fact that her boss was sick with the plague.

She like both of the requests that had already been mentioned, but what she really wanted was to start her own blacksmith shop.

So she said: “I want autonomy! And I want a board of directors to guide me! But I also want a charter to open up my own blacksmith shop!”

Sir Tuda said: “Well then it is so.”

Five years then passed and much changed, including the death of Sir Tuda, who was killed by the Kingdom of the Strategic Inconsistency, which had a long history of invading kingdoms, even those run by great lords.

So what happened to our blacksmiths?

The first blacksmith, who had asked for autonomy, did see a spike in production for two years, but when Sir Tuda died, the new Lord took away the autonomy and production decreased back to its previous levels.

The second blacksmith, who asked for autonomy and a board of directors, increased his production a modest but statistically significant amount; moreover, his board of directors protected him from the new Lord, so he was able to maintain his production increase.

The third blacksmith, who asked to be able to start a new blacksmith shop, gain autonomy, and be overseen by a board of directors, saw her production skyrocket. The young blacksmith had been experimenting with a new innovative method of blacksmithing, and it was only once she got her  own shop that he was able to implement his new method. And, like the second blacksmith, her board of directors protected her from the new Lord’s top-down blacksmith policies.

Lastly, and oddly enough, the new Lord kept on trying to prevent the third blacksmith from expanding even though her shop was so successful. The new Lord kept on muttering, “you’re stealing from me” even though all the blacksmith shops equally benefited the health of the kingdom.

But, by organizing and mobilizing her consumers, the third blacksmith was able eventually open up ten more highly effective blacksmith shops, which made the kingdom the number one in production in the world, even surpassing the Kingdom of Finland (I swear it’s true).

Wise readers will see the moral of this story.

Blacksmith autonomy is useful but fleeting.

Blacksmith autonomy coupled with non-profit governance will lead to modest but important improvements.

Blacksmith autonomy coupled with non-profit governance coupled with entrepreneurship can transform the kingdom.