Category Archives: Tribes

Don’t sacrifice the truth about charter schools in order to be agreeable

The New York Times just wrote a positive editorial about charter schools.

The editorial opened with this sentence [emphasis mine]:

“New York City is one of the rare places in the country where charter schools generally have made good on the promise to outperform conventional public schools in exchange for flexibility from the state that lets them lengthen the school day, alter the curriculum, do away with tenure and change how teachers are compensated.”

As a reminder, here’s the average effect of urban charter schools – from a study by the same researchers that the New York Times linked to in the above lead!

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So why did the New York Times write such a factually incorrect lead?

I think they probably did it to disarm those who might oppose them. By saying that most charter sectors have failed, they are aligning themselves with those suspicious of charter schools, which perhaps increases their ability to influence those on the fence.

This is a bad tactic. And it’s a habit I’ve been trying to kick: I too sometimes publicly hedge on the actual facts in order to relate to an audience.

This type of hedging is doubly dangerous.

First, it prizes short-term affiliation over the truth, which will eventually reduce your credibility when people find out what you really believe.

Second, you risk starting to believe yourself. It’s very difficult to maintain thoughtful and evidence driven policies under the best of circumstances. If you consistently say things you don’t really believe, you’ll soon forget what you really believe.

Here’s a better tactic: be expressive about values while you’re being direct about your beliefs.

Constantly talk about why you care about children, poverty, and the future of our country – at the same time you defend policies (like charter schools) that are controversial but impactful.

It’s good practice to expand the tent through shared values.

But don’t trade the truth for agreeableness.

It’s dishonest and counterproductive.

What comes after science – religion or politics?

There is some chance that, in the future, we will interact with either (1) aliens who are so much smarter than us that we can’t really comprehend them or (2) artificial intelligence that will far surpass human intelligence.

The Rise of Science 

Over the past few hundred years, science has ascended as one of the primary mental models of humanity. So many of the ideas that we determine to be true, or whose adherence grant status, are born out of science.

This is not to say that religion and politics are unimportant; rather, it’s only to say that for most of humanity science didn’t really exist – and that over the past few hundred science has grown to be a primary mover of humanity.

As far as I can tell, the rise of science has been a generally good thing for humanity, though I’m open to the idea that the hunter and gatherer life was pretty ok – and that science may be the foundation from which we destroy ourselves.

The Limits of Human Science

The limits of human science stem from the limits of the human brain. There’s a reasonable chance that there are truths out there that we will never be able to understand because of our limited brain capacity.

On planet Earth, humans are the best there is at science, so we’ve not yet had to confront the humiliating inadequacy of our science.

But aliens or AI may understand the world in ways which we are simply incapable of mastering.

Then What?

Once we encounter entities that render our science functionally moot – in that it no longer explains the knowledge we know possess from witnessing the wonders of aliens or AI – then human science will lose its usefulness and status at a rapid pace.

At this point, my guess is that either religion or politics will increase in importance.

Religion is the practice of finding meaning in the unknowable.

Politics is the practice of finding meaning in the tribal.

Givent that aliens or AI would be knowable, my guess is that politics would trump religion and science in this new world.

Humanity, at this point, might divide itself in accordance to (1) tribal affiliation to specific alien or AI personalities or (2) tribal affiliation of how to interact with the knowledge that we are intellectually inferior to other beings.

Putting Science in Its Place

Human science is a pretty amazing thing, but it’s dominance is probably temporary.

Will America Ever Have Integrated Schools?

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All else being equal, I think it would be better if public schools were integrated. I find the individual and societal rationales for increasing integration to be very compelling.

However, I do not understand how America will achieve integrated public schools in the next few decades.

If others see a realistic path to integration, I’d love to better understand these arguments.

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Here is why I am skeptical that we will achieve school integration over the next few decades:

White Families Don’t Want to be in the Minority: As recent research demonstrates, white families want to send their children to schools where they aren’t a signficant minority. Most major urban education systems are 75%+ minority, so the math simply doesn’t work. You can’t scale schools with significant white enrollment when white families only make up a small minority of students.

White Families Won’t Send Their Children to Poor Neighborhoods: I’m skeptical that, at scale, white families will bus their children into poor neighborhoods. This means integrated schools can only really be located in either gentrifying or wealthier neighborhoods. It seems (rightfully) unfeasible that cities will stop operating schools in poor neighborhoods – yet having schools operate in poor neighborhoods will prevent integration.

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In short:

  1. If your policy solutions goes against the desires of the vast majority of white people; and
  2. You need white people to participate in your solution; and
  3. Even if you get your policy passed, white people can escape the policy through moving to a nearby town or opting-out of the public system; then
  4. You’re in for a long, hard battle.

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All of this being said, I spend most of time working on a strategy that most people think will not scale, so I’m very sympathetic to reformers trying to change the world against tough odds.

But if you’re trying to change the world you need to be able to tell a story of how you might succeed – and, to date, I haven’t been able to understand this story for school integration.

But this might simply be my own ignorance. If anyone can point me to writings that better tell the strategy story, I’ll eagerly dig in.

Who is the Villain? Why?

I. The Villains

Over the past few weeks, three major stories came out that either directly or indirectly covered charter schools. Their headlines are below.

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In many newspaper stories, there is a good guy and a bad guy.

For me, the commonality of these very different stories was that, in each of them, charter schools were either explicitly or implicitly cast as the villains.

II. Detroit 

In Kate Zernike’s story, the headline clearly points to a “sea of charter schools” as the reason Detroit’s students aren’t performing well.

The story opens with an anecdote about a child being failed by a charter school.

The growth of charters is called “competition and chaos.”

The phrases pile up on top of each other: …”unchecked growth”…”glut of schools”… “cannabilized”…”unfettered growth”…

And the most literary: “pugnacious protector of the charter school prerogative.”

As many have noted, the article failed to mention a CREDO study that found Detroit charters to be outperforming traditional schools.

Moreover, the article failed to detail that it was the traditional school system that has needed bail out after bail out – and that has been the source of much corruption.

Ultimately, charter schools grew to serve half of the students in Detroit; they outperformed the traditional sector; and, unlike the traditional sector, they did not require hundreds of millions of dollars in bailout funds.

Reasonable people can debate whether better than the existing system is good enough.

But to frame charters as the villains of Detroit public education is quite odd, especially when the traditional system is performing academically and financially worse.

III. Rocketship

Anya Kamenetz’s story covered Rocketship Schools, which serves low-income families across the country.

Anya paints a rather grim picture: “infections due to denial of restroom visits,” “hours of enforced silence,” “a culture of producing test scores at all costs.”

Rather amazingly, she ends the piece with a two paragraph quotation from the head of a local union:

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It is clear: Rocketship is the villain.

Yet, no family is forced to go to a Rocketship school. Rather, they all attend because they have made a proactive decision to pull their child out of an existing traditional school, which they presumably felt was not providing a great education.

So a school gets good academic scores, creates an environment that tens of thousands families want their children to be a part of, opens it doors to any family that wishes to attend – and it is the villain. Whereas the failing school system – where according to the union leaders “parents are happy” – is not the villain.

The world feels upside down.

III. Brooklyn

Kate Taylor’s piece is less directly about charter schools; rather, it is about a failing district school that is making improvements but is being forced to co-locate with an expanding Success Academy school.

On its face, the district is the villain of this story, as Kate frames the story as one of the district promising the building to a charter without giving the failing school a chance to improve.

Yet, the language of the story often hints at Success Academy being a secondary villain.

Kate writes:

“Now, in a twist, even as it grows, J.H.S. 50 will have to give up five classrooms next year, because the Success Academy school is expanding to fifth grade… J.H.S. 50 will probably have to turn its dance studio into a regular classroom. It is likely to lose a new computer lab Mr. Reynoso financed. And several rooms will need to do double duty, as both a classroom and a music room, for instance.”

A school who has failed students for years is the good guy; the school that has incredibly high demand and is providing a great education is the one who is taking something away from children.

IV. The Failing School System is Never the Villain

The point of this post is not to say the Detroit charter sector, Rocketship, and Success Academies are the heroes. None of them are perfect.

Rather, what I’m struggling with is why these entities are painted as the villains.

In a perfect world, I’d rather that there be no villains, as I don’t blame current educators for the existing system’s failures.

But if reporters need to find a villain, why do they so often go after the educators who work in charter schools that are trying to make things better – and that often are?

Why do they  go out of their way to find a villain other than the very schools that are currently failing children?

V. Why?

I’m not sure, but a few guesses below.

  1. I think the education reform community has at times over-promised on what charter schools can do, and this opens charters up to criticism when they don’t meet these promises, even if they are performing better than the traditional system.
  2. Emotionally, I think reporters (rightfully) empathize with plight of students stuck in failing schools – and this sometimes bleeds over to empathy with the adults working in the failing schools – adults who might lose their jobs if charters expand.
  3. While charter schools are generally educator led non-profit organizations, many billionaires support charter schools, and I think this support creates a suspicion that charter will increase educational inequality, akin to how the economy has seen a spike in inequality over the past two decades.

These are just guesses.

VI. A Story

Recently, I was talking to a charter school parent.

He told me that after he visited his neighborhood school he knew that he could not send his daughter to that school. He said at that point he had three options: he could get her into a charter school; he could find a second and third job to afford a private school; or he could move his family.

But he was not going to send her to a failing school.

 

Who is the villain?

Who is the hero?

The Charter School Tribe is a Very Odd Tribe

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.