Tag Archives: charter schools

What is District-Syndrome?

dis·trict /ˈdistrikt/  syn·drome /ˈsinˌdrōm/
A condition whereby education reformers believe that education can only be improved at scale by working with the district.
“Business leaders created a city public education fund and made the superintendent the board chair because they suffered from District-Syndrome.”
“Education reformers viewed charter school expansion as a boutique solution because they suffered from District-Syndrome, which prevented them from understanding that you could scale the charter sector quicker than you could improve the district.”
  • Status quo bias: The district has been the primary mechanism for public education for over a hundred years.
  • Strong superintendent leadership: Thoughtful, passionate, and hard-working superintendents put forth compelling visions of district reform which reduces support for other reform alternatives.
  • Cognitive dissonance: The idea of improving public education without deep partnership with the district seems untenable for gut intellectual and emotional reasons – how can you make public education better if you don’t work with the primary provider of public education?
  • Tribal affiliation: Those who are trying to improve education view district leadership as part of their tribe, which they generally are.
  • International comparisons: Comparisons with countries with high-performing educational systems reveals that most improvements were made via district improvement, ignoring the fact that most of these countries have very different histories, cultures, and structures than we do.


  • Case studies: Researching cities like New Orleans, or countries such as the Netherlands, can help cure District-Syndrome.
  • Scenario modeling: Conducting realistic analysis of how long it will take to improve the district, compared to how long it could take to replace the district with something better, helps alleviate many causes of District-Syndrome.
  • Sector Analogies: Studying how other sectors have effectively decentralized and deregulated helps create a sense of possibility that can combat District-Syndrome.

/related syndromes/

  • Market-Syndrome: The mistaken belief that markets will solve all our education problems, despite the expansive research on how creating markets for merit goods can be difficult.
  • Charter-Syndrome: The mistaken belief that charter school expansion, alone, will solve all our educational problems.
  • Human-Capital-Syndrome: The mistaken belief that simply attracting better talent will solve most our educational problems.
  • Tech-Syndrome: The mistaken belief that, in the short-term, better technology will solve most our educational problems.

/to be clear/

I strongly want school districts to get better.

I admire many district superintendents.

I’m just deeply cognizant of how structural barriers make their work extremely difficult, no matter how brilliant the leader.

I believe that there are alternate paths, such as creating charter districts, that might increase educational opportunity at a faster pace.

I don’t know if I’m right about my preferred strategies, but I worry that District-Syndrome will prevent us from ever finding out.

All Hail Don Shalvey

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I’ve been on conference panels with many exceptionally talented district superintendents. On these panels, the superintendents at some point talk about how they’ve raised student achievement in their district through some method of reform (data-driven instruction, teacher development, principal recruitment, etc.).

When the discussion centers on their reform efforts, I try to respectfully make the point that these leaders should launch charter management organizations (CMO) rather than lead traditional school systems. I say this for three reasons:

  1. Student Achievement: Ultimately, I think great leaders can help students more by leading charter organizations, as the best charter organizations generally achieve better results than the best districts. Without the constraints of the bureaucracy, great leaders can have a more significant impact on student learning.*
  1. Scale: Many leaders respond by saying “I want to lead districts because that’s where the children are.” True, that’s where they are presently. But top CMOs such as KIPP serve over 50,000 students – which puts them on par with the size of many urban districts (New Orleans, Newark, etc.). If our best leaders were all leading great CMOs, I think we could potentially see enough large CMOs to serve the vast majority of low-income students in the country. Additionally, CMOs can scale across cities, so the impact of great leadership is not artificially restricted by municipal boundaries.
  1. Proving Themselves: When someone achieves modest result in leading a government monopoly that is also the regulator of the system (and thus controls many important resources, such as facilities), I’m always left wondering if they could achieve results in a more competitive environment.

Which leads me to the tile of this post: All Hail Don Shalvey.

Don is a former traditional school system superintendent who launched a CMO, Aspire Schools, which he led for over a decade. Aspire now serves 13,500 students across the country.

Aspire has achieved positive results. According to CREDO’s CMO study, Aspire has an average reading + math effect size of .055, which equates to about two months of extra learning per year as compared to what the same students would have achieved in a traditional setting. Additionally, Aspire appears to have a large impact on high school graduation rates (though this data is not the result of rigorous quasi-experimental research). 

Yes, a .055 effect size is not earth shattering, but it is positive and statistically significant. Students across the country would be much better off if all their schools achieved at this level. 

It took immense courage for Don to launch Aspire. And it took immense effort to build an institution that has achieved significant results. Other superintendents should consider following in his footsteps. Without the leadership of educators serving in traditional systems, the charter sector will never achieve its full potential. 

Lastly, Don has spoken and written about the need of charter schools and districts to collaborate – so please don’t impute my views (that charter districts should replace traditional districts) to him. 

* I feel differently if superintendents are leading districts with the aim of transitioning management control of schools to excellent non-profit organizations

Charter School Districts are to the Left of Obamacare

Welcome to my new blog. More than anything, this is a personal experiment for me on how to best generate and communicate ideas. Hopefully it will work.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of months.


Charter school districts, the major education idea that I support, are systems where government sets the price for education (a per-pupil allotment), contracts out for educational services to non-profits (charter schools), and then allows families to choose amongst these options (via government managed enrollment systems).

Now what does this sound eerily similar to? Obamacare, of course. In fact, it’s much more socialist than Obamacare, in that Obamacare doesn’t mandate one single price for health insurance and Obamacare is much more reliant on the for-profit sector (insurance companies).

Charter school districts are actually much closer to a single payer health system than they are to Obamacare.

Yet, despite the deep similarities between charter school districts and single payer health care systems, much of the progressive wing of the Democratic party views this model as the apex of “corporate reform” – and much of the conservative wing is highly supportive of this government managed model.

So what happens to be the progressive dream in one sector (health care) is the progressive nightmare in another sector (education). You could make the same type of argument for conservatives, but I’ll focus on liberals here given that’s whose viewpoint I’d love to see evolve.

Why do many progressives oppose charter school districts? The idea itself – government contracting out essential services to non-profits – seems not to be at the heart of the issue. As this is what a single payer health care system would likely look in our country. And it’s exactly what the progressive mayor of New York is doing to execute his pre-k expansion program. My take is the pushback against charter school districts is due to some combination of the following:

1. Status Quo Bias: People are attached to the current structure of public schooling. Proposals to significantly change this structure trigger emotional and idealogical reactions that lead to resisting new models of public schooling.

2. Incumbent Survival:  Instituions such as teacher unions and school boards could see reduced influence in the new structure – as such, they fight to retain the current power structures.

3. Equity and Community Concerns: Even though government run schools have hardly led to educational equity, critics are worried that any loosening of the reigns would heighten, rather than ameliorate, educational inequity. Tied into these concerns are related sentiments around neighborhoods and community connection.

Interestingly enough – at least in many urban centers – performance is becoming less of an argument, as urban charter schools continue to outperform traditional systems at scale (with some exceptions of course). This is a relatively new, but major, shift in the conversation.

Note that the above three rationales all involve different solutions.

Status quo bias is probably best solved through communications, the development of additional city proof points, and the eventual normalization of charter systems.

Incumbent survival is ultimately a political battle.

And solving the equity concerns will involve a combination of both building strong regulatory regimes that promote equity in all charter systems – as well communicating the advances in equity and community connections that are ultimately made.

I’m hopeful that we’ll make progress on all fronts.

But the irony should not be lost on us: what is considered progressive in one arena (health care) is considered corporatist in another arena (education).

Ultimately, charter school districts are simply single payer education systems.

Or at least that’s what it seems like to me. Am I missing something?