The DeHavilland Blog

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The barrier to bold reform

At a meeting of the National Governors Association in 2005, Bill Gates said the following:

America’s high schools are obsolete.

By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded – though a case could be made for every one of those points.

By obsolete, I mean that our high schools – even when they’re working exactly as designed – cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.

Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It’s the wrong tool for the times.

Our high schools were designed fifty years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting – even ruining – the lives of millions of Americans every year.

Today, only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work, and citizenship.

The other two-thirds, most of them low-income and minority students, are tracked into courses that won’t ever get them ready for college or prepare them for a family-wage job – no matter how well the students learn or the teachers teach.

This isn’t an accident or a flaw in the system; it is the system.


While he may be the most often-quoted, he’s certainly not the only one to paint a stark picture of the current state of public education. Many others have done the same, and the call for bold reforms continues to grow.

I’m all for bold reform. But the challenge lies not in coming up with innovative ideas; it is in breaking far enough away from the current system to be able to test those ideas without compromise or restriction.

Consider funding, for example. Whatever new and innovative learning model you want to try, you’ll still face salaries, rent, and a host of other costs – you can’t be innovative unless you can afford to open your doors. So how do you fund your efforts? And how does that funding extend or limit what you can accomplish?

There are three possible solutions to the funding requirement.

Go private. You can, of course, open a private school and charge tuition – but you’re hardly going to make a statement there. Affluent kids are not representative of the entire population, and you won’t be able to claim that your reforms work across the board.

Find a sponsor. You could also find someone with deep pockets to underwrite your efforts, but making a multi-year commitment to a revolutionary model takes deep pockets indeed, and there aren’t many sugar daddies around who can (a) afford to back such a large effort, and (b) have the vision and guts to give it a whirl.

(As an aside, this highlights the biggest challenge faced by Bill Gates: he sees the problem, but keeps hiring industry insiders – ie, former superintendents – to come up with solutions. Do you think someone steeped in the industry for 20 or more years is really going to come up with something revolutionary?)

Go public. Your third, and most promising, choice is to lock in public funding to fuel your efforts. In principle this could mean any public funding model, including vouchers; however, in practical terms, given the legislative environment in the states, the most realistic option available to most reformers involves starting a charter school.

So the question is – if starting a charter school is the only real option for creating and validating truly bold reforms, why isn’t it happening? Why aren’t we seeing the kind of bold innovation that people are calling for, and that charters were intended to produce?

The reason it’s not happening is that we’ve put the existing bureaucracy in charge of deciding what gets funded. The people in charge of a system we’re calling “obsolete” are the ones who get to decide whether anyone gets to try something that could put them out of work. In my home state of North Carolina, for example, charters can only be authorized by local school boards, the University of North Carolina, or the state board of education (see here for details).

Given the threat that substantive reform could turn the existing system upside down, what kind of charters get approved? That’s right – schools that look a lot like existing public schools. Sure, you’ll see smaller-scale innovations like uniforms, themes, community partnerships, or differences in instructional approaches. But I haven’t seen the kinds of paradigm-breaking reforms that could truly lead us into a new perception of effective schooling, such as grouping by ability or a major restructuring of the course of study.

And let’s not forget other handicaps, such as artificial ceilings on the number of charters in many states (North Carolina has a limit of 100, or an average of just one per county). Or that charters don’t receive funds for capital costs, a huge pressure on the operating funds they receive.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying at all that charters aren’t a good thing, or that some of them aren’t doing innovative work. I’ve talked with principals and teachers in charter schools – I’ve seen the passion, the commitment, and the desire to help kids achieve great things.

But I can guarantee you that if you talk to charter school administrators and educators and asked if they’ve been able to truly innovate, the answer will be no. You’ve got to present a model that won’t scare charter authorizers to the point where they won’t award your charter, and even though regulations on charter are reduced, there are still far too many that keep us bound and in line with the current system.

The solution? I suppose the workaround would be to either convince those with big pockets to jump into the pool or rethink the charter authorization process, perhaps giving charter approval authority to mayors and governors rather than school boards and the departments of education. This could still be dangerous – approval boards would most likely be populated by the same education insiders on the grounds that we need “experts” to evaluate applications – but given the current limitations on available funding, it may be the only chance we have to make real innovation possible.

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