Author Andy Smarick was telling a Washington, D.C., gathering that “the traditional urban public school system is broken, and it cannot be fixed. It must be replaced.” Meanwhile, across town, teacher union president Randi Weingarten gave another message to a different crowd: “It’s time to fix, not close, our schools.” So wrote Emma Brown of The Washington Post.
In my previous posting I outlined how some charter school advocates like Smarick are pushing the idea that charter schools should replace traditional urban school districts.
Aren’t there any well functioning urban school districts? Thankfully there are, and either Smarick doesn’t know about them or chooses to ignore them for ideological reasons.
A few years ago, Union City, N.J., was such a broken school system that one would have picked it as a leading contender to be “charterized.” Unemployment was 60 percent higher than the national average. Three-quarters of its students lived in Spanish only speaking families.
But the Union City school community was determined to make it students successful. David Kirp of The New York Times outlines this school system’s miraculous transformation. Today Union City boasts a 89.5 percent graduation rate with 75 percent of its graduates going on to college.
The school system did not turn toward charters, closing schools, or firing its teachers. It transformed itself through hard work.
The school system decided to enroll all three and four-year-olds into kindergarten. It retrained its teachers to focus on instructional core areas, foster pride and respect and high expectations.
Cincinnati followed a similar path. Today its graduation rate is up from 51 percent in 2000 to 81.9 percent in 2010. Few students entering the university system take remedial classes, and the achievement gap between blacks and whites has been erased.
Cincinnati’s formula for success is very similar to Union City’s. It invested in teacher training, focusing on a few core areas, and involving the community.
What is unique about the Cincinnati experience is that it worked with Joe Nathan from the Center for School Change in St. Paul, Minn. While Nathan is one of the founding fathers in the charter school movement, he is no ideologue who thinks charter must replace traditional public education. Nathan is just as happy to work with school boards and teacher unions so long as progress is being made. For Nathan, charter schools are simply one more tool in the tool chest. He is willing to use other tools if they suit the task at hand.
Too much energy has been devoted to the organizational structures of our school delivery systems without asking the question of what makes excellent education at the classroom level.
Both Union City and Cincinnati tried to answer that question with whole system-wide systemic reforms, and those reforms are not much different than what successful charter schools are doing. We need to talk about school reforms that matter.