The ‘third way’ in education
Education leaders seek to bridge the charter-district divide
POLARIZATION AND TRENCH WARFARE, the partisan watchwords these days in Washington, have also come to define education debates.
In Massachusetts, as much as $30 million could be spent between now and November in what promises to be a bloody showdown between charter school advocates and opponents over a ballot question to raise the charter school cap.
While there is a lot at stake in the high-profile charter battle, some of the most interesting developments in education in Massachusetts have been unfolding more quietly across the state.
Whether it’s an “empowerment zone” launched in Springfield last fall that gives a set of middle schools new freedom from district rules, or Boston’s moves to give principals greater leeway over teacher hiring, educators are drawing lessons from charter schools and incorporating them into district systems.
“This is an optimistic, forward-looking effort to get beyond the current battle lines where everyone is so dug in,” says Chris Gabrieli, founder of the Boston nonprofit Empower Schools, which is convening a gathering of education leaders – including US Education Secretary John King – on Tuesday morning to kickoff what is being billed as “The Emerging Third Way” in education. (MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth, is a cosponsor of the event.)
At the heart of the third way thinking is a belief that the sort of autonomy enjoyed by charter schools over hiring, curriculum, the length of the school day, and budgeting is a key ingredient needed to drive improvement in lower-performing schools. That was the central idea behind an effort three years ago by a coalition of education leaders to push school reform issues to the forefront of Boston’s first open race for mayor in 20 years.
The “third way” in education that is being showcased on Tuesday is therefore not the unveiling of a new idea so much as it is an attempt to give a name to a set of reforms and a collaborative approach to addressing education challenges that are already being put into practice.
“We feel this movement is much bigger than people realize, but it hasn’t realized it’s a movement,” says Gabrieli, a successful venture capitalist and one-time gubernatorial candidate who has turned his focus to education efforts.
The need for new approaches to school reform seems undeniable. While Massachusetts regularly notches first place in various student achievement measures, statewide results mask enormous gaps between communities, with less than half of students in many predominantly low-income urban districts testing proficient in math and English.
Falling under the third way umbrella are initiatives such as the Lawrence school receivership, a state-run plan that is giving more autonomy to individual schools, longer school days to most students, and that includes partnerships with several charter school organizations that are operating Lawrence district schools. Four years into the effort, math proficiency rates have risen sharply, from 28 percent to 41 percent. English proficiency rates have only ticked up slightly.
No one is claiming these sorts of school-level autonomies are a guarantee of better outcomes for students. But reform leaders say these have all been crucial ingredients in the success of high-achieving charter schools, including those in Boston, which studies have shown to be the highest-performing cohort of charter schools in the country.
“Autonomy is a resource, not a strategy,” says Gabrieli, emphasizing that all the third way reforms being put in place require capable school leaders and teachers to be successfully executed.
For the third way effort to continue to gain traction in the state, says Gabrieli, more district leaders need to seize on existing reform opportunities, while the Legislature must also be open to new measures that could make it easier for districts to embrace new schooling models. Things like the empowerment zone carved out in Springfield, he says, could be adopted in other districts with a set of chronically struggling schools. But it will take the political will to acknowledge, he says, that simply pushing harder under the existing structure isn’t going to lead to meaningful improvement.
King, who took the reins as US education secretary in March, stands as the highest profile exemplar of the third-way effort to draw together district and charter school practices. He was a cofounder of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston before eventually going on to serve as state commissioner of education in New York and now the top education official in President Obama’s cabinet.
Charter school critics have often been quick to say that the independently run, but publicly funded, schools have failed at one of their original aims: to be laboratories of innovation that develop best practices to be shared with district schools.
It’s an odd claim because charter schools have, in fact, been the model driving much of the thinking in district-based reforms over the last two decades. Whether it’s the push for longer school days in schools serving high-need students or the effort in Boston to give principals greater leeway over teacher hiring and assignment practices, charter school practices have provided the foundation for the call among district leaders to give schools more autonomy from the strictures of a top-down district bureaucracy.
By bringing those practices into district schools, says Gabrieli, school reform efforts directly address some of the criticism leveled at charters, including that they don’t always include as many special needs students or other more challenging populations as districts schools and that they don’t include a formal role for the community in school oversight.
Paul Reville, who served as the state education secretary under Gov. Deval Patrick, says the effort to bridge the charter-district divide is welcome and overdue. “They’re trying to change the conversation, trying to change the music, and it’s high time,” Reville says, lamenting what he calls the “oxygen-consuming” debate over charter schools.
Jim Stergios, executive director of the right-leaning Pioneer Institute, calls the effort to spotlight and encourage more innovative in-district reforms “really useful.” But he thinks the ongoing charter debate is healthy because it puts pressure on districts to be open to change. “Without additional market pressure on a district system that has a lot of bureaucratic inertia, I worry that these good efforts will not produce the kinds of results in the district schools that we all want to see,” he says.
Tripp Jones was the chief aide to state Rep. Mark Roosevelt when he coauthored the state’s landmark 1993 education reform act. “In my mind this is all about how do we increase the pace at which we’re able to take what we know works and change the education opportunities for our most vulnerable and at-risk children,” Jones says of the third-way efforts.“There’s been a lot of great things that have happened since 1993, but I think by all measures not enough kids have benefited from the kinds of innovation and change we were attempting to bring about,” says Jones, a cofounder of MassINC who is helping to organize Tuesday’s event. “Massachusetts is so well positioned to be one of the real leaders again in driving the next chapter of education reform.”