If we were creating school systems from scratch, would we teach the same way we did 50 years ago, before the advent of personal computers? Would we send children to school for only eight-and-a-half months a year? Would we let schools survive if, year after year, a third of their students dropped out? Would we give teachers lifetime jobs after their third year?
Few of us would answer yes to such questions. And thankfully, public schools are changing, particularly in cities, where the needs are greatest. In Boston, for instance, 86 percent of students are minorities, 45 percent speak English as a second language, 20 percent have disabilities, and 70 percent are “economically disadvantaged.”
Cookie-cutter public schools can’t meet the needs of all these children, so we are innovating. Boston has 27 independent public charter schools, which use their freedom from most district and state rules to create new models that work for inner-city children.
Boston Public Schools has six in-district charters, six “innovation schools,” 20 “pilot schools,” 10 “turnaround schools,” and three selective “exam schools,” in addition to 77 traditional schools. The nontraditional schools have increased autonomy over their curriculums, budgets, schedules, and staffing. In general, the more autonomy schools receive, the better they perform.
In Lawrence, the state took over the failing district. Superintendent Jeff Riley, a former BPS principal, brought charter operators in to run three of 33 schools, gave all the schools increased autonomy, raised teacher pay, and replaced half of the principals and about 10 percent of the teachers in his first two years.
In Springfield, state and local leaders created an “Empowerment Zone” to turn around six failing middle schools. Its seven-member board, which includes the mayor, superintendent, and school committee chair, negotiated a new contract with the teachers union, with longer hours, more pay, and the right to elect leadership teams that help principals run each school.
The board turned the worst-performing school over to a charter operator, split two others into smaller schools, and brought in charter veterans to restart two schools. New operators and restart principals can hire entirely new staffs, if they choose to do so. This year the Empowerment Zone added a failing high school, giving it 10 schools.
Born of desperation in our inner cities, a new paradigm of public education is emerging, to fit the realities of the 21st century. It’s just common sense: Schools work better when their leaders have the autonomy to run their schools; when they are held accountable for performance, with consequences for success and failure; when parents can choose among diverse public school models; and when those in charge of steering the district don’t also row (operate schools).
Let’s take these one by one. Autonomy means that school leaders make the key decisions: whom to hire and fire, how to reward staff, and most important, how to structure the learning process. There are dozens of options, from personalized learning with educational software to project-based learning, from intensive tutoring to peer learning.
Principals in traditional public schools get to make almost none of these decisions. Somehow, we expect them to produce higher performance with few of the tools available to managers in other industries.
Accountability means that schools are required to produce positive results for students, from academic growth to parental satisfaction to healthy graduation rates. If schools fail, they are replaced by stronger operators; if they succeed, they may expand or replicate.
Parental choice means that parents can choose between different kinds of schools, since their children come from different backgrounds, have different learning styles, and thrive in different environments. This works best if parents get sufficient information about school models and quality and can choose through a simple process, rather than applying to multiple schools, one by one.
Finally, separation of steering and rowing means that school boards and superintendents don’t employ everyone who works at their schools; instead, they contract with independent, nonprofit organizations to operate schools. In the traditional model, they are politically captive of their employees: If they upset too many adults who vote in school board elections, they may lose their jobs. In a contract model, even if they close a school, they upset only those who work at one school; for other schools, they’ve created an opportunity to expand. That makes it much easier to do what’s best for the kids.
This last principle mainly exists with independent charter schools in Massachusetts, which helps explain why they perform so much better than other public schools. (Even the unions’ favorite research institution, at Stanford University, says charter students in Boston learn twice as much as demographically similar students in BPS.) Two legislators, however, have introduced a bill to let other districts adopt Springfield-style zones, which could contract with independent operators.
The teachers union in Springfield supported the Empowerment Zone, but the statewide union opposes this new legislation. Let us hope, for the children’s sake, that common sense prevails.
David Osborne’s new book is “Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System.” He directs a project of the same name at the Progressive Policy Institute.