To get a better perspective on why the traditional public school district and the large-scale model of American public education it represents is no longer workable, consider the work of the See Forever Foundation in turning around the economic and educational prospects of poor and minority children who have dropped out of school.
The Washington, D.C., nonprofit, which runs the Maya Angelou charter schools and an academy at the District’s juvenile jail, not only does it seek to help its students gain a high school diploma, but even works hard to help former dropouts who return complete higher education. It is a particular challenge. Just 27 percent of high school dropouts who return to gain a high school diploma even seek a college degree, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. Since most dropout recovery efforts are aimed helping dropouts meet the minimum standards for attaining a diploma or a General Education Development certificate, it often means that those students are not getting the rigorous college preparatory curricula needed for success in either traditional colleges, technical schools, or apprenticeships. Even when the students get strong instruction and curriculum, they face other challenges to higher ed completion. Some of these students have criminal records, which can bar them from living in college dorms or even being admitted into college in the first place.
Early on, See Forever realized that while its students were graduating with high school diplomas and getting accepted into college, few of its students were actually enrolling once they were accepted, much less graduating with a degree. What they learned was that these students were struggling with navigating the complex system of staying in college. After all, nearly a third of ex-dropouts nationwide who graduate are the first in their families to gain a high school diploma, and are often also the first to even think of college; many of the rest come from households with no familiarity with navigating the work of filling out federal financial aid forms. This lack of knowledge, along with their reluctance to ask questions (which is perceived to make one vulnerable), the financial challenges (how to pay for books or even room-and-board when the Pell grant payment has yet to be delivered to the Bursar), the challenges that come from existing circumstances (such as being a single mother), and the emotional issues that can come with leaving behind other relatives for whom they were the only source of stability, conspires to make higher ed completion akin to climbing Everest.
So See Forever and its executive director, Lucretia Murphy, began addressing those challenges in a holistic way. It began providing its graduating students with counselors, who work to keep the students on track during their final year in their schools and even when they are in college. They work with families on annually filling out financial aid forms — a challenging document that can be made even more difficult when relatives are earning incomes through informal means such as day labor. And it provides other forms of counseling for these kids so they can deal with emotional challenges of being the first in their families to move out of neighborhoods and move onto the path to economic and social achievement.
Even before the kids enter college, See Forever also teachers kids how to deal with the most-important part of succeeding in college: The ability to make life decisions on their own. Many of the ex-dropouts who attend See Forever’s schools have spent most of their lives being dictated by the rules set by government agencies. Says Dr. Murphy this past Wednesday at the Alliance for Excellent Education’s confab on college completion: “They deal with welfare agencies. Their parents report to probation officers.” This makes it difficult for these students to succeed in higher ed institutions where autonomy and self-study are the norm. So See Forever works with students on understanding that they must take personal responsibility for their life path. This includes showing up for school on time — and encouraging fellow classmates by word of mouth and even Twitter to do the same.
The results of this work — and their work in helping their traditional students stay on the path to college completion — can be seen in the numbers. Eighty-seven percent of See Forever’s graduates make it through their first year of college; 60 percent of graduates leave college with a degree, higher than both the average for ex-dropouts and for all American students attending higher ed in six years. But for See Forever to do this work, it has to be nimble in every way, from the focus of its schools on at-risk students, to its specific fundraising for its college completion efforts.
This kind of work could, in theory, be handled on a mass scale by traditional school districts, especially D.C. Public Schools, whose dropouts end up heading into See Forever’s schools. After all, they already have the dollars and the bodies to do the work. But traditional districts barely track where their students go once they leave high school, much less follow up with them on higher ed completion; the state of affairs I found back at Indianapolis Public Schools in 2004 when I began writing about the nation’s education crisis, largely remains the reality today.
This wouldn’t be surprising to Dr. Murphy. Murphy told Dropout Nation that traditional districts would have to hire more guidance counselors to help graduating students stay on the path to college completion. But districts reduce their numbers during periods of belt-tightening — and rarely hire enough guidance counselors in the first place. Nor do districts hire enough mental health workers — or even contract and partner with organizations that can do such work — to help either traditional students or ex-dropouts get ready for the emotional challenges of higher ed.
Meanwhile districts have other challenges they struggle to handle in spite of their size. Given that as many as 40 percent of students entering kindergarten need specialized, intensive reading instruction regardless of what their parents do at home, one would think traditional districts would devote more resources to that work. After all, it would lead to fewer numbers of functionally illiterate students, keeping more kids on the path to graduation. Yet this almost never happens.
Nor do districts do a good job of handling another basic task: Managing the performance of the very teachers whose work is the most-critical to student achievement. Just 40 percent of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s veteran teachers and 70 percent of new hires (who attain near-lifetime employment, and thus are far too difficult to dismiss, after two years on the job) were evaluated by the district during the 2009-2010 school year. While collective bargaining agreements, state laws, and the politicking of National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers locals are major reasons for this abysmal performance management, the fact that district bureaucracies are just terrible at managing operations (and school leaders are abysmal at doing their jobs) is also part of the problem.
Meanwhile districts fail in handling the back-office activities that are part of the day-to-day work of running schools. Just 69 percent of school buses are kept in operation throughout the school year, according to Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools. As I noted in A Byte At the Apple, the data management systems used by school districts throughout California are also a mess, with some districts actually using FileMaker, Sybase, and other outdated software to handle basic functions.
All of this points to a reality: That the very scale that, in theory, should allow traditional districts to help ex-dropouts and traditional students stay on the path to educational and economic success (and, more importantly, keep students from dropping out in the first place), is of little use in an age in which ensuring all children get a high-quality education is more-important than how many students attend in the first place.
One of the underlying themes in the battle over the reform of American public education is the pursuit of scale. The idea is that a new solution to the nation’s education crisis — usually an organization — will only be workable if it can be expanded from small scale to regional and (usually) national scope. It is this fetish, borrowed from industrial companies of the 20th century, based on the idea that inputs and outputs are more important that outcomes, and shared by both education traditionalists and school reformers alike, that drives such discussions as to whether Teach For America’s expansion efforts will make its efforts in teacher training less effective, and battles between reformers over which formula will be effective in systemic reform.
Left unsaid and unconsidered is the fact that scale is not all that people think it should be. If anything, American public education has already proven that it is scaled for failure. The collective bargaining agreements and state laws that essentially protect laggard teachers and fail to reward high-quality teachers (all of which are artifacts of industrial-era thinking and a time in which teacher performance could not be measured) are two examples of scale run amok.
Then there is the traditional public school district itself. Each district looks exactly like the other, with a superintendent, central office staff, collective bargaining agreements with NEA and AFT locals, and other practices. Yet no one thinks that this form of scale should continue to be duplicated. If anything, the very size of districts (along with the longstanding practices that have plagued American public education) have led to the development of bureaucracies that foster cultures of mediocrity and failure that are difficult to overhaul.
The simple reality is that it is time to abandon the traditional district model of education. As I’ve noted in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, they are broken down Model Ts that weren’t built to serve all children in the first place. Instead what is needed is to move toward what I call the Hollywood Model of Education, in which a variety of schools — including independent public schools, public charters, private schools, online outfits, DIY schools launched by families and communities, parochial school operations, and charter management organization-managed schoolhouses — help all kids succeed in school and life. Some will do same kind of work See Forever does with dropouts looking to get back on the path to economic and social success, while others will serve young black men or other needs. But all will be able to do their work nimbly, with little bureaucratic inertia.
This doesn’t mean that scale is abandoned completely: One can imagine a collection of schools contracting out with firms to handle transportation, school lunches, and building services. Other areas, such as testing students, teacher evaluations, and school governance, can only be handled on a mass level. This will likely lead to state education departments either expanding their own operations or contracting such work out to companies or nonprofits. It also means that Common Core state standards will be needed in order to ensure that all schools meet their obligations to our children.
But it is clear that the work of See Forever in getting more ex-dropouts (and other students) on the path to college and career success cannot be done through the traditional district model. It is time to toss it into history’s ashbin.