Back in 2011, your editor took a look at the work of the See Forever Foundation and how its Maya Angelou charter schools broke away from the approaches embraced by traditional districts to help former high school dropouts and kids in Washington, D.C.’s juvenile jail graduate from high school and gain college degrees. Finding that few of its high school graduates — many of whom were the first in their families to even be accepted into college, much less graduate from high school — were actually enrolling once they were accepted, much less graduating with a degree, See Forever had to take on new approaches that would not only help their students graduate from high school, but then successfully navigate the complexities of staying in college. This included providing its graduating students with counselors, who work to keep the students on track both while in high school and in college; working with families to annually fill out federal financial aid forms (a challenge made even more difficult when relatives are earning incomes through informal means such as day labor); and supplying other forms of counseling to the 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.

geniuslogoWhat See Forever’s experience, and that of other outfits working with struggling children, made clear was that the traditional district model lacked the nimbleness for such work, even though the emphasis of scale at the heart of it should theoretically make it possible. In fact, 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.

Two years later, this reality once again comes to mind, courtesy of Thomas B. Fordham Institute honcho Michael Petrilli, who partially walked back his piece last month in Slate declaring that we shouldn’t bother providing college-preparatory learning to all children. Conceding your editor’s point that struggling kids who aren’t “college material” wouldn’t succeed in the vocational ed programs he and others of this mindset propose as alternative “pathways” (as well as acknowledging that we must improve education at the early grades), Petrilli then complains that yours truly and other reformers are not being as “realistic” as he supposedly is about the challenge of helping kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds in failing big city districts, get up to speed academically. Then Petrilli challenges his critics to offer solutions to this aspect of the education crisis. Wonders Petrilli: “What should we do with these students while they are in high school?”

The obvious answer to Petrilli’s last question starts with providing those children with intensive remediation, especially in reading and math, the two subjects which hinder their lifelong success the most. But let’s go beyond that because Petrilli is asking an important question that deserves a serious answer. What Petrilli fails to acknowledge is that reformers, especially those working in big cities, have provided some important solutions for some time. There’s See Forever, where 87 percent of its graduates make it through their first year of college, and 60 percent of graduates leave college with a degree, the latter being higher than that for ex-dropouts and for all American students attending higher ed in six years. Then there is the work of YouthBuild, whose charter schools also work with children either on the verge or have already dropped out, as well as those operated by Goodwill Industries’ Indianapolis branch.  Another possibility comes courtesy of New Visions for Public Schools, whose successful work with the New York City Department of Education on developing small high schools has been well-documented.

None of these school operations are unqualified successes. Nothing wrought by man can ever be. What all they do have in common is that they operate in one form or another outside of the traditional district model. While some, such as New Visions for Public Schools, work in conjunction with traditional districts, others such as See Forever and YouthBuild are charters that have developed their own unique approaches to helping kids poorly-served for years by traditional district schools get up to speed and head into the economic and social mainstream. All of them take unique, radical, and sensible approaches to education that fit the contexts in which they work and best serve the children in their care. And they models that have emerged in the past decade, long after the traditional district model became the norm in American public education.

Petrilli could have considered some of these models, as well as others. Those models include applying the approach of treating struggling students the same way we would those in gifted-and-talent programs developed by Project Bright Idea, an outfit working in North Carolina’s schools focused on elementary age children. Another can be gleaned from the Response to Intervention approach developed to keep illiterate children out of the nation’s special ed ghettos. As with so much in transforming American public education, there will not be one answer that solves the complex crisis before us. Yet Petrilli didn’t put any time into offering a solution. Why? Largely because he, like so many reformers and traditionalists, are still stuck in a traditional district paradigm that has long ago proven to be useless.

All this points to three critical realities. The first? That helping all kids succeed — especially those suffering from years of educational neglect and malpractice — requires ditching the traditional district model altogether. As Petrilli managed to point out in his response to my points, and as Dropout Nation has consistently illustrated since it began publishing six years ago, American public education has long ago been scaled for failure. From 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), to the bureaucratic nature of traditional districts (which foster cultures of mediocrity and failure that are difficult to overhaul), it is clear that the scale-oriented model embraced by the traditional district doesn’t work now (if it ever did). So we must stop fetishizing scale — something that reformers deserve criticism for doing — and toss the traditional district model into the ashbin of history where it belongs. We must instead embrace new models of education that focus on providing high-quality teaching, curricula, and school cultures to every child.

The second reality: That moving away from the traditional district model requires reformers, especially folks such as Petrilli, to ditch mindsets that embrace it. Sure, it is easy for Petrilli to demand that his fellow-travelers be realistic about the challenges before them. We should be. But realism is often used, both by traditionalists as well as the likes of Petrilli, to justify doing little or nothing to help all children succeed. As history has consistently shown, both in the success of social movements such as the end of the slave trade and in the advancements in technologies such as the personal computer and smartphones, the world is changed not by those who rigidly embrace realism, but by what Martin Luther King once called creative radicals who both acknowledge the challenges facing them and take imaginative, daring, even seemingly unrealistic approaches to solving them.

The final reality: That the school reform movement must continually bring in new and energetic voices to revive and sustain its efforts. The success of the school reform movement has come from the emergence of men and women from different backgrounds who strongly take on both traditionalists more-concerned with preserving their ideologies and paychecks, and hold accountable longtime reformers who lose sight of the goal of building brighter futures for all children. It can become easy for the current generation of reformers to become so jaded about the challenges before them that they end up being more-concerned with “reality” than with transforming education.

To paraphrase Marvin Gaye, you can’t solve America’s education crisis by simply hollering and tossing up your hands. We must embrace new models of providing education that focus on providing all children, especially those who have suffered the most from the traditional district model’s failures, teaching and learning they need and deserve.