In Case You Wanted a Rebuttal

EdWeek ran a ridiculous op-ed by David Marshak, of Eastern Washington University.  Here’s the brief response:

Marshak’s logic is flawed, his data is bad, and his history revised. Over 1200 new schools were funded through dozens of networks with strong design principals including the emergence of CMOS-the most important breakthrough in the last decade. As the current debate about school improvement demonstrates, this remains a challenge. As Smarick has argued, in the case of failing schools (especially high schools) closure and replacement is the best solution. No one ever argued that making big bad schools small would fix them.

Marshek picked an interesting good school trio. Here’s just a few charter networks that Marshek forgot to mention: Achievement First, Aspire, Alliance, BEAO, DC Prep, Envision, Friendship, Great Hearts, Green Dot,  Harlem Success, IDEA, ICEF, KIPP, La Raza, Leadership, Mastery, Noble, Perspectives, PUC, Uncommon, Uplift, Village Academies, and YES.  These organizations have developed more than 600 high quality charters under the most challenging circumstances.  Let’s not forget the 200+ new schools developed in NYC by New Visions, Urban Assembly, Expeditionary Learning, and College Board.  We could also add the 290 great alternative high schools in AHSI and 250 early college high schools. We could also talk about capacity building for great schools: TFA, NLNS, TNTP, Pacific Carter School Development, Civic Builders, New School Venture Fund, Charter School Growth Fund, and Great Schools, etc.
But his core argument is that design principles based on the success of good new schools were not incorporated into school improvement efforts.  That’s a silly argument but let’s unpack it.
All of the great new schools being developed are small, but most of the failing urban school facilities are big.  NYC solved this dilemma by closing struggling schools and opening multiple independent schools in the same facility–not easy or ideal but the best solution to date.
A home grown effort in Kansas City, KS (which led to the First Things First model) showed strong results in both graduation rates and achievement levels resulting from a robust school design incorporating layers of personalization with strong instructional strategies.
Payzant in Boston, Bersin in San Diego, Sweeny in Sacramento all used a mixed strategy of new school development and high school redesign incorporating both personalization and instructional strategies. All appeared promising, the later two crashing not for programmatic but political reasons–they pushed hard and got fired.
Lack of success in high school improvement is not, as Marshek suggests, a result of a soulless SLC strategy, but the core dysfunction of urban systems and giant tracked high schools.  As I’ve often said, the only thing wrong with a big bad urban high school is everything, and changing everything in a dysfunctional environment is tough.
The brave folks that continue to work on high school improvement continue to incorporate efforts to increase personalization, improve the quality of instruction, and build a web of youth/family support.  The potential of personalized online learning and social learning networks gives us new tools to attack an old problem.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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