by Marco Petruzzi, CEO of Green Dot Public Schools National
As I was contemplating what to write in my first blog ever (welcome to the 21st century, baby boomer!), I started listing in my mind the questions that people may want to hear an answer to. I landed on starting the blog series addressing the BIG questions:
- Why do we even need a Green Dot in this country? Or charters, in general? Or an ed reform movement?
- After all, isn’t the education system improving?
- Is all the acrimony and tension between the ed reform movement and the education establishment worth it?
- Would the students be better off with a return to the status quo and reduced stress from all?
- Why can’t we all just get along?
A Little History
Until the 1980s, our public education system was reasonably well suited for our economy. We needed about a third of our students to go to college to fill out managerial and knowledge-based jobs. We needed the rest for manufacturing and service jobs. For a long time, such jobs afforded a reasonable, if not lavish, middle class existence, thanks in great part to the role our unions played in extracting a fair share of profits for workers instead of the bulk of the company value going to shareholders.
However, our societal values were less attuned to the inequities that such a system promoted. We spoke of the “smart” kids and the “not so bright” kids and placed the responsibility for success and failure on the shoulders of individual students. When a high school dropout got stuck in a menial job, it was their own fault for not having the ambition to succeed.
Maybe because data was not so readily available, or because it was difficult to analyze before computers, we glossed over the hidden realities in the numbers. We failed to ask why a public school system intended to create equal access to opportunity consistently failed low-income students and minorities.
Why were college completion rates consistently above 70% for more affluent students and consistently below 10% for lower income students? Why was there not at least a general trend towards closing opportunity gaps instead of stagnation or outright decline?
The Birth of “Ed Reform”
We largely ignored these issues until we couldn’t anymore. Many were jolted to action by A Nation at Risk, a scathing report published in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. A largely negative picture emerged of a system that was failing an enormous number of students. It created the impetus for the launch of the “ed reform” movement.
Thirty years later, we’re moving at breakneck speed towards an economy in which the manufacturing sector is a shadow of its former self. By 2020, two-thirds of jobs will require a college degree. Yet our education system maintains a college completion rate well below 40%, with clear and dramatic differences between ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. Despite all our advances, the historic concepts of “class” and “race” still predetermine a student’s outcomes.
So why is it so controversial to readjust our education system to give our students a real shot at succeeding in the rapidly emerging knowledge-economy? And why is it still so controversial to challenge the clear socio-economic inequity of access to those opportunities?
A Call for Unity
In the ongoing conversation of how best to serve students, particularly those that have been traditionally marginalized, it has become increasingly common to accuse “the other side” of putting profit or job protection ahead of students’ success. But I challenge such a simple reading of the situation. I have yet to meet anybody working in public education who callously doesn’t care about students. Accusations that union members only care about their own jobs have to stop. But similarly, accusations by the unions that we ed reformers are only concerned with profit and market share have to stop too.
Among the name calling, I have yet to meet one person who believes that public education in America is doing wonderfully well and serving all students with excellence. Aren’t we all “reformers” to some degree? Don’t we all want to improve the system for the benefit of students? Can’t the continuing debate about methodology be one of honesty and mutual respect?
The Challenges of Reform
I’ll say this about the ed reform movement: it has unleashed a wave of innovations that have jolted the current system and forced it to confront some hard truths. It has brought a new wave of talented and passionate individuals into one of the most isolated sectors in the economy. Have all the reform innovations been successful, well designed, and well executed? No. Are all those joining the ed reform movement vastly more knowledgeable and talented than those in the established system? Of course not.
Some well-intentioned innovations have had unintended consequences. Some talented individuals have failed to make the announced progress with students. These examples of a “failure to move the needle” are routinely highlighted as evidence that the ed reform system is failing or that those in the movement are up to no good. Or, even worse, there is an outcry that we are “experimenting” on children’s futures. Nothing infuriates me more. Allowing low-income students of color to languish in a system that fails them generation after generation is NEVER a preferable choice to the uncertainty of a noble attempt to change such students’ life trajectories!
I’m not advocating that we should be free to do whatever we want, but simply suggesting that taking some calculated and closely monitored risks to try to change student outcomes is both a necessity and a duty.
The Charter Movement
After many years at this, I can summarize what I’ve learned about innovation in school systems and programs as this: though any program or model can work reasonably well with a subset of students, no single program or model can work well for all students. Students are as diverse as our nation. Their needs and learning styles vary dramatically.
That’s why a monolithic traditional public school system cannot work for every student and why reforming that system will be difficult unless we abandon our search for easy fixes and embrace a complex web of solutions that address the needs of all students.
The road to a better, more personalized and responsive system, will be a rocky ride fraught with controversy, but the goal is a noble one: that every child, regardless of their socio-economic status or learning style, will have excellent choices at their disposal in a public school system that ensures that they have the same opportunity to be successful in college, leadership and life.
Charter schools are fundamental to reaching this goal. Charters are not only driving innovation in school models and programs, but also “forcing” the traditional system to react and innovate as well. Expecting innovation and transformative change from a system without external pressure based on mandates, laws, or top-down accountability systems will lead to nothing. History has proven that over and over.
The role of charters is to innovate and share their learnings for sure, but most importantly, it is to create parental choice and generate the pressure for the large traditional system to change itself.
At Green Dot, we’ve always embraced the complexity and messiness of ed reform. It’s too easy to stay on the sidelines and speak in generalizations and hyperbole. It’s too easy to create your own little boutique schoolhouse in your own little world and pretend that it can act as a universal model of success across the country. That’s why we’ve chosen to focus on one of the most intractable problems in education.
We think the president had it right when he suggested that the work of ed reform should be focused on the bottom 5% of schools in the country, schools that are failing students in the neediest neighborhoods and denying the greater community of the potential yet to be tapped.
We think the LAUSD Board had it right when they allowed us to take on their three lowest performing schools, acknowledging that they had failed to make progress and that new models were needed. To herald increases in the national average graduation rate as evidence of the success of the status quo while entire communities remain forgotten and abandoned is not the action of a country espousing justice and liberty for all.
This is the work that Green Dot is interested in doing. This is how we’re interested in speaking about the complexities of education and sharing the lessons as we learn from them. This is the point of our blog.
We hope you join us as we explore our successes and our struggles, with honesty and transparency.