Third Way or the Highway


The future of education reform in Massachusetts requires mis-remembering its past…

Since 1635, Massachusetts has been known for its district public schools—the *first way.* Since 1993, Massachusetts’ charter schools have led the nation in pioneering a *second way.* It is time to recognize a Third Way – an emerging set of strategies that combine school-level autonomies and energetic innovation with a commitment to universal service and local voice…

Quick: what’s absent from this rather, um, selective account of the past 381 years of Bay State history? If you answered *that bit about 1993 seems to be a bit fact challenged,* you would be correct. As providence would have it, I happened to be acquainting myself with the history of Massachusetts’ bold experiment with school reform, circa 1993, at the very moment that the Third Way, brought to you by these guys, blazed into the Hub to blaze an optimistic path ahead in K-12 education. Which is how I happen to be in possession of such facts as that charter schools were a virtual afterthought in Massachusetts’ actual second way success story. And that the Third Way, which is already well underway, appears to veer off markedly from the course set by its bold predecessor all those 23 years ago. Strap yourself in, reader: it’s time machine time.

postcardOut with the old
The year was 1993, reader, and my adopted home state found itself with a sticky wicket on its collective hands. How to ensure that the Commonwealth provided all of its children with an adequate education, not just those who lived in leafy suburbs with horses? The resulting process was messy. It was deliberative. It was astonishingly democratic, not to mention weirdly thrilling to read about. (Shout out to my friend, journalist extraordinaire Andrea Gabor, for allowing me to read the chapter on Massachusetts-style education reform from her forthcoming book). In my whirlwind tour of Massachusetts’ still-recent reform history, one thing stood out: ’twas a truly homegrown affair. Also, the word *edupreneur* had not yet been coined, which, as you’ll note, is actually two things.

Same old, same old
And yet as I began to dig into the new way—the Third Way—a familiar sense enveloped me: deja vu. This was familiar fare being served up by the Third Third-Way-Logo-upsidedownWay-ers. There was the talk of *integration.* No, not THAT kind of integration, which we can add to the list of Third Way lacunae, but the seamless integration of public schools and privately-managed schools such that Third Way parents (who do not *see* school governance), can’t distinguish any difference between the two. There was that Third Way and funder fan fave, unified enrollment, to facilitate the seamless integration of *sectors.* There was the ever-expanding eco-system of edupreneurial organizations: the ANets and the Teach Pluses, the TNTPs and the New Profits, all highly-aligned behind an identical vision of reform. In other words, the Third Way’s much touted *local voice* sounded an awful lot like the same voice one hears in virtually every city in which the market-based reform vision is unfolding. Extra credit: compare the *local voice* of model Third Way city Indianapolis with your local *local voice.*

Wanted: Third Way teachers
You know what is exhausting, reader? Energetic innovation. Also, rapidly unlocking the potential of low-income students at Third Way schools in Third Way cities. Teaching at a Third Way school takes incredible time management skills, not to mention the headset wearing ability of Tom Brady. Which is part of why 1) teacher turnover tends to spike in districts that are being Third Wayed, and 2) Third Way teachers rarely seem to get any older than 26. The good news is that while you were napping, a human capital pipeline was being constructed through the very part of the state where the Third Way is already ascendant: Western Massachusetts, home to the Berkshire mountains (no relation), and a great many unfilled teaching positions. What experience is necessary for a Third Way teacher, one asketh? Funny one should asketh, for the answer is none, as this Teach Western Mass appeal indicates.

We’re looking for high-quality teachers who will be the best fit for our schools, regardless of licensure status. Prior teaching experience is preferred but not required. All Teach Western Mass teaching candidates must: 1) Meet all legal requirements to work in the United States. 2) Pass a criminal background check, drug test, and TB test before the start of school.

teach western massNo experience necessary
By now you may be wondering how it is that one leg of the second way of reform in Massachusetts involved making a huge investment in teachers and their careers so as to improve their quality — and yet the Third Way seems premised on attracting waves of high-quality teachers who need never have taught before. I will leave you to untangle this thicket yourself as I am running way behind.

Missing money
There is no getting around it, reader. Massachusetts’ bold experiment in leveling the playing field between its poorest school districts and and those in its leafier, horsier suburbs cost a fortune. But talking about money, or better yet, spending it, was so twenty three years ago. Boosting state education aid by one third may have helped boost student performance for the state’s non-wealthiest students by double digits, but true Third Way-ers know that *there’s very little correlation between spending and outcome.* Listen closely to Third Way talk and you’ll soon discern a lacunae when it comes to the topic of lucre. In fact, if I’m not mistaken $$$ never raised its gauche head at the Third Way debut. Not the huge investment that made the second way possible, or the extra resources, both private and public, that have found their way into Lawrence’s *open architecture.* And *shhhhhhh*: not a word about the $1 billion plus that raising the charter cap (which Third Way-ers are most eager to do) will cost in state reimbursements during the first six years alone.

the prizeParticularly promising scalable practices
Speaking of lucre, if our long experiment in edu-philanthro-venturism has taught us anything, it is to be EXTREMELY wary when wealthy gentlemen begin to speaketh of *particularly promising scalable practices* before the reform project has even launchethed. Attendees at the Third Way launch party would have learned a cautionary best practice or two had they attended another recent Boston education reform event, this one featuring Dale Russakoff talking about what went wrong in Newark, NJ. In a few words (that I have grown enormously weary of typing): the focus on *scale and sale* meant that reform advocates did reform *to* communities, not *with them.* Another way to explain this same problem, if I may be so bold, is that the vision of the communities on the receiving end of education reform is inevitably bigger than the the vision of the deliverer of the deliverables. Watch or listen to, for example, these Lawrence students as they take on the question: *what is education?*

Third Way’s a charm
But perhaps my wariness is misplaced, reader, and this time, this Third Way, the recipe for rapid success and scal-a-bility really has been found. Alas, the favored Third Way remedy, the hand off of district schools to private operators has not been an unabashed success. Take the sad, chaotic case of Boston’s Dever Elementary, operated by Empower BFF Blueprint Schools since 2014, and overseen by a revolving door of principals, including one who was flown up from Florida each week and put up in a hotel. Or Salem’s Bentley Academy, which Empower helped to *take charter* last year. This first-of-its kind Third Way school, which seeks to *rapidly unlock the potential* of Salem’s poorest students through a combination of zest, grit and discipline, has encountered—how shall I put this?—stormy seas. *It’s a shit show,* one local official told me, citing the departure of nearly half of the staff in the past year and the tumultuous exit of the school’s head.  A sad tale indeed, and one that provides a cautionary *proof point* about the dangers of placing so many of one’s Third Way eggs in the basket of an *autonomous school leader*…

The way out
As the Third Way launch party wrapped up, I found myself a-quiver with questions of an education-related nature. Like how is it that, in a state that made such improbable progress just over two decades ago, the very vision of what is possible now seems so diminished? And why do so many of our *thought leaders* appear to have given up on Massachusetts’ original reform experiment, even as the state continues to be held up around the country as a model of what’s possible? And last but not least, why, in the name of closing the achievement gap, is Massachusetts being instructed to emulate Denver, which has the gaping-est such gap in the country? Alas, there was no opportunity for questions. It isn’t the Third Way…

Send comments and questions, particularly of the *polarizing* variety, to


  1. Third way-ers know that there is no evidence that teachers with advanced degrees are more effective in the classroom.
    No evidence!

  2. The “Third Way” event at the Institute of Contemporary Art this week was a gross display of money and power and a white-wash (no pun intended) of the real issues that would be involved in moving towards this “integration” of public and privately managed schools. The constant drone of “why can’t we just get along” ignored the years of attack on district schools: dire budget consequences, cherry picking of students (by targeting only high achieving students for recruitment mailings and pushing out the students with the highest needs), lies about waiting lists, ignoring of facts (like that when offered their first choice Boston Public School or their first choice charter, parents more often choose the district school). It was like telling the bullied child to ignore the aggression and just be best friends with the bully. And the lack of parent, student and actual community voice was stunning, as was the amount of money that must have been spent on the event… likely enough to close the budget gaps of more than a few Boston Public Schools.

  3. “No experience necessary
    By now you may be wondering how it is that one leg of the second way of reform in Massachusetts involved making a huge investment in teachers and their careers so as to improve their quality — and yet the Third Way seems premised on attracting waves of high-quality teachers who need never have taught before. I will leave you to untangle this thicket yourself as I am running way behind.”

    I think I have the machete to slice through this thicket.

    The Chinese have set about destroying traditional Tibetan culture by settling large numbers of ethnic Han Chinese within Tibet’s boundaries. Over time, the traditional culture is eroded as newcomers have a different culture and the Graybeards die off. It takes time, but it is irrevocable.

    By narrowing the numbers of incoming traditionally trained teachers by making it more costly and difficult to enter the profession, while at the same time facilitating an infusion of FlyByNighters – er, Alt-Certs, the centuries old culture of teaching is eroded. As the old heads exit due to retirement or banishments via evaluations, there will soon be no one left who recalls the old ways and is capable of mentoring or fostering a respect for a culture that does not worship at the altar of 24/7 testing and other “innovations”.

    Reformsters and marketeers play the long game.

    1. oh, christine. i know you from Snowden when I did my student teaching twenty years ago. and now that i’ve left the classroom because of these kinds of trends, i count on you to keep me up to speed. thank you. and, yes, your analogy is apt, as i worked to get new, young teachers involved in the union the year i left. they didn’t know anything else and were blown away when they saw visionary engaged classrooms and teaching. they didn’t know teaching could look like that. and, indeed, soon it won’t.

      1. Hi Lynn –

        Ah, Snowden!
        So sorry to hear you’ve left the classroom – me too, but retired.

  4. The Third Way is the Second Way which is the Only Way Ed reformers care about schools: where they make profit and break up the public school pie No questions allowed at the ICA affair which is their typical stlye. Let us make The Thirdway Go Away.

  5. They did reform “to” communities, not “with” them. It’s a colonialist model. Tame the savages for profit, power, and career.

  6. Great piece.

    One thing that this brings to mind is how corporate ed. reformers find test scores results to have “situational value”.

    Use ’em when they help privatization & union-busting; bury them or ignore them when they don’t.

    Michelle Rhee and her corporate ed. reform allies are almost always citing … low test scores! low test scores! low test scores … when using that a justification for crushing unions and privatizing schools.

    However, when Michelle and her organization STUDENTS FIRST put out a rating of states based on (COUGH! COUGH!) “educational quality,” she suddenly lost all interest in test scores as a measure or justification for doing anything.

    The states which had been implementing “reform policies” so beloved by STUDENTS FIRST corporate backers — weakening unions, privatization thru charter school expansion, etc. — were given the highest rating in “educational quality.”

    The states which hand NOT been implementing and were resisting those policies — including Massachusetts — were given the lowest marks. Presumably these were the worst states parents would want their children to be educated in.

    “But what about the scores?” asked folks. “Do the ratings correspond with the student test scores with which you are so enamored?

    Well, Michelle & Co. left all that test score stuff out of the state rating system. Why?

    Well, because in regards to the states which Michelle & Co had given the lowest rating, the ones which had not embraced those STUDENTS FIRST reforms — i.e. instead, had the strongest unions and the strongest job protections, few or no charter schools — those states had THE HIGHEST TEST SCORES from students. (the measure that corporate reformers, at other times, highlight to promote privatization… but again, left out of their “rating system.”)

    In contrast, the states which HAD embraced those STUDENTS FIRST reforms — i.e. had NO unions (just associations with no power to collectively bargain), or powerless and weakened unions, and which also had embraced school privatization thru charter school expansions— got the the highest rating from Michelle & Co. … and were presumably the best states that you’d want your kids to be educated in.

  7. Bizarre. I got booted to the state website that says…Educators, including teachers, support personnel, and administrators are required to hold a license issued by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in order to be eligible to teach in Massachusetts Public Schools. The third way people seem to be engaged in deceptive advertising, a bait and switch for teachers, especially those who have no understanding of the third way “one enrollment” as a cover for dissolving the much needed boundary between schools that pick their students and truly public schools.

  8. I encourage folks to take a look at Laura Chapman’s incisive dissection of the Third Way in her comment on Diane Ravitch’s blog:

    “Third Wave is a new marketing package for ideas forged at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), aided by charter friendly Bellwether, field tested in Boston, New Orleans, and coming to other ‘Education Cities.’ Third Wave is a planed tsunami intended to eliminate local school boards. Private foundations—the billionaire donor class—provides the impetus for the Third Wave. Themes in the pitch for donor-controlled education ‘seats’ for kids, and nothing less than ‘great’ schools.”

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