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.
Out 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 Way-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.
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.
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.
Particularly 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…
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