We knew public education advocates might blanch at an editorial Tuesday that expressed some openness to a proposal letting N.C. charter schools run a handful of the lowest-performing public schools.
The advocates didn’t disappoint.
The proposal, from Mecklenburg Rep. Rob Bryan, would be an experiment conducted over an 8-year stretch. It’s modeled mostly after an initiative in Tennessee called the Achievement School District.
Bryan is a Republican, however, and because of that his plan instantly was slammed by people who suspect it’s another attempt to weaken traditional public schools. We get that. The editorial board has spent a lot of ink knocking N.C. Republicans for underfunding public schools while letting charters operate without enough accountability.
None of which necessarily means Bryan’s proposal, on its face, is a bad one.
Pamela Grundy disagreed in an email Tuesday. Grundy, who’s one of the more thoughtful public education supporters in Charlotte, wondered why the editorial board would support emulating a Tennessee program that hasn’t yet shown success, according to a Vanderbilt University study last month.
Diane Ravitch, a fiery national public schools advocate, was characteristically blunter:
“Charlotte, N.C. editorial: Yes, Let’s Copy A Failed Experiment,” she tweeted.
Except: It hasn’t failed.
Ravitch cited that same Vanderbilt study, but she neglected to include how the Vandy researchers warned against drawing conclusions yet. Reform takes 3-5 years to take hold, they noted, and only three of the 20-plus Tennessee ASD schools have more than two years of data to work with so far.
The most recent batch of numbers, by the way, showed significant ASD improvement. That doesn’t make it a success yet, or anything close. For now, “promising” seems about right.
Ravitch and Grundy prefer a different kind of reform: reducing class sizes. Grundy has a specific number in mind – 16 students per class – and she’s right. Classes that small have produced encouraging gains from students. Still, there are mixed results from reducing class sizes, and even researchers who cite successes wonder if they’re enough to justify the high cost.
At this point, as with ASD-type programs, the best way to know if it works might be simply to try.
So here’s a new piggyback to Bryan’s plan: In each district where an N.C. charter takes over a public school, let’s have another struggling school operate with class sizes of 16 or less. Measure the results after five years. Tally the costs. Maybe both work. Maybe neither is cost effective.
There are risks, of course, including that communities with these schools might not want to be the guinea pig yet again for reform. There’s been some of that backlash in Tennessee, and it shouldn’t be dismissed as the cost of trying new things.
Two other groups won’t like it, either.
Ravitch and others will continue to lash out at any attempt to “privatize” public schools, even though the ASD charters would get the state oversight that all charters should be getting now.
Republicans will be wary of the class-size proposal, seeing it as another push from the public education lobby for a “solution” that brings money to the Public Education Industrial Complex.
All of which avoids the question we should be asking: What works?
Too often, that’s not the lens through which solutions are viewed these days. It’s as much about who proposed them, and what their ideological motivation might be. It’s an affliction that paralyzes so many kinds of reform.
That’s not true for everyone, though. Grundy, to her credit, says the ASD techniques in Tennessee would be worth studying if they produce successful results.
Let’s do that. Let’s try to see what works, not just what we want to work.
Peter: @saintorange; firstname.lastname@example.org