Two worlds of education reform and improvement

Last week I was at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). There I heard lots of talk bemoaning  social inequities and how they doom poor and minority kids to bleak futures. For many, the prescription seemed to be: fix society.

This week, I’m at the annual “summit” of the NewSchools Venture Fund. Just as its name suggests, NewSchools operates like a venture-capital fund. The Fund was started by two famed Silicon Valley venture-capitalists (John Doerr and  Brook Byers) and Kim Smith, a pioneer of what’s called social entrepreneurship. Here, the prescription is:

1. Focus on results.
2. Put students first.
3. Have a sense of urgency.
4. Support entrepreneurial thinkers who want to bring new ideas to education.

In the AERA world, charter schools privatize education and take money away from “public schools.” In the NewSchools world, which invests in organizations that manage charter schools, people who share  the dominant AERA view are “clueless,” because charter schools are public schools.

The dominant view of AERA folks is that low-income, Latino and African-American kids are harmed by the ideas of NewSchools. At NewSchools, the focus is on serving these students effectively and closing the achievement gap between them and white students. Such students account for 95 pecent of the enrollment in the charter schools supported by NewSchools. (All told, 1.5 million students attend 5,000 charter schools nationwide.)

It’s disorienting for one who isn’t a native of either of these worlds to visit each, one after another. Inside each world, the ideas seem to make sense. It’s certainly true that student outcomes are highly correlated with socioeconomic status. But the NewSchools folks challenge that truisim. As one NewSchools speaker said, “Great schools and great teaching can eradicate the effects of poverty in terms of student achievement.”

The NewSchools ideas seem to be in ascension. They provide the intellectual underpinning for many of the reforms being pushed by the Obama administration. In a message to the crowd of charter-school operators, entrepreneurs, foundation representatives and researchers, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “The challenge before you now is to make these extraordinary successes a little less extraordinary and make them a little more ordinary.”

Richard Lee Colvin