‘A new way we can organize the public school system’: a Q&A with reform expert David Osborne

David Osborne
David Osborne

Both major Twin Cities public school districts are facing some tough realities right now: relatively new leadership faced with multimillion-dollar budget deficits and declining enrollment.

Many families within the districts’ boundaries are exercising school choice by open-enrolling their children in suburban districts or enrolling in charter schools. Since federal and state funding follows students, that means the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public School districts are feeling the financial strain of trying to maintain program and building expenses built for a larger student population.

As district leaders face some tough budgetary decisions in the coming months, local education reform groups are hoping to glean some insight from David Osborne, a nationally renowned education reform expert. In his new book, “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne looks at how other large, urban districts that have had to make major changes turned to the charter school sector for inspiration and collaboration. He’ll be presenting his findings on Nov. 8 at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The event —  which is sponsored by Progressive Policy Institute, Education Evolving and Ed Allies — will include a reception and panel discussion with local education leaders.

In Minnesota, the charter-district divide is still very much alive, limiting the amount of collaboration between these public school educators and leaders. But there are some relatively new initiatives that align with efforts Osborne has seen work, to various extents, in other parts of the country.

For instance, through its community partnership schools program supported by the teachers union, the Minneapolis district has granted six of its schools greater autonomy in exchange for improved student outcomes. And at the state level, lawmakers adopted legislation to create innovation research zones, whereby select schools will be granted flexibility from state laws and rules.

While these initiatives are still very much in their infancy, Osborne’s book spells out the potential of similar efforts — ones that embrace greater school autonomy, accountability and choice — to support a thriving public school sector. In preview of his Nov. 8 talk, Osborne talked to MinnPost about some of the lessons learned from his reporting that may appeal to a Minnesota audience.

MinnPost: Let’s start with a summary of your new book, “Reinventing America’s Schools.”

David Osborne: The book argues that the fastest improving cities in the country are those that have embraced charters the most aggressively and the most intelligently. That is, chartering can be done well, or it can be done poorly. A lot depends on the authorizers of the charter — the body that gives the school its charter and holds it accountable for performance and closes it if it’s not performing. In some states, those authorizers do a poor job. In some states, they do a good job.

I’ve looked at cities like New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; Denver and Indianapolis, where the authorizers do a very good job. Those cities — at least the first three — have pretty much doubled their effectiveness in the last decade by embracing charter schools. So this model of school autonomy, accountability, choice  and different school models for different kids — combined with independent operation of the school by a nonprofit organization — seems to provide the most rapid improvement in the country. So my goal in the book is to get people to understand that charter schools are not just an innovation around the edges of the public school system. They’re actually a new way we can organize the public school system. And in places that have organized the public school system that way, we’re seeing the most dramatic improvement in the country.

MP: What do you find most interesting about how school choice and reform are playing out in Minnesota?  

DO: Minnesota is the pioneer — the first state to do interdistrict school choice, statewide; the first state to do postsecondary options allowing high school juniors and seniors to take college courses and have their high school pay for it; the first state to do charter schools. That’s the thing that, of course, always stands out for most people — that Minnesota is a pioneer. And if you look at how many people are using choice, it’s actually very vigorous in Minnesota. A lot of people are using it. They’re using all three kinds: a lot of interdistrict choice, a lot of postsecondary options, and a lot people using charter schools. The final thing I would say is in the charter sector, Minnesota stands out because it has so many charter schools run by groups of teachers. Probably because of EdVisions, a teacher cooperative that runs a number of these schools, it’s been a real pioneer of teacher-run schools. And I think it’s doing a real service for the rest of the country. I think we need more of those.

MP: Faced with multimillion-dollar deficits, how well equipped do you think the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school districts are to embrace greater school autonomy?

DO: Normally, deficits will make school districts be more conservative about what they do. But there is a real opportunity. I know they’ve both lost a lot of children to interdistrict choice — to other districts — and to charters. So they probably have a lot of empty seats. Districts that are somewhat entrepreneurial, and not afraid of charters, have shared their building with charters and made money that way. So for example, you have a building with 50 percent of the seats empty. Well, you lease one wing of it to a charter school. You help the charter school because many of them are in inadequate facilities and expensive facilities. And you help the district because you may be bringing in a million dollars a year from the lease. That has been done in New York City. It’s been done a lot in Washington, D.C. It’s been done a lot in Denver. And it can be controversial, but it certainly helps financially, because the thing that hurts these districts when they’re losing kids is the fixed costs — the costs of the building and their legacy pension costs. If you’re willing and you’re creative, you can offset a lot of that cost of the buildings by leasing to charter operators.

MP: Say a school decided to go that route, then do you see that just by proximity there’s greater cross-sector collaboration?

DO: A couple things happen. One, you get the effect of competition, which  tends to spur the district schools to perform better. A study just came out of New York City that looked at, how did the traditional public schools do when a charter colocated  in the same building? The answer was: They improved their test scores. That’s the first effect, and the second is collaboration. Over time, you’ll find — if you look at Washington, D.C., or Denver where a lot of this is going on — if the district has an open attitude about charter schools, the charters are usually very willing to collaborate and to share what they’ve learned, and to learn from the district schools that are doing well. There is this myth, nationally, that charters have not shared what they’ve learned with the traditional districts. But that’s a myth. In many cities, they have. You would be astounded by the amount of collaboration in Denver or Washington, D.C. New York City is a different case because the current mayor is anti-charter. So there was more collaboration; I’m not sure it has continued. But under his predecessor, there was more collaboration. So, yeah, I think you get those secondary effects.

MP: The Minneapolis Public Schools district is piloting something called “community partnership schools,” where schools can apply for greater autonomy in exchange for better results. What advice do you have for leadership on both sides of this arrangement?

DO: Other cities have done very similar things. Sometimes they’re called innovation schools, sometimes they’re called pilot schools, sometimes they’re called turnaround schools. They get different labels. The research that we have done shows that the greater autonomy does help some. So they generally perform a little better than the traditional public schools, but not any near as well as the charter schools. We’ve done that research in Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, and Memphis. Memphis is a special case. Looking into why that is, I think one reason is they generally don’t get as much autonomy as charters do. So some of their principals, over time, get frustrated. Either they weren’t handed enough autonomy, or they were promised it, but then the bureaucracy keeps making it difficult for them to get what they were promised. That happened in Denver, where the superintendent would sign off on an innovation plan for an innovation school. And then the principal would go to put it in motion and say, ‘Well, we need to buy our own textbooks.’ And the purchasing office would say, ‘No, we buy in bulk. You can’t buy your own.’ So some of the principals got quite frustrated. And they lost some good ones that way. Some others organized something called an innovation zone — to get extra autonomy — which is only in its second year, so we  don’t know how well that will work.

The other factors seem to be that they don’t have as much accountability. Districts have trouble closing a failing school when it employs their own employees, it’s one of their own schools. It’s a lot easier for them to close a charter school because those folks are employed by somebody else, it’s not a district school. In these other cities, charters have been closed for performance more often than these district innovation schools. There’s a greater sense of urgency. You typically find a greater sense of urgency in the charter sector.

I think the third reason is that when you’re starting a school from scratch, as a charter, you tend to get pretty entrepreneurial people. They’re more willing to break the mold and do something really different. You tend to get more innovative school designs from the charter sector. For example, the teacher-run schools in Minnesota — that’s probably not gonna happen in a district-operated innovation school because it’s such a big change. Or you’re probably not gonna get a bilingual Montessori program or an expeditionary learning program. You just find more entrepreneurship in the charter sector.

What that means for these districts is they really should look at what Indianapolis and a few other cities are doing, where they actually contract with charter operators to run district schools and give them the full autonomy that a charter has and give them a five-year performance contract. They don’t call them charters. In Indianapolis, they call them “innovation schools.” In Philadelphia, they call them “Renaissance schools.” But they really have the autonomy — and the accountability — that charters have. But often they’re not schools of choice, like charters. They’re neighborhood schools, and they’re considered part of the district. So that model seems to produce better results.

MP: Your book largely focuses on reforms in large, urban districts. Do you think the take-aways are applicable to suburban and/or rural districts and charter schools as well?

DO: I think they are applicable to suburban districts. It depends on the district. If they’re very small, they’re going to have less need for these strategies because they’re going to have less bureaucracy. But certainly, poverty …  is spreading to the inner-ring suburbs. And many of those districts are pretty large. So I think this model will be very relevant for them. When you get to quite small districts, particularly  in rural areas, I think parts of the model are relevant. I think more autonomy and more accountability and more choice will help.

But geography works against you. It’s hard to have too much choice in a rural area because you don’t have very many schools. And, also, it’s harder in a rural area to contract with independent operators to operate schools because you have personal relationships with the people who work on the public schools. Things are much more on a personal basis than in a big city or a big suburb. I think that means that rural areas will probably be the last to do even pieces of this.

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Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/01/2017 - 01:32 pm.

    Just wrong

    We’ve been doing this for years and every major study has shown that charter schools are NOT out-performing public schools, and in many cases under-perform. In addition, charters have increased segregation.

    Meanwhile MPLS has more charters than any other city in the state and they’re STILL losing more students to suburban district PUBLIC schools.

    This idea that private sector entrepreneurialism is the savior of our school system is obviously facile. If it worked… it would have WORKED by now (after almost 40 years) and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    The problem with MPLS and other districts is that they have to stop pretending nobody on the planet knows how to run a decent education system. We don’t need entrepreneurs because we don’t need to “invent” an effective state of the art education system. The idea that we need to “invent” something is simply a marketing strategy for Charters that’s diverting resources and obscuring the mission.

    As for Mr. Osborne, one should note that he has absolutely ZERO academic credentials in the field of education, statistics, or research. He holds no advanced degrees beyond his 1974 B.A. in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford, and a 1973 diploma from the Sorbonne for French History and Civilization. Beyond that, his record as a champion of neoliberal “solutions” to everything from government efficiency to education has been dismal. Before “reinventing” education Osborne “reinvented” Government back in the early 90s… I’m sure you ALL noticed the dramatic improvement?

    Folks like Osborne run consulting agencies. The problem with consulting agencies is they never have to actually show results, and if result don’t materialize, they just blame the client for not following their advice properly. Osborne has been dispensing this neoliberal advice for decades, show us the tangible results in the form of reliable and quantifiable data. If these are such great ideas… why does the situation continue to deteriorate?

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/01/2017 - 09:54 pm.

      I agree, which may be a surprise for many. We need to make public schools work, as they had been for over a hundred years and there is no need to “invent” something. My methods of making them work, though, may not be that widely accepted here: discipline, hard work, personal (parents’ and students’) responsibility, no political correctness, no graduation without real knowledge shown at graduation tests (the only state mandated tests needed).

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 11/02/2017 - 09:01 am.

      So what…

      I don’t know Mr Osborne from Adam, but he seems to be well educated. Its the usual tactic in near suburban districts when someone stands for school board. Oh so and so has no experience, look at our propped up candidate, he/she worked on the Diversity committee, Opportunity committee, School book committee. And of course no progress to show for.

      How many minorities are there on the school board in the city you live. What is the percent of minority participation in city/school activities. The answer would be pretty pathetic participation, and yet we are supposed to elect the same “experienced” persons over and over again.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/01/2017 - 10:26 am.

    Educational snake oil

    Mr. Osborne is a charlatan, and his book is merely one more in a lengthy string of tracts attempting to suffocate public education. What he’s advocating, particularly in his examples of public-charter cooperation, is essentially what we’ve already read about in the industrial sector, where lower-cost immigrant workers are brought in, and current employees are directed to train their replacements. Then the higher-cost American workers are fired.

    “…The book argues that the fastest improving cities in the country are those that have embraced charters the most aggressively and the most intelligently.” What constitutes “improvement” according to Mr. Osborne? If the answer is “test scores,” we know that Mr. Osborne knows nothing of classroom practice or education.

    “…Those cities — at least the first three [New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Denver] — have pretty much doubled their effectiveness in the last decade by embracing charter schools.” What does “…doubled their effectiveness” mean, and how is it being measured? Once again, if the answer is “test scores,” we know that Mr. Osborne is purveying horsefeathers by the industrial shovelful.

    I can’t speak to MSD secondary schools, not having yet had any experience with them, but Minneapolis elementary schools are not dealing with “…a lot of empty seats.” My grandson’s MPS elementary school is bursting at the seams. His kindergarten classroom was designed for 18 children. His class has 25, and the kindergarten classroom across the hall, with the same kind of design, has 27. My granddaughter’s 3rd grade class has 30 children. Those classrooms are significantly over capacity, and their teachers commensurately burdened.

    Mr. Osborne, almost accidentally, does touch on one issue that resonates with public education. Charters are unlikely to take hold very quickly, if at all, in rural areas, because “…you have personal relationships with the people who work on the public schools.” Those kinds of personal relationships between and among parents, teachers, children, administrators, custodians, and so on, could just as easily be part of the urban and suburban school landscape, but what’s implied by those kinds of relationships is individual attention to the child. I’ve never met a teacher who was opposed to giving a child individual attention, but doing so requires time, and as a result, it costs more. More teachers are necessary in order to provide individual attention to more children. In recent years (decades, really), sizable numbers of people have indicated, by their votes and their changes in residence, that they’re willing to spend money on their own children, but aren’t much interested in the welfare of the community as a whole if it’s going to cost them more.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 11/02/2017 - 09:05 am.

      Maybe not


      “The percentage of students in the 3rd though 8th grades passing state exams has gone from about 33 percent the year before the storm to about 61 percent last year. The average ACT score has climbed about a point and a half, despite the fact that all students are now required to take the exam, a shift that might have otherwise depressed results. Efforts to control for potential factors aside from the charters themselves have tended to confirm that the schools are making an impact. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Reforms, which measures progress by matching students with those from comparable public schools, has found repeatedly that students in New Orleans charters are learning substantially more than they otherwise would have. Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans found the same in a study released last year.”

      Public education for minorities has not worked. Look at MPLS and other near suburbs.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/02/2017 - 10:05 am.

        I think we can all agree

        We’d like to see improvement in educational outcomes for minorities. Dismantling the public education system, thereby destroying educational outcomes for everyone else (not to mention bankrupting a large swath of the populace by forcing them into private schools) is not the way to do it.

        • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 11/03/2017 - 06:19 am.

          Educational outcomes for minorities, has not happened in the past say what six plus decades. And now we still have to pretend the existing system is going to work. Charter Schools are voucher driven, there is no individual family paying for it.

          • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/07/2017 - 07:06 am.


            But after another decade or so, when the traditional public education system has been shuttered, its advocates dispersed, who is gonna stop the charters being closed in favor of a wholly private system. (This is after all the end game to all of this)

    • Submitted by Joe Nathan on 11/03/2017 - 03:19 pm.

      Chartering very popular in rural Mn

      Factually, chartering is very popular in greater (rural) Minnesota, as well as in rural areas of states like California, Colorado, and Idaho. Mn has some terrific rural charters in places like Nerstrand and Henderson. The Minnesota New Country School in Henderson uses the idea of farmer coops – cooperatives run by the people who know farming best. MNCS has as a majority on its board of directors teachers who work in the school.
      As Osborne notes, this idea is growing throughout the country.
      Greater individualization can, and in many schools is coming by redefining the role of the educator. At places like MNCS and Avalon in St. Paul, educators no longer spend virtually all of their day standing in front of a group of teachers.
      At these and other schools, student individually or in small groups, with the teacher moving from group to group, checking on progress and providing advice/info/feedback.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/01/2017 - 01:34 pm.

    New Orleans “success” story

    I noticed that Mr. Osborne pointed to New Orleans as one of Charter’s success stories. Anyone who’s interested should look at this New York Times piece written back in 2015. The “research” charter supporters point to tends to not be very reliable for a variety of reasons.


    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 11/02/2017 - 08:53 am.

      Not a fair piece

      Its an opinion piece. Not exactly a fair assessment.

      “And the average composite ACT score for the Recovery School District was just 16.4 in 2014,:


      “The average ACT® composite score has risen from 17.0 in 2005, before the state intervention into schools in New Orleans, to 18.9 in 2017. This is despite the 2005 score reflecting only college-going students while the 2017 scores reflect all high schoolers.”


      “RSD schools outpace the state with a 29 percentage point increase from 2008-2014 in the percent of students performing at basic and above, compared to a 9 percentage point increase across the state.”

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/02/2017 - 11:25 am.

        I see your opinion piece and raise two?

        It’s not a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of the data that’s referenced and revealed. The NYTs article discusses the problems with the data you’re articles cite, those “increases” are as much an artifact of the selection process as they are the educational model.

        • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 11/03/2017 - 06:22 am.

          And i raise one more

          The OpEd posted no reference to any real statistics, just lazy accusations. The selection process claimed by the OpEd has no proof that it happens cause there’s no evidence the school district can choose which kids to enroll.

          In addition the school district has higher scores with ALL kids now taking the ACT test. That, despite whichever way the current educational establishment would like to spin it, is a marked improvement.

  4. Submitted by Nick Foreman on 11/01/2017 - 03:42 pm.

    Only public schools are

    Allowed by the MN constitution. Not religious schools, not speciality schools or any other non-public schools. If it is not public, then do away with public schools and require parents to pay for their childrens’ education.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/01/2017 - 04:40 pm.

      The MN Constitution

      Public schools are not merely allowed, they are mandatory. The Minnesota Constitution (Art. XIII, sec. 1) requires the establishment of “a general and uniform system of public schools.” The words “general and uniform” would, as you say, seem to preclude specialty charter schools.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 11/02/2017 - 08:56 am.

      Public schools in MN constitution

      Does not preclude secular charter schools with public money. Else why would the next provision of the MN constitution explicitly ban religious schools. After all if only public schools were allowed then there would have been no need for the next provision.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/02/2017 - 01:02 pm.

        Not Prohibited

        Charter schools are not explicitly prohibited, but there is no constitutional reason the state has to fund them.

        One could also argue that they are not part of a “uniform” system.

      • Submitted by Nick Foreman on 11/02/2017 - 03:54 pm.

        The MN constitution was in place

        BEFORE any charter schools existed. Any change would require a change in the constitution itself. Furthermore, the parents of children should be picking up more of the educational money costs. There is zero reason for adults without children should be paying the same amount for schools; at the very least, parents with 2 kids should be the limit and they should totally pay for any more children beyond 2 kids.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/02/2017 - 11:37 pm.


          So you are gonna try to make the case that childless folks don’t benefit from a well educated populace then? Good luck with that. No one is an island, and the next person that provides you with a good and or service most likely gained the knowledge to do so via a public education.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/01/2017 - 07:29 pm.


    Private schools, and even religious private schools are allowed in MN. The MN constitution guarantees every child an education through high school, but it doesn’t mandate that all children attend public schools. The thing about charter schools is that they’ve been granted quasi-public status in that they receive public school tax dollars which I believe, in MN at least, is based on a per student formula of some kind. At any rate, it’s that tax based funding that’s caused all the fuss because charter schools demand some autonomy… so they can “innovate”, but they draw funding from the public school revenue stream. Charter supporters claim they deliver better schools in return, critics claim they’re diluting valuable resources without delivering significant results.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/02/2017 - 09:04 am.


      An additional criticism of charter schools, beyond the dilution of resources, is that their results are no better overall than traditional public schools, and there is minimal oversight of how charter schools operate.

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 11/02/2017 - 12:03 am.

    Look elsewhere

    The education systems of many other countries work better than ours, but few Americans in education have any knowledge of how they do it. Whether it be Sweden, Switzerland or Singapore, let’s get that knowledge and let go of the neec to create all our own solutions. Too many students drop out or graduate without the knowledge they need to function.

  7. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/02/2017 - 09:03 am.

    Elephant in the Room

    What has not yet been mentioned is that many (not all, many) of the charter supporters are motivated by their desire to bust one of the last remaining unions with some heft to it, as well as their desire to eliminate as much of the public good as they can while getting tax payer dollars into corporate coffers. Not that corporations are bad, they tell me they are actually people, albeit people without belly buttons.

    The Walton family, through it’s foundation, is bent on eliminating the MPLS public school district as we know it. Their interest in a low wage economy far outstrips their concern for poor city families.

    If you think union busting is great, then just say so, and we’ll have that debate. But to use minority children to cloak your true intentions is the height of cynicism.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/02/2017 - 12:20 pm.

    To put a finer point on it

    At the risk of over-posting I’ll make one more observation… I’ve said in the past the problem with conservatives is their reliance on magical thinking… magic tax cuts that pay for themselves and make government more efficient for example. I’ve also said many times that the REAL problem in America today has been the liberal/neoliberal buy-in to magical thinking. And the Charter School movement is a perfect example of liberal magical thinking, basically it’s a belief in magical “markets”, i.e. the naturally efficient and self regulatory nature of “markets”. Charter schools are basically a “market” approach to education.

    This is magical thinking because: A) There’s no such think as naturally efficient self regulatory markets- markets succeed, fail, grow, collapse, etc. Efficiency is a product of human intellect, not greed, and intellect exists independently of markets. B) The idea that a crises of any kind will be solved by people with no relevant experience, education, or knowledge but simply by virtue of “innovation” is a belief in magical “innovation”, which like magic markets, simply doesn’t exist.

    You only hear about magic innovation from people who don’t understand the real nature of “innovation”, and ironically the loudest voices in America pretending to be experts regarding “innovatoin” are typically those promoting its magical form. Sure, Bill Gates was a great “innovator”, and he didn’t have any advanced degrees; but Gates understood computer hardware and knew how to write computer code, he wasn’t a bartender who “innovated” his way into GUI operating systems. There’s nothing magical about Bill Gates, he knew what he was doing and he had the relevant skills.

    Magic innovation turns the reality of innovation its head, it tells us “innovators” don’t need relevant skills… they just to “innovate”. Magic innovation is a just and executive fantasy, a quality mediocre executives claim to possess so they can float from one office to another without acquiring any real skills.

    How many governments did Osborne run or “manage” before he became Al Gore’s “expert” on running governments? Zero. How many school districts or schools has Osborne run before he became an expert on educational systems? Zero. Ah, but it doesn’t matter because Osborne presumably, since earning his degree in modern thinking and literature 40+ years ago has studied “innovation”; he doesn’t have to know anything about education and governments because he knows how to “innovate”. That’s magical thinking. That’s why few if any people even remember Al Gore’s reinvention of government let alone look back on it as a pivotal historical accomplishment. Why would you expect different results with our educational system?

    There is such thing as “innovation”, but there’s nothing magical about it. We HAD innovation in American public schools until American liberals bought into the conservative “back-to-basics” hysteria in the early 80s and squashed it. By the time back to basics turned into a pedantic catastrophe neoliberal belief in magic entrepreneur’s dominated liberal mentalities and we ended up waiting for a: “Superman” with magic powers of innovation to solve our educational “crises”. Well, there’s no such thing as magic, and there’s no such thing as super man. But Finland has really really really good public education system designed by people who know how run education systems. The question is: Are we gonna stick with the magic, or are we going to deal with this like intelligent adults?

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/03/2017 - 05:40 pm.

      Most of the right-wing “experts” on education

      would be at a loss in front of a class of average college freshmen and would be reduced to whimpering in the corner if they had to face a room full of seventh graders.

      About twenty years ago, a columnist in the Portland Oregonian criticized public education, talking about what a cushy job teaching was and how overpaid teachers were. In response, a group of English teachers in Lake Oswego, the most affluent district in the state, challenged him to come and teach their writing classes for a week.

      He thought, “How hard could that be?”

      Well, he found out. First of all, he learned that the students were disinclined to pay attention, even to locally prominent newspaper columnists, especially if said columnist was up in front talking off the top of his head. Second, he had to prepare for class, because an hour is awfully long if “the top of your head” is exhausted after fifteen minutes. Third, when he assigned essays, he had to grade them, offer constructive suggestions, and figure out how to highlight the students’ errors and weaknesses as part of the next lesson in a systematic way.

      He came out of the experience to write a column admitting that he had never realized what a public school teacher’s life is really like.

      I spent eleven years teaching on the college level. Even there, teaching at colleges that took only the upper 1/3 of high school graduates, I faced problems of inattention, students distracted by personal issues, students with learning disabilities, students who cheated, and students who were simply spoiled brats. That was on top of the fact that I was teaching a subject (Japanese) for which few good textbooks existed at the time, so I had to write (with the help of a Japanese assistant) or adapt most of the materials for my upper level classes. Furthermore, foreign language study works best when the student studies a bit every day, so I gave daily homework assignments, which I then had to grade and hand back the day after that.

      I often arrived at Friday afternoon exhausted, and that was without the workload of a K-12 teacher. I honestly don’t know how they do it, but I know for sure that they NEED their vacations.

      They also don’t need the constant badmouthing they get from right-wingers who wouldn’t know what to do with a roomful of actual public school students nor do they need harangues about the teachers’ unions, which somehow, in right-wing mythology, have the ability to make schools bad.

      (Never mind that South Korea, Japan, Finland, and most of the other countries that out-perform the U.S. in international comparisons have nearly 100% union membership among their teachers.)

      On the subject of charter schools, the Strib publishes the test scores for every school in the region. There is a distinct pattern across both charter and conventional public schools: public schools that serve affluent areas and charter schools that attract affluent people achieve high scores, while public and charter schools that serve low-income areas and low-income students, urban or rural, have low test scores.

      Children and youth from low-income families suffer a lot of stress and instability. I knew that as long as 25 years ago when I volunteered in a program for street youth, and I was reminded of this again when visiting local non-profit early childhood intervention programs as a member of the board of a small charitable foundation. There is no “equality of opportunity” if a child has PTSD from witnessing a murder, is malnourished because of growing up on junk food, has been abused, or has to be “the adult” for a parent who is a substance abuser.

      We can’t say, “Oh, this is inevitable, because we’re racially diverse and have immigrants.”

      The same problems exist, although in a more hidden form, in mostly-white towns in rural areas. I spent seven years in one such town, 90% white with a small number of Latinos and Native Americans, and I was astounded to find out how many thirty-something women were grandmothers and how much drug use and drunken violence there was.

      The town had good schools for those who could take advantage of them, but mostly because the faculty of the college where I taught rode herd on the school board. Left to themselves, the school board would have poured most of its resources into athletics.

      This brings me to another problem: American culture, especially pop culture, which is resolutely anti-intellectual and has been since my childhood. It is not cool to be smart. You know how coaches brag that their team members are straight-A students? There’s a reason for that. The straight-A student who is not an athlete or cheerleader is going to be a social outcast.

      The problems in American education are indeed structural, but many of the structural problems exist outside the school system itself and are woven into every other aspect of our society.

    • Submitted by Joe Nathan on 11/08/2017 - 02:53 pm.

      Finnish “charter like” schools

      Paul mentions that Finland has (a) really, really good public education system designed by people who know how (to) run education systems.

      One of the features of Finland’s system is that teachers can create distinctive schools with lots of autonomy, and families can choose which of them their children will attend.

      If that sounds to you like how chartering works in Minnesota, you’re right.

      There’s no single strategy that will solve all of education’s problems. But chartering can help.

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