Andy Smarick’s “Urban School Systems of the Future” And The Bellwether Of Now!

Bellwether partner Andy Smarick has written a new book about urban education and reform. Urban School Systems of the Future is a provocative analysis; Smarick argues not that urban districts have problems, something most people would agree with, but rather that when it comes to urban education policy and practice they are the problem.  Drawing on both the history and status quo of urban education and the more recent experience with charter schooling, Smarick picks up the David Osborne, Paul Hill et al. mantle and carries it forward with a call not to just evolve urban districts into portfolio providers of educational services, but rather that a suite of options should replace them.  Smarick emphasizes coordination within a specific geography, and his blueprint differs from some ideas in that it retains some centralized functions and isn’t just a call to jettison districts in favor of a marketplace.  It’s a call for a mixed marketplace with public oversight and regulation, which is why it will not please either strident pole in the debate about urban education governance.

It’s an easy argument to caricature, of course.  Already I’ve seen Smarick accused of being a “profiteer,” which is ironic given how it’s the existing urban governance structure that gives rise to all manner of sweetheart deals for vested interests.  Just look at school construction in Los Angeles, for instance.  It’s also cheap to say he wants to privatize everything, which isn’t the case either.  So far, the criticism seems to come from people who have not yet had a chance to actually read the book, because most of the engagement is with Andy himself not, the argument he presents (which tells you all you need to know about the sorry state of our national education conversation).

For my part I think much of this analysis too is confined to the urban and suburban experience (areas of high population density).  Rural schools and school districts, which face a host of challenges, likely require different solutions.  They’re left out here and in the education debate more generally.  And while I’m sympathetic to giving parents more choices and unsympathetic to the operations, norms, and results of many urban school districts, from where I sit, providing coordinated public services in a specific geography almost invariably leads back to some sort of school district-like arrangement, more than what Andy envisions.  Districts can certainly be more effectively organized but I don’t see much of what they do going away, not because of lack of vision but because of the necessity of some functions, as well as the slow arc of change. Still, I’m just giving an overview of a rich argument that Andy presents, and regardless of where you come down the book is worth reading because it will challenge you.

At Bellwether we’ve been asked a few questions about Urban School Systems of the Future. The thoughtful ones want to know how the ideas in it interact with the work we do with some school districts.  Less thoughtful is the usual nonsense about privatization, corporations, and so forth that has a lot to do with political fights among adults but almost nothing to do with educating kids.

On the specifics, we do work with school districts, states, and other public entities, and also with charter schools, charter school networks, and various support organizations for school districts.  And we’ll continue to.  Everyone at Bellwether is proud of the book Andy’s produced, it’s important and provocative.  But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees with his argument or conclusions–we have more than 20 professionals on our team and they think for themselves.  That’s a strength of the organization.  That diversity is what makes Bellwether good at what we do.  It’s not a place where everyone has a generally homogenous viewpoint politically or operationally in terms of education policy.  Rather, we examine and attack problems from a variety of perspectives. Quality of thinking and analysis rather than ideological rigidity is what makes us effective. Besides, ideological rigidity is not in short supply in our sector these days, so we didn’t see the need to create another organization to foster it when we launched Bellwether three years ago. Bottom line: Smarick’s a smart critic and that adds value to our work solving problems.

And given the scale of the educational challenges that our clients face and that we face as a country we don’t think there is another way to do this work that is as effective as an organization that values diversity of viewpoint. We are pleased to work with a wide array of organizations, from the National Education Association to Stand For Children, and education providers from traditional school districts around the country and state departments of education to leading-edge charter schools like MATCH and CMOs like IDEA and YES.  We even work with the recently-maligned Big Bird via Sesame Workshop.

At the same time, we’re a nonprofit for a reason.  We have a mission and we’re not just transactional in our operations.  We believe this country has a highly-unfair system of schooling today that stacks the deck against the poor.  We’re bewildered when we hear arguments about how the system is actually working really well–except for the poor.  And we can’t understand how anyone can defend a system where only 8 percent of low-income students finish college by the time they are 24, when the rate for affluent students is about 10 times that.  Naturally we don’t agree with our clients on everything, but do we start from that premise as an initial readiness criteria.

A thoughtful read of Andy’s book, whether you agree with it or not, should challenge all of us to examine how we think about addressing this challenge.  He’s not wrong about the scale of the problems and the existence of some lessons that are not penetrating the policy debate.  Reasonable people can disagree about where those lessons should point us, but that’s a fruitful conversation to have.

14 Replies to “Andy Smarick’s “Urban School Systems of the Future” And The Bellwether Of Now!”

  1. Sorry, I have no use for snake oil. A lot of what passes for education reform these days has to do with policy. Democrat or Republican, it has become fashionable over the past couple of decades to fashion solutions to perceived social issues through the construction of elaborate and even artful policy analyses, prescriptions, and finally, mandates. Policy is fashionable because it is the marriage of political ideology with empirical study in a mutual system of support and nurturance.

    Done well, negative and positive feedback loops within this kind of sociopolitical system can enhance the lives of people and the fortunes of economic players, not to mention the political players who saw their system fix triumph. System fidelity is fast becoming a memory of times past. Ideology is demanding more of the marital relationship and feedback loops are failing to be addressed. The fundamental pragmatism of social planning is falling prey to political favoritism fueled by the promise of financial gain.

    While Smarick may not be profiteering, the system he promotes bears little resemblance to what I would call reality of life as it is lived in urban areas; the fix he promotes will almost certainly profit someone, some group, some ideological agenda. It will not, and is not designed to help children. I deliberately used the word children instead of students. That’s because the real crisis in cities (and rural areas) is not with the student or the teacher or even the district–the real crisis is the self-perpetuating system failure manifested in the life world of the child via poverty, neglect, and social decay. Failure, too, is manifested for children when they struggle with a foreign language, confusing new social expectations, and the almost total lack of quality health, dental, and eye care to say nothing of nutritional deficits and delayed cognitive development.

    Yes, education is a way out of an impoverished human existence but that’s only part of a larger systemic whole. Modern reformers have no interest and no ideological payoff for promoting an end to poverty and large-scale social neglect aside from the troglodytic bootstrap mentality or blatant social Darwinism favored by the more Ayn Rand libertarians out there. It’s easier and more profitable to use research and statistical analyses to come to conclusions preordained by a research methodology informed by economically-inspired political identities.

  2. Once I heard a story about a man who wanted to sell cakes. He got a whole bunch of people together: investors, accountants, building managers, equipment makers, personnel managers, secretaries, lawyers etc. but no one wanted to do the actual working of baking cakes, so the enterprise failed.

  3. the criticism seems to come from people who have not yet had a chance to actually read the book
    I doubt that Mr Smarick is staking out new and different position in this tome. Even someone who skims his pieces sprinkled throughout the Internet has a understanding of his arguments. The book is probably more meat and fat on the bone, rather than an epiphany.

  4. The names of some Connecticut residents who believe the citizens of Bridgeport should give up some of their democratic rights:
    Steven J. Simmons, Chairman & CEO, Simmons/Patriot Media & Communications

    Ramani Ayer, Retired Chairman & CEO, The Hartford

    Roxanne Coady, President & Founder, RJ Julia Bookstore

    Mary Barneby, Complex Director, UBS Private Wealth Office

    Marna Borgstrom, President & CEO, Yale New Haven Hospital System

    John Crawford, President, Strategem, LLC; Lead Director of Board of Directors, Webster Bank

    Mitchell Etess, CEO, Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority

    William W. Ginsberg, President & CEO, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

    Kim Jeffery, President & CEO, Nestle Waters North America

    John R. Koelmel, President & CEO, First Niagara Finanacial Group

    Ned Lamont, Founder and Chairman, Campus TeleVideo; Distinguished Professor, Central Connecticut State University

    Richard Levin, President, Yale University

    Brian MacLean, President & COO, The Travelers Companies, Inc.

    John R. Rathgeber, President & CEO, Connecticut Business & Industry Association

    Jim Torgerson, President & CEO, United Illuminating Holdings Corporation

    Dudley N. Williams, Jr., Director of Corporate Citizenship & Diversity, GE Asset Management Group

  5. Quality of thinking and analysis rather than ideological rigidity is what makes us effective.
    Effective in what area? Getting children to score advanced on their state’s respective NCLB test?

  6. Ann Romney shares Mr. Smarick’s passion for charters:

    Good Housekeeping: Can you tell me, what campaign issue is closest to your heart?

    AR: I’ve been a First Lady of the State. I have seen what happens to people’s lives if they don’t get a proper education. And we know the answers to that. The charter schools have provided the answers. The teachers’ unions are preventing those things from happening, from bringing real change to our educational system. We need to throw out the system.

    GH: So tell me about your horses.

    Does Andy Smarick share her passion for horses?

  7. Re: Ann R.


    But you’re holding back on the fun, Phillip. From the same interview,

    “Just his election itself is going to instantly turn up the gas and get people more optimistic, but he has five things that are simple for people to understand: One is to get rid of regulation; one is to start using our natural resources; one is to turn to human capital, which is education, and get that working again; and…oh, I’m not sure on the last two! (Laughs)”

    Sure, a Romney win will turn up the gas and get people more optimistic. We have to start using natural resources because depending on the Norwegians for whale oil for our lighting is just so down class. Simple things for simple people, indeed. But what’s even funnier and more tragic, is how the Housekeeping interviewer tries to show simple Ann how lack of regulation in China has led to horrible pollution. Ann agrees but then too late, realizes that she has been had and says, “And the pollution and the air quality is just abysmal, and people are having to live in that. You understand how important it is, but you also have to recognize that we have to balance those things.” Because, darling, one simply must balance the premature deaths of human beings with the demands of a healthy economy and its plutocratic overlords.

    I have no interest in hearing what Ann or her husband has to say about education because they will always change, evade, and lie about their real thoughts.

    Bonus snark: Comparison of annual shelter, clothing, health care, transportation and food costs–
    Rafalca, the Romney hobby horse: $58k
    American family of four: $34k
    P.S., it costs $10k to clothe the horse and $1,142 for an entire human family.

    Maybe Andrew could ask Andy what he thinks about First Lady Simple Ann going on the offensive against unions and for charters. An anxious nation awaits its new school champion.

  8. Great breakdown on horses, Jeffrey.

    Here’s another Charter Love Story, or the Current Face of Education Reform:

    A charter school in Orange County, Florida, closed its doors for the last time in June.

    The principal took home a cash payout of more than $500,000 after the school failed.

    The local public school board is outraged and says the taxpayers’ money should be returned to the district.

    The principal’s customary salary was $305,000, almost triple the $116,000 typically paid to public school principals in the same district.

    She is still on partial salary as she helps to close out the school.,0,6968446.story

  9. “On the specifics, we do work with school districts, states, and other public entities, and also with charter schools, charter school networks, and various support organizations for school districts.” Speaking of charters, “During the 2010–11 school year, Georgia had 162 charter schools in operation serving 56 districts. Of these charter schools, 70% made Adequate Yearly Progress this year. This is comparable to the 73% of traditional public schools that made Adequate Yearly Progress this year.”

    I am just stunned, stunned, I am.

  10. This is unbelivable. Great article. I can’t believe some of the things that the American people are not told. You have to read between the lines unless someone actually shares information with you. What type of principal makes over a quater million dollars a year. Are you kidding me? Geez, I am in the wrong business!

  11. Hi

    This is Pandi from India, here i am dealing with E Learning and Learning Management System. I just came across your article, i got some useful information regarding rural education. Here we need to improve the rural people in Education. This is our vision in E Learning. We are producing world class education to the remote areas of India. This article will help to reach lot number of rural students. I will keep reading this site, and i will ask my staffs to read this article.

    If you need any help in E Learning kindly contact through mail. Thank you.

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