Points Raised, Solutions Elusive

The education alternatives David Osborne offered at The City Club on Friday were thought-provoking but flawed.

I value the work of the Cleveland City Club, and I’m proud to serve on its Education Committee, where we work to bring presenters to the podium of America’s oldest free speech forum. The Education Committee is a diverse group, with members representing a wide variety of interests. The City Club aims to bring a wide variety of opinions to the podium, and sometimes I attend presentations where I expect I won’t hear much that I like. (We should all do more of that.) Friday’s was one of those.

Osborne’s talk was entitled “Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Educational System.” That’s also the title of his most recent book, which I haven’t read; to be fair, it’s likely that the book explains things that weren’t addressed in his talk.

Osborne focused on three school systems which he identified as showing exceptional improvement among large city schools. He identified two of those, New Orleans and the District of Columbia, as previously corrupt enterprises that have improved educational performance for their students, and he credited the third, Indianapolis, with introducing “innovation schools” within the public system.

In all three examples, Osborne credits charter schools for most of the improvement. He their their variety, risk-taking, accountability, and autonomy.

Few would miss what he derided as the “cookie-cutter model” of big-city education. But he evidently sees the loss of neighborhood schools, career teachers, democratic local control, stability, and consistency as a worthwhile price to pay, and I think we might miss those.

He brands his alternative “21st Century Schools”: “Rather than everybody working for one organization, as an employee of a district, you have a bunch of autonomous, accountable public schools run by independent organizations.”

I don’t think that’s a realistic solution. To make the future we desire as a nation and a society, we must educate all our children, and we must educate them well. Claims of a better educational system must demonstrate that they are scalable and sustainable. Osborne’s vision is neither.

  • When asked about scaling his ideas to all of OEA’s school districts, he admitted that it probably wouldn’t work, at least not for a long time. He has no answer for the geographic realities of rural areas, and didn’t address why taxpayers and parents in successful school districts would want to blow up a working system.
  • A sustainable educational system needs to be worthy of public support. Public schools are a democratically-governed public good, and it’s hard for me to believe that the public will support a patchwork of schools that they don’t own and don’t control.

In response to a question he said, “People think there’s one right answer, and I disagree.” And I, in turn, have to disagree with that. Granted, it’s difficult to find a correct answer, but where one exists we have a responsibility to find it. I don’t think he’s found it yet.

He continued, “I think there are lots of different kids who will thrive in different environments, and their parents should be allowed to make the choice of the environment that they think their child is going to thrive in.” That’s education-as-commodity thinking at work: taken to its extreme, it brought us ECOT. It negates education as a public good, and if allowed to, it renders education unworthy of public support.

I don’t want to give the impression that I thought the hour was wasted. Osborne is a thoughtful, knowledgeable speaker, and he represents concerns shared by many of us, in and out of traditional public schools. Most of us wouldn’t want to work or attend school systems he described asĀ  “too centralized and hierarchical, so their principals and their teachers feel disempowered.” And his concerns about the potential risks of universal voucher systems (“widening inequality and . . . increasing intolerance”) were exactly right.

Indisputably, the schools making up the “portfolio” that Osborne supports are educational institutions. But can we build a sustainable educational system on them? I have my doubts, and so should voters.

You can read more about the forum, hear the audio podcast, and view the video here.

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