Peril and Promise
A Decades-Long View Reveals Progress in Urban Education
In 1983, A Nation at Risk was released revealing the sobering state of public education in the United States.
It was a watershed moment that drew widespread attention and galvanized policy responses across the country. It is still talked about today as one of the most influential reports in the history of public education in the United States.
Urban School Failure
What drew less attention in the report was the particularly stark education landscape that had taken hold in many large cities across the United States. Over time, in a series of less-publicized studies, a group of scholars began to assemble a body of research showing that problems of profound scale and complexity were arising in America's largest cities in the post-Brown era.
Students attending public schools in large urban school districts were predominantly low-income students from historically underserved demographic groups. As the new research would show, scores of those school districts were literally failing in the 1990s.
The paper argues that the growth and maintenance of 120 failed urban school districts miseducating diverse children in poverty for over half a century is a predictable, explainable phenomenon not a series of accidental, unfortunate, chance events. The extensive resources funneled into these systems are used for the purpose of increasing the district bureaucracies themselves rather than improving the schools or the education of the children. This massive, persisting failure has generated neither the effort nor the urgency which the stated values of American society would lead us to expect.- Martin Haberman,
Against this general backdrop of dysfunction and brokenness, chartered schools began offering new options to students and families in major cities across the United States in the mid-1990s. The chartering movement began in Minnesota in 1991 and spread quickly across the country. From its inception, reformers saw the potential for chartered schools to have a massive impact on a wide range of problems in public education, but the power of chartering to improve the quality of schooling for hundreds of thousands of historically underserved students and families in urban settings where problems were previously considered intractable exceeded the predictions of even the most optimistic reformers.
The focus of this exhibit in the National Charter School Founders Library will be to dive more deeply into the experience of three cities in the United States – Newark, Washington DC and Denver.
Origins of Reform
Early Progress Unleashed by Chartering Creates an Opportunity for Bold Leadership
Chapter 1 - The Tragedy that Preceded Chartering
Chapter 2 - A Governor Seizes Upon a New Idea
Chapter 3 - Phenomenal Early Charter Schools Redefine the Possible
Chapter 4 - Courageous Leadership Commits to Leverage What is Working
A Game-Changing Gift
Even Greater Pushback and Persistence
Chapter 5 - The Zuckerberg Gift
Chapter 6 - The Traditional System Responds
Chapter 7 - Blowback and Calls for Resumed Local Control Intensify (Coming Soon)
Chapter 8 - Summoning Even Greater Persistence, the Chartering Transformation Further Unfolds (Coming Soon)
A Clearly Improved Overall Sector But Continued Resistance Impedes Further Progress
Chapter 9 - Incontrovertible Evidence. Charters Outperform, All Boats Rise (Coming Soon)
Chapter 10 - Policy Makers at a Crossroads - Will Chartering in Newark Be Allowed to Contribute Even More? (Coming Soon)
...never mind decades ago.
This affords critics of chartered schools the opportunity to present the deplorable conditions that are still found within many large urban school districts as conditions that were somehow created by charter schools ...
... when a deeper understanding of the history reveals that those very conditions existed long before charter schools were created and arose from patterns of dysfunction that are widespread and are often endemic within large urban school districts having nothing to do with the presence of charter schools in the local landscape.
That is certainly true in Newark, Washington DC, and Denver.
It is our contention that the chartering story, when looked at from a multi-decade and a multi-geography perspective, reveals patterns that we wouldn't otherwise see.
Patterns of progress, pushback and persistence, and ultimately patterns of re-emergent hope, a rekindled belief that public education ...
... can be greatly improved ...
... in a systemic way ...
... where all boats rise, creating improved learning opportunity at a scale not seen before.
In sum, we believe the experience in Newark, Washington DC and Denver over the past three decades shows that chartering is not a creator of problems in large urban school districts, but is, in fact, a response to those problems, a response that, if properly supported and sustained over a multi-decade timeframe, has the potential to become an unprecedented solution, one profound enough to overcome previously intractable challenges in long-neglected communities, providing vastly improved educational opportunity to millions of students and families who need better public education most.
Newark Chapter 1: The Tragedy that Preceded Chartering
Newark, New Jersey is a city that has seen as profound of positive change in public education over the past three decades as any place in the United States. The city developed some of the earliest publicly funded schools in the country during the mid-nineteenth century. Still, economic change, demographic transformation, and systemic mistreatment of generations of Newark residents through most of the 20th century left the city's urban school district in a state of crisis by the early 1990s. Decades of efforts to improve the city's schools had come to naught before the state passed its charter school law in 1995. Shortly thereafter, a cadre of successful charter schools were opened that created an opportunity for reformers and policymakers to work together to drive even more aggressive systemic change. Over time, the presence of successful charter schools provided reformers the additional leverage they needed to begin driving the improvement of district schools. While reformers had to overcome fierce resistance from status quo interests on an ongoing basis for decades, sustained effort over time allowed all boats to rise such that by nearly any measure, it is inarguable that Newark's public schools have fundamentally improved educational opportunity for hundreds of thousands of historically underserved students and families.