The educational experiment

By Michelle Chen May 21, 2009

The federal economic stimulus will pump millions of dollars into “innovation in education.” If that sounds vague, that’s kind of the point. The money will be targeted to nonprofit-led school reform initiatives that aim broadly to raise student achievement. The Center for American Progress recently published a report on the promise of educational “entrepreneurship,” encouraging officials to move away from traditional school bureaucracies and promote a higher “performance culture.” The report is replete with the language of free-market economics: “removing barriers to innovation and reform” and “leveraging more private investment, and developing models of performance-based funding to reward and sustain those entrepreneurs that are most successful.” Does innovation translate into equity for the country’s segregated and intellectually impoverished school systems? Much of the energy surrounding entrepreneurship centers on high-performing charter schools that seem to defy economic and racial barriers, like Aspire Public Schools in Oakland and the KIPP academies. But some critics worry that, like the general euphoria surround Obama’s election, the frenzy of school innovation may paper over a lack of substance. Grover Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution warned in a recent paper:

We will have to invest in determining whether innovations are effective if we are to distinguish fool’s gold from the real stuff and overcome the inherent attractiveness of the flashy new product.

On charter schools, Whitehurst notes when it comes to public education as a tool for providing equitable opportunities on a large-scale, “we have very little evidence that a nationwide system of charter schools can succeed in providing a good enough education to all children.” A comprehensive study on charter schools in the Twin Cities area found that charter schools actually deepen racial gaps. The researchers criticized the charter school push for encouraging “ethnic niches” that divide students by race and income level:

The study shows that although a few charter schools perform well on standardized tests, most offer low income parents and parents of color an inferior choice—a choice between low-performing traditional public schools and charter schools that perform even worse.

Similarly, many left-leaning education reformers are wary that the market-based approach plays into an agenda to privatize public education. But while the hype over innovation could be overblown, the political momentum might bring more attention to the communities mired in educational stagnation. One entrepreneur that has attracted both fanfare and controversy is Green Dot. The California-based charter-school network prides itself on marshaling community support to take control of local schools, under the credo of autonomy and “accountability.” Green Dot’s approach, and its scaleability, will be tested at Locke Senior High, a huge, underperforming Los Angeles public school that the company has pledged to transform. Some progressive voices in the education debate say there’s nothing inherently magical about charter schools: the key to reform is giving all families a full array of choice and opportunity in charting an educational course. The White House is banking on the power of sheer creativity to turn schools around, but investment in experimentation comes with risk. Innovation will be judged by whether it can pay the debt owed to students the system has long abandoned. Image: Green Dot Public Schools