A Sectored System: Public Education

A Sectored System: Public Education


By Mark Hecker

I’m passionate about my work. It’s rare that this passion creates anger. But, most definitely, that happened last week when I read the EdWeek blog post of Tom Vander Ark, a Venture Capitalist working in the educational space.

Never before have I seen such a clear indication that the “Ed Reform Movement” is built on the maintenance of strict sectors. Mr. Vander Ark not only fills his writing with factual inaccuracies, but he makes it clear that he thinks of charter schools and educational technologies as replacements of, not supplements to, our traditional system of education.

It is worthwhile for us to start by identifying how the educational industry fits within the three-sector framework often used on this blog. Traditional public schools fall under the responsibility of government; they have an obligation to serve every child that walks through their doors.  Many charter schools, academic support services, and enrichment programs are traditional nonprofit organizations; these groups have an obligation to their mission, and they must produce results to please funders. Lastly, some charters, some academic consultation models, and most of the educational technology sector fall in the category of for-profit; these organizations have an obligation to produce financial return through sales. These three groups, by their nature, do not work well together. They have different interests. Collaboration requires thoughtful strategy, which we don’t have right now.

I will ignore Mr. Vander Ark’s many factual inaccuracies here, but if you are interested in hearing them, visit Reach Inc’s blog for an expanded version of this post. Regardless of these inconsistencies, I do take issue with one of the main assumptions of his post: A growing subset of the private education sector – both nonprofit and for-profit – is strengthened by attacking the government’s role in education, not acting as a supplement. In this pursuit, as Mr. Vander Ark typifies, the for-profit sector has the ability to bend and stretch the truth without any real accountability. And non-profits (disclosure: I run one, and we battle this on a regular basis) have an obligation to produce results for funders. Whether we want to admit it or not, this creates a significant pressure to work with those students who will produce those needed results. It is a factual reality that the government-run traditional public school system is the only institution with an obligation to every child. They have a much more difficult job than the rest of us – charters, nonprofits, ed tech companies, etc. The traditional public school system does not have access to the release valves the rest of us enjoy.

This is why I don’t envy Chancellor Henderson. To this point, she has taken the high road – lauding effective charters and the for-profit companies that effectively support DC students. Unfortunately, she’s often walking alone on that road. I want Kaya to fight. I want her to publicly acknowledge that many in the “Ed Reform Movement”, of which she is a part, are trying to destroy our traditional public school system. We have to fight back. Education serves not only a utilitarian purpose with economic repercussions, but it serves as the foundation of our struggling democracy and the basis of hope in communities in need of transformation. DC Public Schools are a big part of the growing excitement in this city, but their high road posture allows the other “reform” players to win the marketing game – right now, it’s not even a contest. It’s like two fishermen standing on a dock discussing their shared interest in a strong fishing industry while one saws a hole in the other’s boat.

Our nation’s capital has the largest achievement gap and largest wealth disparity in the country. We’re building a system where success is defined by getting out of your neighborhood, forgoing an opportunity to have education transform neighborhoods. With one of the country's most active communities aimed at improving public education, we continue to build structures on a little-discussed foundation that is crumbling at our feet. The potential is here; the shared strategy is not.

At UnSectored, we talk of creating true partnerships across sectors. We want people to consider the larger goals and to determine how different sectors might contribute significantly to those larger goals. This requires introspection (knowing your strengths), sacrifice (of resources, ease, and/or profit), and credit sharing (oh, the horror!). That, if done well, could create an Education Revolution.

For now, we’re stuck with reform.

photo credit: Kevin Jarrett