Achievement Gap

Richard Whitmire's 'The Founders' Is Turning Myths on Their Heads

Richard Whitmire’s new book, “The Founders,” offers a virtual tour through the moves, machinations and mindsets that led to the growth of a particular flavor of public charter schooling. Rather than focus on “the history of charter schools,” a project he eschews in the book’s introduction, Whitmire digs into the top quintile of all charters to figure out what differentiates dreamers from doers, and the ideologues from the real innovators. In focusing on the origin stories of only the country’s best charter schools, Whitmire avoids the existential debate that engulfs charter schooling in the present tense, while providing a justification for further proliferation once the current political issues are resolved. In some ways, Whitmire’s project is one in simultaneous myth-making and shattering. On the myth-making side of the ledger, the book elevates to founder status a small group of “pioneers,” most of whom are “well-educated Whites,” in the author’s own words. These early charter school designers harnessed a confluence of privilege, opportunity, political access, timing, entrepreneurial drive and start-up funding to launch a group of high-performing charter schools that, while not perfect, have played a critical role in both narrowing achievement gaps and elevating a national conversation about the nature of public schooling. Designing schools is far from the worst way to leverage a person’s socioeconomic privilege, and while the book dabbles in White-educator-as-savior tropes, I’m pleased that Whitmire tiptoed into that premise, rather than tap dance around it.

'Barbarians at the Gate' They Are Not

More interesting than the myths validated are the ones upended, though. For example, in telling the founding story of the Uncommon Schools network, Whitmire undermines the idea that the top-performing charter schools are corporate America’s Trojan horse for the privatization of public education. That story finds a journalist and anti-poverty crusader (Norm Atkins) teaming up with education school graduates (Evan Rudall and Doug Lemov) and an African-American teacher (John King), in order to start small schools for vulnerable kids and families. John King is now the U.S. Secretary of Education, and Doug Lemov, who in the book celebrates the myriad “little borrowings” they did from each other to build better schools, is now a national teacher training guru. These are all men of privilege whose ideas about public schooling differ in significant ways from the powers in public education’s status quo, but “Barbarians at the Gate” they are not. The other myth shattered by the origin story of Uncommon Schools is the notion that charter schooling has failed in its promise of sparking innovation. Educators have an apostolic reverence for Al Shanker and his original vision for chartering, which is summarized by Richard Kahlenberg and Haley Potter:
Mr. Shanker argued that charter schools could help reinvigorate the twin promises of American public education: to promote social mobility for working-class children and social cohesion among America’s increasingly diverse populations. … Some high-performing charter schools … have managed to pick up both threads of Mr. Shanker’s democratic vision. This new band of smarter charter schools could move us beyond stale debates and back toward the original purpose of charter schools: to build powerful models from which the larger system of public education can learn.
Education writers and thinkers have declared that promise dead-on-arrival, but reports of the death of Shanker’s dream have been greatly exaggerated. The founders of the Uncommon Schools network have all spread gospel well beyond the walls of their schools. Doug Lemov’s books on teaching have sold millions of copies, while thousands of teachers in traditional schools have either attended his trainings or been to professional workshops inspired by his work. Norm Atkins founded a graduate school of education that looks more like a 21st-century medical school than a 19th-century education school, and John King is the country’s top education official, with oversight over how federal education funds and power are leveraged.

How Innovation Has Paved the Way

Innovation, by definition, differs from whatever came before it, and it shouldn’t surprise us that traditional educators balk at the charter world’s most successful spinoffs. Some traditional educators might not like the kinds of innovations spurred by these men and their schools, but [pullquote position="left"]it is dishonest to deny the best charter schools’ influences on the broader system. Whitmire has done us a service by dispelling these two myths. The myth of corporate takeover is a red herring that, in challenging the premise of charter schooling, distracts us from learning from the best ones. The myth of the failed promise undermines those very schools from which we ought to learn. Charter schools do not exist in a vacuum, and they have flourished not because of malevolent forces out to harm public education, but rather because public schooling failed to cauterize its own festering wounds, many of which were self-inflicted. The entrepreneurs in Whitmire’s book saw a problem to be solved, not a victim to be exploited. In the process, they created extremely high-performing schools that have replicated, and should continue to evolve, grow and flourish. None of these pioneers have solved institutional racism, socioeconomic prejudice, or American education’s woeful performance against international standards. Those challenges are projects for the next generation’s leaders. But those new leaders should do more than a “little borrowing” from these founders and their schools, if they intend to make an even bigger dent in the broader issues.
Justin Cohen
Previously, Justin Cohen was president of Boston-based education nonprofit Mass Insight Education, where he helped cities and states around the country rethink how we serve our most vulnerable children. Justin has also worked in the D.C. Public Schools and was on the education policy committee for President ...

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