Michael Jordan was a great, great basketball player, both for his God-given abilities and his drive to succeed. He could float above the rim in awe-inspiring ways, and it was his determination that led him from being cut as a high schooler to the world’s best all-time player. These things are well known. What’s less appreciated about Jordan is his development from a physical player reliant on slam dunks, quickness, and leaping ability to a wily veteran who perfected a difficult move later in his career.
That shot, the fade away turnaround jumper, is known as one of the more difficult in basketball. The offensive player stands with his back to the hoop, pivots quickly to face the basket, and jumps backwards and away from the defender. It is difficult to contest, because the defender must jump across the offensive player’s body, time the jump perfectly, and get to the ball all without touching the shooter’s body. But, because the shooter is falling away from the basket, he must shoot against his momentum, which requires strength and grace uncommon in an ordinary player. In other words, a player like Jordan, a guy who wants to prolong his career by mastering a high-risk, high-reward shot.
School turnarounds are equally difficult and important, because they seek to halt the inertia of our country’s worst schools and push them towards a high goal. Our basketball-playing Secretary of Education gave an excellent speech on the topic today at the National Charter Schools Conference. It was a symbolic venue for a speech in which Secretary Duncan called for an expanded role for charters in school turnarounds. While acknowledging the need to maintain tight quality controls, Duncan made clear his intention to focus on turning around the fortunes of the bottom five percent of schools.
It’s a smart move to call on charters for this work. Charters have the capacity to innovate in ways that traditional public schools do not–by expanding the school day or year, modifying the curriculum, and giving flexibility to school leadership in budgetary, personnel, and other decisions. With this flexibility must come high accountability demands from charter authorizers. And, because unsuccessful charters are more easily shuttered than traditional public schools, charters make sense as instruments of change. If they are not successful, they can be closed and something new can be tried.
If this sounds like a losing proposition for the charter school movement (they get the toughest assignments and might get blamed for failure), it could also be seen as opportunity. Charter schools continue to have an identification problem. The general public doesn’t always understand what they are, and they are occasionally misrepresented as a stalking horse for the privatization of education. Taking on an expanded role in turning around the worst schools in the country could give charters the opportunity to show their value. Improving the educational attainment of the kids attending perennially dismal schools would be hard to dismiss or ignore.
One could argue charters are doing this already. Many are explicitly designed for low-income and minority students trapped in failing traditional public schools. But they continue to be seen, fairly or not, as skimming the students who have a desire for improvement. That image would fade if the charter sector answers Duncan’s call.
This process will not be clean, and Duncan may have overreached with the five percent figure (why not start with the five worst schools in each state, or some other definable, achievable number?), but he’s set the right goals. His speech today was a very good start; now it’s time for the nation to work on their turnarounds.