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Shanker Blog: Regular Public and Charter Schools: Is a Different Conversation Possible?

Uplifting Leadership, Andrew Hargreaves’ new book with coauthors Alan Boyle and Alma Harris, is based on a seven-year international study, and illustrates how leaders from diverse organizations were able to lift up their teams by harnessing and balancing qualities that we often view as opposites, such as dreaming and action, creativity and discipline, measurement and meaningfulness, and so on.

Chapter three, Collaboration With Competition, was particularly interesting to me and relevant to our series, “The Social Side of Reform.” In that series, we’ve been highlighting research that emphasizes the value of collaboration and considers extreme competition to be counterproductive. But, is that always the case? Can collaboration and competition live under the same roof and, in combination, promote systemic improvement? Could, for example, different types of schools serving (or competing for) the same students work in cooperative ways for the greater good of their communities?

Hargreaves and colleagues believe that establishing this environment is difficult but possible, and that it has already happened in some places. In fact, Al Shanker was one of the first proponents of a model that bears some similarity. In this post, I highlight some ideas and illustrations from Uplifting Leadership and tie them to Shanker’s own vision of how charter schools, conceived as idea incubators and, eventually, as innovations within the public school system, could potentially lift all students and the entire system, from the bottom up, one group of teachers at a time.

The London borough of Hackney is one of the most deprived communities in the United Kingdom but, according to Hargreaves and colleagues, it may have a thing or two to teach us about “how to create collaborative relations among schools that compete” (Page 79). In 1999, the district was declared the worst in the country and in 2002 its administration was transferred to a private nonprofit called The Learning Trust. Over the following ten years, Hackney seemed to get better; what did the Trust do that might have facilitated such improvement?

One of the Trust’s more controversial moves was to build five new secondary school academies — similar to US charter schools. Organizing public education on the principles of competitive markets between individual schools, without local control, in a bid for parent customers, has often created cultures that focus on “my child,” “my class” and “my school” with not thought for anyone else’s child, class, or school. So the Hackney Learning Trust insisted that the academies protect and strengthen Hackney’s educational community — not undermine it.

(…) The schools had to be non-selective and a member of the family of Hackney schools. The point was to ensure that people should have an allegiance to Hackney’s community and its children — to a purpose that was bigger than their own self-interest. (…)”

To operationalize the notion of shared responsibility, educators established school-to-school networks or federations. This structure facilitated productive behavior, such as drawing on shared resources to help struggling schools. For example, two principals from high performing schools assumed joint leadership of a third low performing school, Holy Trinity. This meant they could switch teachers to coach their peers at Holy Trinity and that they could bring teachers from Holy Trinity to the other two schools so that they could see examples of good practice.

But, as Hargreaves notes, examples such as this are rare in the United States:

Neighboring public and charter schools are usually in competitions with each other for students and sheer survival. (…) On the benefits of school-to-school collaboration and federations, there is a lot that the US education system still has to learn from other countries and other sectors.

Of course, this resonates with some of Al Shanker’s ideas about educational innovation and improvement. In Shanker’s view, however, reform was completely teacher-led; charter schools were primarily groups of teachers within schools who had good ideas about how to better address the needs of students that were not responding to more traditional teaching methods and approaches.

In Shanker’s formulation, collaboration and competition happened at the teacher level and in a rather organic, non-contentious way:

There will be other teachers in that same building who will not [adopt a given idea] but they will be talking about it and watching it. And if it works, I think the other teachers are going to say: “Hey that looks pretty good to me; we’d like to try it next year.” It’s a way of building by example. It’s a way of not shoving things down people’s throats, but enlisting them in a movement and in a cause.

Shanker viewed within-school experimentation as a first step toward full independence. If successful, these groups of teachers would eventually form their own separate school.

Of course, Shanker also viewed collective bargaining as a sine qua non in this equation:

You don’t see creative things happening where teachers don’t have any voice or power or influence. (…) These are people who can say, “We can take some chances; we can take some risks (…)”

Equally important, argues Shanker:

Teachers would have to show that the group of kids they they’re taking in reflects the composition of the entire school. That is, we are not talking about a school where all the advantaged kids or all the white kids or any other group is segregated to one group. The school would have to reflect the whole group.


The school would announce in advance to the community what it is that it’s trying to achieve and how it’s going to test it. And then, finally, it will also admit something: that we really don’t know just how to reach the 80 per cent of these kids and that nobody has ever really educated all of them and that therefore we are engaged in the search.

Shanker’s ideas about how knowledge generation is a collaborative search involving both teachers as well as the broader community brought to mind ideas from Kara Finnigan and Alan Daly’s book, Using Research Evidence in Educational Change.

In their concluding chapter, Finnigan and Daly call for a redefinition of what we recognize as evidence and how it is produced. According to the authors, we need to move away from the notion of the lone individual (e.g., teacher, researcher) and toward the idea of leveraging “connected networks of experimentation, reflection and refinement.” (p. 5) Recall how, in Shanker’s view, teachers should work together to address problems of practice. This process was transparent (to the community, to their peers) and, importantly, it was a learning process — e.g., “we don’t really know,” “we are engaged in the search.” Similarly, Finnigan and Daly write: “The idea of learning around evidence is one of the most compelling notions in this book” (p. 180) and “it is best achieved through a combination of both internal and external partnerships.” 


My takeaway from these various sources is that a different kind of conversation about regular public schools and charters might be possible, and it is a conversation that is needed. However, given the contentious political climate, in which charters are pitted against regular public schools, and vice versa, this conversation is unlikely to happen. In addition to inspiring stories and a new narrative, we need policies that change the current incentive structure to encourage cooperation among schools that operate in the same area. The real question is: How might we incentivize schools to share successful strategies, practices and resources so that students in other schools can also benefit?

In my next post I will review A Smarter Charter, Richard Kahlenberg’s new book with co-author Halley Potter, which is an effort to recapture the charter school idea as originally conceived by Shanker, and to promote a more productive conversation about how different types of schools can not only coexist but also work together toward the same goals.

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Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. Her work focuses on highlighting research that can inform critical education issues such as eq...