When Complex School Systems Fail

Emmanuel Felton at Hechinger reports on the the resignation of Chris Barbic from his position of superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, the state-run district charged with turning around the state’s worst schools.
 In that [resignation] letter, Barbic said that he had discovered it was “much harder” to fix existing schools than to start up new ones, as he did running YES Prep, a highly successful charter school network.
John Gall would agree. Gall is a retired pediatrician with an avocation for systems science and he wrote a treatise forty years ago called “SystemANTICS: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail” which has become a touchstone for analysts in fields as diverse as  software development and developmental psychology. I don’t know if Gall’s work has been applied to public education but his conclusions offer some insights into improving school districts, as well as why Barbic ran into so much trouble.

School districts are, of course, complex systems—i.e., arrangements of various parts that interact within an organizational framework to form a cohesive whole. The best districts are smoothly-working systems where school boards, superintendents, administrators, supervisors, teachers, specialists, secretaries, instructional aides, and maintenance staff  fulfill various roles to effectively provide a learning environment for children.

But what about education systems that don’t function effectively? Here’s where Gall’s oft-cited Fundamental Failure Mode Theorem comes in: in layman’s terms, complex systems usually operate in failure mode and can’t be patched up to function effectively.

According to Gall, dysfunctional school districts can’t be improved by tweaks. They have to be wholly reinvented. And that’s one way of looking at the continued expansion of charter schools in districts that have, for decades, operated in failure mode.

In Newark, 40% of students are enrolled in charter schools and that’s before KIPP’s new approval for over 5,000 new seats.  In New Orleans, almost all children attend charter schools. In D.C. 44% of students attend charter schools. In Detroit, 55% attend charter schools. The National Alliance for Charter Schools reports that,
Over the past five years, student enrollment in public charter schools has grown by 70 percent. In 42 states and the District of Columbia, approximately 2.7 million students now attend public charter schools - more than five percent of the total number enrolled in public schools. 
The expansion of charter schools, which operate relatively independently from the bureaucracy of failing complex systems, are a logical approach because they offer a fresh start. Gall most likely would approve.

But Gall doesn't calculate the ire of stakeholders invested in the failing complex system. The concerns of those invested have nothing to do with kids or educational quality but are focused solely on  the sustainability of the system operating in failure mode. We see this in Newark, where last night Newark Teachers Union members held a “candlelight vigil” to protest decreasing market share and its attendant loss of union jobs:
For tax dollar disappeared at the expense of reform for profit--light a candle. For every full time aide, security or cafeteria worker now unemployed--light a candle; and light one for their children this Christmas. For every teacher forced out of their job to another district--light a candle.
We see it in Boston, where Massachusetts Teachers Union President Barbara Madeloni said  that “she’s going to draw a line in the sand” against Gov. Baker’s proposal to expand charter school seats in the lowest-performing districts at a rate of half of 1 percent of the local school district budget each year for a decade. Why? She's protecting jobs.

We see it in New York City, where UFT darling Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared war on charter school operator Eva Moskowitz and where  UFT leaders fought bitterly to hold firm the state’s charter school cap. (It was a pyrrhic victory because  legislators allowed the authorization of up to 50 new charter schools in NYC.)

These charter opponents aren’t fighting for children. They’re fighting for dysfunctional systems that, nonetheless, support adults. Adult employment in struggling cities (which are, I suppose, also complex systems  operating in failure mode -- pension debt, anyone?) is a an important cause. But let’s not conflate that cause with students’ right of access to functional schools, whether you call them charter or traditional.

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