Steven Wilson on Charter Public Schools

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[00:00:00] Alisha Searcy: Welcome back to The Learning Curve. I am your host, Alisha Thomas Searcy, Southern Region President for Democrats for Education Reform. And I’m so happy to be joined by our friend, Charlie Chieppo. Welcome back, Charlie.

[00:00:33] Charlie Chieppo: Well, thank you, Alisha. It’s been too long since we’ve done this together.

[00:00:36] Alisha Searcy: It has. I hope you’re out there having a good time.

[00:00:39] Charlie Chieppo: I am. I am.

[00:00:41] Alisha Searcy: Excellent. Well, we’ve got a lot to talk about this week. I want to jump in with our stories of the week. You ready?

[00:00:49] Charlie Chieppo: I’m ready.

[00:00:50] Alisha Searcy: All right. So, my story of the week comes from USA Today, and it’s about Juneteenth. What to know about the historical celebration that’s now a federal holiday. And so I’m sure people know this already, but Wednesday, June 19th, is Juneteenth.

[00:01:07] June 10th, 2024 of this year, and I hope people know this is the day that marks a day of celebration and freedom, as well as education, and I thought this was an important article for a couple of reasons. This is a fairly new holiday, right? It was just put into law in 2021, signed by President Joe Biden.

[00:01:29] And it’s called the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. And many people believe Juneteenth is the second Independence Day. And so of course, for those who are not aware, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, but it was not until two years later after Abraham Lincoln signed it that the Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.

[00:01:59] And so Juneteenth is not just a celebration or an acknowledgment of the end of a very ugly dark period in this country, but it’s also a celebration of freedom, of culture, of black history, which is a part of American history. So, the article goes on to talk about the importance of this. Day, the importance of teaching Black history, again, as a part of American history in all of our schools.

[00:02:25] And, of course, we know that’s a little bit of a challenge now, but this article, this holiday really speaks to the importance of that. I think people shy away sometimes from talking about race, talking about slavery, but we have to know that this is a part of history. of our history, but it’s also a part of demonstrating how African Americans in this country are overcomers, are resilient people that we were able to survive such a horrible institution in this country.

[00:02:55] And we are thriving in many ways today. And so, while we celebrate and have this day off, many of us on June 19th, I hope that we’ll also take a moment to think about those who’ve come before us, who sacrificed. Just frankly those who didn’t make it because of all of the horrific things that happened to enslaved people in this country and across the African diaspora for that matter.

[00:03:20] And also think about the positive things, that resiliency, that culture, whether it’s the food, the entertainment, clothing, history, the inventions that were made, all of the things that are a part of American history and the contributions that African Americans have made. So, Happy Juneteenth!

[00:03:40] Charlie Chieppo: Well, you make a point that really resonated with me, Alisha. When you talk about, there’s a lot of people, at a certain level, I guess I understand it, who don’t ever want to talk about race, yet it’s just so clear. This is why we have history and why it’s so important. If we don’t teach what happened, the surest way to ensure that nothing like that happens again is to teach it.

[00:04:05] And I just, we can’t shy away from that, so. Exactly. Thank you for saying that. I agree wholeheartedly. Yeah, no, I think that was great. Thank you. What’s your story, Charlie? Well, I’m a little bit more of a local boy here. My story is, comes from a TV station in Western Massachusetts, Channel 22 in Springfield, which for me, as a diversion here, will always remind me of, it was the first place that I ever watched professional wrestling when I was a kid growing up in Connecticut, but I think that they’ve moved beyond that.

[00:04:39] But they did a story about the Massachusetts assessment. Since 2003, students here in Massachusetts have had to pass a state assessment to graduate from high school. So, after the graduation requirement was implemented in 2003, Massachusetts students have repeatedly scored best in the nation on every subject at every grade level on the NAEP test.

[00:05:02] Massachusetts 8th graders even tied for best in the world on international science testing, I think in 2007. But, if you think that means that the assessment, which is known as MCAS, if you think that means those assessments are safe. Then, you don’t know Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Teachers Association has mounted a campaign to eliminate the requirements that students have to pass 10th grade MCAS tests in English Language Arts and Math and Science to graduate from high school, and the question is likely to appear on the statewide ballot in November.

[00:05:36] So the MTA has talked a lot about or they tried to start by talking a lot about students that don’t graduate as a result of the test, but when people looked further into the numbers, they determined that it was actually a minuscule number of people who don’t graduate because of the test. Students have multiple opportunities over very a two-year period to pass the tests.

[00:05:58] And in fact, one thing I recently learned that I thought was interesting is that the state dropout rate has actually been cut in half since the tests were introduced. So nonetheless, the question is going to appear on the ballot, it looks like in November, and the polls show that the push to eliminate the test MCAS is ahead, and the MTA certainly seems very certain to dramatically outspend the pro MCAS forces.

[00:06:23] So we shall see. My take on that is to issue a challenge because if any issue should galvanize the Massachusetts business community, you’d think this would be it. Particularly given the way Massachusetts is uniquely dependent on the fact that we have the best educated labor force in America.

[00:06:42] and how will you know if you don’t have a test, right? Well, that’s right. That’s right. The test so often gets blamed for achievement gaps and things like that. And it’s the classic case of punishing the messenger, because the test is what reveals the gaps. It’s not responsible for them.

[00:07:01] Alisha Searcy: It’s so interesting. I’m glad you brought this story forward, because I think this is a national movement, whether you’re in a blue state or red state, I’m seeing it everywhere, where there’s this move to erase accountability or at least water it down significantly. And while I, as a parent, I completely understand that one test in one day

[00:07:25] I do believe that we ought to have some type of assessment where we can really see how students are performing, right? It tells us a lot about the student, about the performance of the teacher. It gives parents information so that they know what And so it’s just concerning to me to see these movements across the country, even in a place like Massachusetts, where you have been able to hang your hat for decades on being the highest performing state in the country.

[00:07:54] Now you won’t have some of those assessment results. So, I’ll be very interested to see what happens in terms of this ballot measure, but also what happens in terms of What assessments are going to be used? I’m sure there’ll be some other ones still in place, but this is a very interesting one to take out.

[00:08:10] Charlie Chieppo: Well, I will be interested too. Stay tuned. It’s going to be fascinating to watch.

[00:08:14] Alisha Searcy: Stay tuned. And speaking of staying tuned, we’ll be right back with our guest of the day, Steven Wilson, who is a senior fellow at Pioneer.

[00:08:35] Steven Wilson is a senior fellow at Pioneer, an education entrepreneur, policymaker, and writer. Most recently, he co-founded the National Summer School Initiative to accelerate learning and build teacher capacity in the aftermath of the pandemic. This summer, NSSI is partnering with the New York City Schools to educate 67,000 city students.

[00:08:58] Steven founded and built Ascend Learning, a network of tuition free liberal arts charter schools in Central Brooklyn. The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, or CREDO, at Stanford University identified ASCEND as a gap busting network for its success in closing achievement gaps of race and income.

[00:09:18] His first book, Reinventing the Schools, a radical plan for Boston, drove the development and passage of the Massachusetts Charter Law, which he drafted with the late business leader Bill Edgerly. His new book, On the Future of School Reform, will be published by Pioneer. Steven Wilson, welcome to the show.

[00:09:37] Delighted to be here. So, let’s jump in. Previously, you led Pioneer Institute. You wrote a book about reforming Boston schools, and you worked for Governor Bill Well during the golden age of K 12 Massachusetts educational leadership, including the passage of the landmark 1993 Ed Reform Act. Lots of incredible work.

[00:10:01] Can you talk to us about yourself and how you came into this education reform work and give us some secrets on the state level leadership required to enact these kinds of incredible policies?

[00:10:15] Steven Wilson: Well, it’s wonderful and a little troubling to go back that far, but seems like prehistory, but yes, it was a very exciting time, actually.

[00:10:24] So, to the first part of your question, I got involved because I’d been working in technology entrepreneurship in the 80s, and I dropped out of high school. And I went back, and I was able to take various classes at different graduate schools, including the School of Education at Harvard, and I got very excited about school reform.

[00:10:47] And I wanted to look closely at the Boston Public Schools as a major school system to understand better why its results were not stronger for children. And I was struck by the extraordinary contrast in organizational culture between the kinds of startups that I was used to, of course, their cultures, a can-do culture, and the can’t do culture of large school systems.

[00:11:11] And this is what led me to get excited about the idea that we could create new schools. What I called entrepreneurial schools became charters, of course, where they would be that magnificent bargain that the people who were in charge of them would be held accountable, but they would have a new level of authority and autonomy to actually get the job done.

[00:11:32] So that was the beginning of my work in education, led me to write my first book, as you mentioned, on the beginnings of school reform in Boston. And then to the second part of what you were asking, At the beginning of the 1993 Reform Act, that period was marked by an extraordinary coming together of state leaders who all themselves were immensely privileged to have a strong liberal arts education.

[00:12:02] And I think in their bones, they were deeply committed to ensuring that all children and they all had an education like what they were able to have an education that was rigorous, that was prized curiosity and debate. And that’s what they set out to do. So, I’m talking about Bill Weld, the governor of Massachusetts, Tom Birmingham, the Senate, Chair of the Joint Committee on Education, Mark Roosevelt, the House Chair and Bill Bulger, the Senate President at the time. These were people who shared that commitment. They disagreed on just about everything. They had utterly different politics on the right left spectrum, but that they shared. And that is my view about why Massachusetts happened, is because there was that shared commitment.

[00:12:52] We so need that these days, don’t we? We sure do. We sure do. And I think we think it’s impossible, but it’s not. I think that we have to start with what we’re really trying to achieve. What is our vision? And we have to return to the idea That if all students had a rigorous education and not a rigorous, that I don’t want it to sound unpleasant, anything but, that put them on the path to and through college, where often there is none in many communities, that is the best way to advance real equity in education.

[00:13:28] And I think we need to return to that, and I think we’re at a moment actually, I was just talking a bit about this morning where I think there, there is an opportunity. I think that there is going to be a turning back and asking, let’s get back on that track that we were on towards an academic education for all.

[00:13:50] Alisha Searcy: I look forward to being a part of that conversation. So, speaking of rigor, for the last 15 years, all the gold standard research from Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Duke, all make clear how successfully the Boston charter schools bridged achievement gaps. Can you talk about The High Academic Expectations. Folks like you, Linda Brown, Mike Goldstein, and others brought to Boston’s charter school movement.

[00:14:18] Steven Wilson: Well, I first should say, yes, fantastic topic, really important. I can’t claim any credit for that at all, other than working on the enabling legislation. But Linda Brown and Mike Goldstein, these are among the many Limov, John King. It’s an extraordinary group of people who began Scott Hamilton, who helped to expand KIPP, who came from that Boston charter world.

[00:14:45] And I think the underlying idea is first off, that this can be done. We are going to do it. And I think in school reform, what is often overlooked is the hardest thing of all for success is simply to decide to do it and to accept no excuses. Hence the original name of these high performing schools, controversial name, I think only because it’s misunderstood.

[00:15:10] No excuses, right? All of the educators, teachers, school staff, front desks, clerks, whatever, we’re all going to We’re going to say to one another, we’re going to pledge to stop making excuses. We’re not going to blame poverty and families and not enough money. And those are all real challenges, and they need to be addressed.

[00:15:30] But within what we’ve got in these four walls, we can succeed. That is an ennobling, radical proposition, and if you really abide by it, it works. And you can, in fact, close, even reverse, long standing. Achievement gaps and what that includes. is another essential proposition. The idea that we’re going to attend to the 101 percent solution, so we’re not going to think there’s some silver bullet.

[00:15:59] If we just do one thing well, kids will achieve. No, we have to be thinking about a rich curriculum. We have to be obsessed with quality instruction. We have to do an enormous amount of professional development. We have to do arrival and dismissal correctly. All these things. But if we’re constantly looking at those individual factors and we get them right, then yes, kids are going to do incredibly well. And that’s what happened in Boston.

[00:16:27] Alisha Searcy: Yes. And again, we know what works, right? We just have to decide to do it. I love that.

[00:16:34] Steven Wilson: We just have to decide. I think that’s true of so many initiatives. if you start off by. anybody can tell you why something can’t get done. The person you want, the people you want in the room are the ones who are going to tell you how you will get it done.

[00:16:46] Alisha Searcy: Yes.

[00:16:46] Steven Wilson: And if you have that mindset. We have it made, to be honest.

[00:16:51] Alisha Searcy: Absolutely. So, let’s talk about teachers. There’s certainly this national conversation, around attracting, recruiting, retaining, preparing teachers. And how we do that, given that there was a shortage, and it seems to be being addressed now, but we still have these conversations that we need to figure this out.

[00:17:09] And so, Among the most crucial responsibilities, results driven charter school network leaders like you have, is recruiting, preparing, and retaining those high-quality teachers and principals. So, can you discuss what you look for and where you find the outstanding teachers and principals you need to make big achievement gains for students?

[00:17:31] Steven Wilson: Well, I think perhaps the most important characteristic is a genuine belief that every child deserves in their room can succeed at a high level. So, it starts from a place of faith and commitment to the students in their classroom. And it also requires a level of effort, people who are willing to make a significant commitment for whom this is a real calling, a purpose.

[00:18:01] But, that’s inspired at least as much by the leader in the building. The school leader is obviously of immense importance, someone who is able to invoke that sense of shared mission that we’re going to be on this extraordinarily exciting journey together towards creating a community of a radically successful school, and if you put out that proposition, teachers are excited.

[00:18:26] They want to be a part of that. And then you show them how it’s going to get done. You show them how you’re going to provide them with the tools that allow their children to reliably experience learning. A little installment of academic success in every period. Because if they do, then everything comes together.

[00:18:46] The children feel successful, they feel rewarded, and the teacher feels rewarded. This is a very compelling way to put your energies if you’re beginning to experience that kind of success every day. So, I think the teachers are absolutely out there. And these schools can Not only recruit them but retain them if you have that sense of high purpose and you start to achieve success.

[00:19:12] Look at the Brooks schools in Boston, perhaps the single most successful of these schools. You have principals and teachers who’ve been there for 20 plus years because it just works so well. And it’s so compelling and rewarding. It’s always a good sign when you see that kind of longevity. Yes, absolutely.

[00:19:32] You have to make the job doable. And so, you want high commitment, but you also want to structure it so that it’s achievable. And one of the important things that I think is often overlooked is that there must be adequate planning time in the day. Because one of the big drivers of unusual academic success is time.

[00:19:52] Alisha, for teachers to come together as grade level teams to talk about what they’re about to teach the next day, to talk about how individual students are doing and what they need personally, and how we can refine the instruction. And if you give that time together, it’s a particularly satisfying professional experience, but you can’t have such a heavy, And we should also talk about compensation.

[00:20:20] Schools spend money on the wrong things. Not always, but there’s often a lot of money available. This is a common misconception. The New York schools spend 30,000 per student, so it’s not a shortage of adequate resources is that it’s not being expended as well as it could be. And with more judicious decisions, you can actually make teaching into a fairly well compensating profession as well as a very rewarding one.

[00:20:50] Alisha Searcy: Incredible. For those of us who are not in New York, 30, 000 per child is. Astonishing. I think in Georgia we just got to 10.

[00:21:00] Steven Wilson: So yeah. Oh, wow. Yeah. So, this is why I want to be very careful about overgeneralizing. there are so many parts of the country where We are still radically under resourcing public education, and that needs to be addressed.

[00:21:16] Alisha Searcy: And I would add to that under prioritizing as well. We sometimes have the resources, we just don’t prioritize them correctly, right?

[00:21:23] Steven Wilson: Well, that’s exactly right. For example, we mistakenly think that small class size is among the best drivers of increased outcomes. It turns out it’s not. It’s a commonly held perception, so it’s a tough one because the parent community might intuitively think that’s right, but in fact, effective teachers can create extremely stimulating and successful environments in larger classes.

[00:21:50] And one of the most expensive and lowest return investments that you can make is to reduce class size. And then we have the kind of practicable range. Yes, if you got it down to 15 or something, yes, you do see returns, but in reducing it in the range that you might be able to afford, you see very low returns and enormous costs.

[00:22:12] And what that means is that you have fewer dollars to pay the teachers that you have well. So, I just point that out as a common error.

[00:22:21] Alisha Searcy: Excellent point. I want to turn to politics for just a second. Over the last decade alone, public charter school enrollment in the U. S. has nearly doubled to 3. 4 million students attending roughly 7,700 schools and campuses. Can you talk about the cities you admire? Thank you, Peter, for providing strong political leadership on behalf of public charter schools, as well as the role that quality charter authorizing, and accountability play in charter school performance and expansion.

[00:22:52] Steven Wilson: Yes, and there are many, so it’s hard to choose from among them. But let’s just begin with my hometown, if you will, New York City, because there, you had this already a good number of school chancellors back, but you had Joel Klein, who was a very ambitious, Driven chancellor under Mike Bloomberg as mayor, and he saw the power of charters. And rather than being hostile to them, as so many superintendents are, he said, yes, we need schools like this and some level of healthy competition.

[00:23:33] It’s wonderful. It’s invigorating to all. It’s the press to get better. We don’t want to have a school system that is isolated, that doesn’t benefit from that press and competition. That makes us all stronger. So, he went to organizations like Achievement First that had set up very high performing charter schools in Connecticut and said, come here.

[00:23:57] We’ll give you buildings. We’ll get you open. And AAF did, and their schools that opened in New York were every bit as good as their original schools. He went to many other networks and created a very vibrant, very high performing charter sector. Now, to the other part of your question, New York also benefited from a fantastic authorizer in the form of the Charter School Institute of SUNY, the State University of New York, and CSI, this authorizer, was among the most rigorous and well managed institutions over its entire lifetime. So, it was very selective about who got the privilege of opening schools and it was completely unhesitant to shut down chronically low performing charters. And that’s crucially important, of course. And because of that, we have in New York City a very vibrant charter community.

[00:24:50] Alisha Searcy: All things so important. Charlie, I’m going to turn it over to you.

[00:24:50] Charlie Chieppo: Stephen, I’m going to continue on the same political track here that Alisha was on. A lot of politics to talk about. In this case, in recent years, political support for charter schools, even for very High performing charters in places like New York, like Boston, D.C. seems to be eroding. Could you talk about the political shifts on education policy within both parties, as well as a path forward to rebuild wider coalitions to support charters, standards, testing, and accountability?

[00:25:22] Steven Wilson: Yes, we do have serious political problems and headwinds, but at the same time as Alisha said, we also have a sector that continues to grow, that is in enormous demand by parents.

[00:25:36] I think one of the biggest problems that we have in recent years is that we have lost our way. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning, I think we took the wrong turn. Instead of saying, let us recommit to what is working well, to the kinds of things that we’ve been talking about, to academic rigor, to the 101 percent solutions, to just a relentless focus on the quality of instruction.

[00:26:10] And the focus on every child’s academic future, we went off that track into a diversion of what I would call social justice education that displaced academic instruction and what has happened In many high performing charters, including charters run by Achievement First, some of the names that we’ve mentioned, in fact, the Boston charter sector, which was so high performing for such a long time, we’ve seen results fall often dramatically.

[00:26:45] We have schools that were. I’ll just give an example. we had, we have schools run by Achievement First, an organization that I admire immensely, that were turning in results comparable to schools in Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the wealthiest towns in the country, that are now performing below the big city school systems in which they’re located.

[00:27:06] It’s absolutely tragic. It can be fixed. It must be fixed. But it’s because they lost their way. They were overrun by a kind of toxic ideology that consumed the staff within with recriminations and grievances instead of focusing on doing right by kids and instruction. I will say that at this point there is a growing recognition of this, I think, and in pockets here and there.

[00:27:41] They are school leaders that are saying, you know what, we got that wrong. We lost our way and we’re going to get back on track. It’s just beginning. But I think that’s the first thing is that the schools themselves need to recommit to excellence. and return to what they had done so well. If we don’t have ultra-high levels of academic results, we have nothing to claim in the political wars about charters.

[00:28:10] So we must first ensure that schools are absolutely unassailable in their academic outcomes, in their primary purpose of creating opportunity where there isn’t any. And that’s the first thing we have to fix.

[00:28:26] Charlie Chieppo: I think you’ve hit on an important point there. So, let’s talk a little bit more about that. I know that you’re currently working on a book on K through 12 education, charter schools, and the effect of Wokeism, and how that really, in many ways, ends up harming both educational opportunity and equity and equality.

[00:28:44] And so within the charter movement, as you alluded to in Boston, we’re also seeing, a lot of that. So, can you preview what you’re finding in your research? And I know you’re not near the finish line with this or anything, but just if you could just sketch out what you’re seeing as you’re doing the research for this book.

[00:29:01] Steven Wilson: Absolutely. So, this contrasts with the operation of no excuse’s schools, lack of a better term. Again, no excuses doesn’t mean failing to make opportunity for kids to do the wrong thing. It does not mean that at all. It means that we’re not going to make excuses as adults for why our school is not working. So that said, with the advent of anti-racism, and I want to make sure that’s understood as a capitalized A, if you will, as an ideology, we began to say That the reason that schools are not working is because of racism.

[00:29:34] All disparities of outcomes are the result of racism. So, we need to address racism before we can have student achievement. And of course, racism is pervasive, it’s virulent, it is just below the surface in my view. So, I want to be very clear about that. But if we say That only once we have successfully conquered racism in American life, can we successfully educate students.

[00:30:04] It’s going to be a long wait. And so, what we need to do instead is to say, no, we are going to accept that even under the present conditions, we can have Extraordinary outcomes for kids. Other dimensions of this are the idea that academic education is somehow billed as whiteness, that love of the written word is considered to be whiteness.

[00:30:31] This is a terrible message to send to already marginalized children, to say that this world of achievement, of intellect. of academics is something that doesn’t belong to them is, in my view, an extremely pernicious message. And there is a document widely circulated, both in districts and charter schools, beginning around 2019, by a woman named Tima Okum, making these kinds of oppositions, these kinds of claims, saying, among other things, that, Objectivity is a racist notion, or to put it more precisely, is a symptom of white supremacy culture.

[00:31:14] So what happened in these schools, I’m sorry to give you such a long answer, is there became a hunt to find any element of so-called white supremacy culture within the schools. And staff turned on one another and branded one another as white supremacists and racists. And it became an internal purity contest where what was upheld was this standard of anti-racism.

[00:31:45] That had some very particular effects. It had implications for discipline and culture. It became very hard to hold children responsible for their behavior in the classroom and to have orderly Engage settings where children can feel that they can apply themselves. This is obviously a crucial foundation for any learning to occur where children can feel safe and not bullied.

[00:32:10] And that eroded very quickly. And you began to see resources, The kind of chaotic environments that had marked the worst of urban school districts, where really learning simply can’t occur. It’s a kind of hellscape all year long, and the teacher is at a complete loss. This is not anything that anyone should aspire toward.

[00:32:31] But you also had impacts on the curriculum. You had curricula that were discarded simply because they might have been written by a white person. You had math programs that were installed that were judged to be more anti racist because each lesson featured social justice themes or content, even if the curriculum were less successful and produced worse math outcomes.

[00:32:57] So on every front from the choice of the curriculum materials, To the cultural and behavioral systems, there was an erosion, and with that erosion came a sudden drop in outcomes. Now, of course, at the same time, the schools were reopening after the pandemic, and everybody’s results dropped. But results in previously high-flying charters often dropped far more than other schools because of this turning away from their original commitments.

[00:33:29] Charlie Chieppo: Interesting. Well. There are a lot of dimensions to that.

[00:33:31] Steven Wilson: There really are. I’m sorry to throw all of that at you, Charlie, that contains a lot, but it’s hard to summarize it more neatly than that. But I want to mention the culture of optimism, right? In no excuse’s schools, the message was stubbornly optimistic, that with hard work and study, there is opportunity.

[00:33:53] And optimism, especially in our times, in our very divided times. When anxiety is an enormous problem for young people, especially if you take away optimism, you can’t have learning and you can’t have a future. So, you need to make sure that you, despite the challenges of the world and the immediate surroundings, you have to have a message of student capacity and agency, that they have the ability to shape their future.

[00:34:21] And that was completely suppressed if the 100 percent messaging is that the world is rigged against you, that you have no opportunity and no agency. I think that’s a terribly irresponsible message to send to children.

[00:34:36] Charlie Chieppo: Yeah, exactly. I was just thinking of my own Kids and the way they, certainly this whole thing of the way kids suffer from anxiety and depression and all these things in a way that was, well, I don’t know if it just didn’t exist when we were younger. It certainly was not diagnosed and, you throw that on top of it. You layer that on top of it. And that is a very bleak environment, it seems.

[00:35:00] Steven Wilson: That’s the right word. It’s a very bleak environment. And then another dimension of that is you emphasize fragility. And this of course arose on college campuses.

[00:35:10] You treat yourself as an adult and your students as fragile beings, as deeply fragile, broken beings. And you are particularly these days stress trauma, that everybody brings trauma to the school place. And we first have to address the trauma. of the educators, then we have to address the trauma of students, and only then can we turn to instruction and instructional quality.

[00:35:40] That is also a massive and rather solipsistic diversion. No, we are much stronger than we think. Of course, the Students face enormous adversity, absolutely, but we need to build resilience and confidence. And one of the most important sources of confidence is not telling students that they’re wonderful but having them experience that they are wonderful because they’re experiencing academic success.

[00:36:13] Charlie Chieppo: Yeah, that’s an important distinction.

[00:36:15] Steven Wilson: The causality is reversed. It’s not that students don’t have esteem because you start with esteem. Esteem comes from having some measure of success and then having more and more of it. Oh, exactly.

[00:36:28] Charlie Chieppo: Alright. Well, finally, as noted. You’ve been involved in pioneering and school innovation policies for over 30 years, amazing for a 40-year-old man. What’s the biggest concern you have about where charter schools in K-12 education reform are heading? And to the more optimistic spin, what should policy makers do about it?

[00:36:48] Steven Wilson: Well, first of all, Charlie, I wish I were 40, but then Don’t we all! Add a couple or three decades to that. But I really go back to, I think the most important thing that we need to do is something that Pioneer and organizations like it do so well, and that they hold a particular charge to achieve, which is to build the intellectual case for charters.

[00:37:16] As we executed the charter proposition, the school reform proposition, we fell too much into the nicey nice world, where we were advised by communications firms and PR firms to go along to get along. We shouldn’t criticize school districts, for example. We shouldn’t criticize urban, big urban school systems.

[00:37:40] Well, I think that was very bad advice. I think we have to remind people, what are we trying to achieve? What problem are we trying to solve? The problem we’re trying to solve is that we are denying opportunity. to children. And that is wrong. And that is why we have to rebuild the moral case for what we are doing.

[00:38:00] And that requires conviction. It requires confidence. That we know how to do this, and we are going to do it, and we’re going to rebuild the schools that we have let down, where we’ve gone astray, and then we’re going to propose to do a lot more of it.

[00:38:18] Charlie Chieppo: Well, Stephen, this is great. Thank you so much. Really appreciate you joining us today. You got me worked up. Got me excited, and I just think it’s a great message.

[00:38:28] Alisha Searcy: Thank you I have some follow up questions, but we’ve run out of time, but you have definitely sparked some very interesting dialogue, so thank you for that.

[00:38:35] Steven Wilson: Well, it was really a pleasure to be with you both today. Thank you so much for inviting me.

[00:38:51] Alisha Searcy: Wow, Charlie, that was a very good interview, very interesting, learned a lot, as always. I love the work he’s doing. Steve is a smart guy and a good guy. Excellent. Well, it’s time for our Tweet of the Week. It comes from Education Next. It’s an article talking about innovation efforts and how they will transform K-12 education.

[00:39:14] And the tweet says, all of these groups will voice support for K-12 innovation, but when innovation means upending conventional practices and rethinking core priorities, how Nominal supporters become sources of resistance. So and so, Alisha. How about that? And I love this, Charlie, because it’s so true, I’m a big, one of the reasons I support public charter schools is their ability to innovate, right?

[00:39:41] And having led a network of charter schools, one of the most exciting things for me was being able to waive from some of the state laws, do things creatively. Particularly those things that kind of didn’t make sense. And so, one of the things that the article points out, which is so true, is that while we love the word innovation, and I’m of course not quoting, but while we love the word innovation and we like the idea of innovating.

[00:40:07] I don’t think we recognize that means we’re going to have to challenge some of those traditional ways of how we do things in K 12 education. And as soon as we start having to change those things, then all of a sudden, we don’t like innovation so much. So, I love that quote.

[00:40:22] Charlie Chieppo: That is a great one. Absolutely.

[00:40:24] Alisha Searcy: Charlie, thank you so much for joining me as my co-host today. It’s been great to be with you again.

[00:40:29] Charlie Chieppo: Yeah. It’s been too long. It was great to get together again and catch up. Thank you. Exactly.

[00:40:34] Alisha Searcy: Gotta come back sooner.

[00:40:36] Charlie Chieppo: Yes.

[00:40:38] Alisha Searcy: And thank you all for joining us today. We’re looking forward to our guest for next week, Professor Joel Richard Paul. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of California College of Law and author of Indivisible, Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism. See you next week.

This week on The Learning Curve co-hosts DFER’s Alisha Searcy and Charlie Chieppo interview Steven Wilson. Mr. Wilson delves into his extensive background, including his tenure at Pioneer Institute, his work with Governor Bill Weld, and his contributions to the landmark 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act. Steven shares insights into the high academic expectations and success of Boston’s charter schools, emphasizing the importance of recruiting and retaining quality teachers and principals. He covers the significant growth of charter schools in the U.S., highlighting cities with strong political support and effective charter authorizing practices. Additionally, Wilson addresses the recent political shifts affecting charter schools, the impact of political correctness on educational quality, and previews his upcoming book on K-12 education and charter schools. He concludes by reflecting on the future of charter school reform and the steps policymakers should take to sustain and enhance educational innovation.

Stories of the Week: Alisha shared an article from USA Today discussing the history of Juneteenth; Charlie reviewed an article from WWLP about how the MCAS may be on November’s ballot.


Steven Wilson is a senior fellow at Pioneer, an education entrepreneur, policymaker, and writer. Most recently, he cofounded the National Summer School Initiative to accelerate learning and build teacher capacity in the aftermath of the pandemic. This summer NSSI is partnering with the New York City Schools to educate 67,000 city students. Steven founded and built Ascend Learning, a network of tuition-free, liberal arts charter schools in Central Brooklyn. The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University identified Ascend as a “gap-busting” network for its success in closing achievement gaps of race and income. His first book, Reinventing the Schools: A Radical Plan for Boston, drove the development and passage of the Massachusetts charter school law, which he drafted with the business leader Bill Edgerly. His new book, on the future of school reform, will be published by Pioneer.

Tweet of the Week: