September 27, 2010; Source: The New Yorker | It’s impossible to read a Nick Lehmann essay without coming away with insights into the nonprofit sector or where the nonprofit and public sectors intersect. His latest in the New Yorker looks at education and questions some of what counts as reform. He discusses the narrative of the public school system crisis as hardly new (remember the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 as a product of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society?).

One paragraph is both stunningly written and of great significance to nonprofits:

The school reform story “should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes, including Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem Children’s Zone; Wendy Kopp, of Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program; and Michele Rhee, the superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools. The details of this story are accurate, but they are fitted together too neatly and are made to imply too much. For example, although most of the specific charter schools one encounters in this narrative are very good, the data do not show that charter schools in general are better than district schools. There are also many school-reform efforts besides charter schools: the one with the best sustained record of producing better-educated children in difficult circumstances, in hundreds of schools over many years, is a rigorously field-tested curriculum called Success for All, but because it’s not part of the story line it goes almost completely unmentioned. Similarly, on the issue of tenure, the clear implication of most school-reform writing these days—that abolishing teacher tenure would increase students’ learning—is an unproved assumption.”

The subtext of that paragraph is this: As a sector and as a society, we get caught up in what we are told is working and not working, and rarely do we look at, much less second-guess, the assumptions behind what we think we know. Solutions to real life problems are a lot more complex, a lot messier than a combination of heroes with neat, stamp-‘em-out answers. Sacred cows—such as charter schools—and all-purpose devils—such as the teachers unions—need to be challenged by nonprofits.—Rick Cohen