A Simple Recipe Needs Complex Conditions to Work

Over the past two weeks I have become obsessed with sourdough starter. My son and I diligently followed a recipe that involved smashed grapes (organic required), many fruit flies, weeks of exacting directions, special jars, and then … nothing. Bubbles, but no rise. I have since Googled every article entitled “troubleshooting sourdough starter” or “bubbles, no rise” and have even joined a sub-Reddit called “Breadit.” 

I have dreamed about my starter. I am not proud. And I’ve decided it’s a perfect analogy for a common debate over how to improve urban school systems. 

What I have learned is that sourdough starter is both simple and very complex. Fermentation and rise will happen with the right combination of ingredients, temperature, and time. That is the simple part. The complex part is that sometimes it takes three days and sometimes three weeks for a starter to be viable. Sometimes it goes bad for no apparent reason. The particularities of what is in the air, how often we  feed the starter, oxygen levels, ambient yeast spores, the “hydration ratio,” and God knows what else can make the difference between a vibrant starter that will create the perfect round and tasty loaf and one that creates an inedible brick. 

I have been told to have patience. Keep trying. Eventually it will work. What’s maddening is that there is no single recipe I can follow to get guaranteed results, every time.

I was thinking about my baking trevails when I saw Kaya Henderson had a nice piece in the Washington Post this weekend. She talked about the impressive academic gains in DC public schools, and rightly took credit for the talent and curricular changes under her and Michelle Rhee’s leadership. 

What the gains show, she asserted, is that the trend toward decentralization and “portfolio” districts (a concept my organization originated and studied) is wrongheaded. In other words, be patient. Student achievement will eventually rise with the right ingredients and time. 

This morning, Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Mike Petrilli tweeted, yes! “Let districts be districts.” 

On one hand, I sincerely applaud Henderson and Rhee and their team for an incredible feat—nearly two decades of sustained attention to the basics has paid off: leadership, teacher quality, great curriculum. Ingredients do matter. They got bubbles and they got rise. Hats off to the chefs. 

But I really fear for the many kids in districts whose superintendents read this recipe and spend the next 20 years trying to follow it. Because here’s the thing. Henderson doesn’t mention all of the conditions that has made their recipe work. 

First, D.C. Public Schools have been under mayoral control for more than a decade. Through several election cycles, each mayor has, remarkably, provided political backing for improvements that started under Rhee, continued under Henderson, and seem poised to ascend to new heights under Lewis Ferebee, the current chancellor. The sustained leadership and stable strategy is remarkably distinct from the tumultuous leadership shifts and politics we typically see under elected urban boards. 

Second, DC is one of the most quickly gentrifying cities in the nation, bringing a dramatically higher-income student population to the city. There is little doubt that helps explain the rise in achievement results—though some analyses suggest the district deserves its share of credit, too. 

Third, nearly half of all DC public school students now attend public charter schools, which are also achieving at very high levels under the  oversight of the independent D.C. Public Charter School Board. The presence of these schools has raised parent expectations of what’s possible, led to innovations that have been adopted by district schools, and given students alternatives to the district’s more uniform curriculum and approach. 

And while average achievement gains have indeed risen, the district is far from perfect. High schools continue to lag. In district and charter schools combined, students with disabilities are not well served, with fewer than 10 percent testing proficient in reading and math on PARCC assessments. The bifurcated charter/district system has led to many pain points for families that can only be resolved by a broader citywide (portfolio!) strategy—issues CRPE surfaces in a new brief released this week. 

What chancellors Henderson and Rhee accomplished required both a simple formula and many specialized conditions. If the conditions are right, that recipe should work. But the fact is, in urban districts, they rarely are. 

School boards whipsaw back and forth, making decisions based on political interests, not student interests. Often, a few high-quality public schools of choice provide options outside the district. Often, the best educators and principals leave the district because the central office and union contracts are too rigid. Great superintendents succumb to changing political winds or get frustrated that they can’t do what they know works, and they move on. There is a reason that the track record of urban districts has been dismal. It’s not for lack of trying what Henderson touts. It’s the system that makes their efforts futile. 

Moving decision-making power to the school level via portfolio-like reforms isn’t a magic formula, either. Much depends on local conditions and the details of implementation, but districts as diverse as Indianapolis, Denver, New Orleans, and San Antonio have seen what it can do.  All of these cities treat schools as coherent organizations and shield them from politics that can undermine their efforts. They empower educators to create new solutions inside the district structure. They give students who need alternative approaches the opportunity to find them. And they provide centralized support where necessary to help their schools succeed.

I don’t know how much longer I will keep at my quest for sourdough starter. A lot of flour could be wasted because I am too stubborn to give up. Maybe I will persevere. Or maybe I’ll find another path. Maybe I’ll try the biga method (which my pragmatic colleague Betheny Gross recommends). And in the end, not everyone likes sourdough. I’ll keep baking and trying new things. 

So yes, by all means, let districts be districts, when they work. But when they don’t, try something else.

Skip to content