Silver Bullets and Unicorns

Silver Bullets and Unicorns

Silver bullets and unicorns have three important characteristics in common. 1.) They don’t exist; 2) No one older than 16 believes that they exist; and 3) anyone claiming that someone else believes that they exist is only propping up a straw man to be easily knocked down.


It is odd, then, that David Kirp chose to begin his New York Times op-ed on the transformation of Union City’s public schools with exactly such a fallacy. According to Kirp, “some argue that our schools are irremediably broken and that charter schools offer the only solution.”

Who argues that?

With only a very few exceptions, this is just not something that charter advocates believe. It’s a unicorn, a purple unicorn pony.

I don’t know anyone who believes in purple unicorn ponies or silver bullets, especially when it comes to finding ways to improve outcomes for America’s most disadvantaged kids.

As Emily Richmond, the National Education Writers Association’s public editor, tweeted the other day: “Just once at [an ed-reform] event I’d like to hear [an] expert say there IS a silver bullet, just so we can all laugh knowingly.”

The truth is that no matter how much some actors insist that we are engaged in a great war for the future of public education and the soul of America, the effort to improve and expand educational opportunity–whether through the creation of high-performing charter schools or through small district initiatives like the one in Union City, is not a zero sum game in which proponents of “neighborhood” schools and proponents of charter schools must battle to the death.

I don’t know anyone who believes in purple unicorn ponies or silver bullets, especially when it comes to finding ways to improve outcomes for America’s most disadvantaged kids.

The purpose of both charter and district schools is actually the same: to educate students well. There are fringe actors on both extremes of the education reform debate who disagree with or ignore this basic truth, but it is true nonetheless.

So let’s quit attacking each other with silver bullets, unicorns, and other fairy tales. Instead of battling about imaginary issues–like school-type and privatization–that are unrelated to school quality, we should be celebrating and learning from successes wherever they exist. The need for quality schools is enormous. There is more than enough room for multiple approaches, and there is far too much work to be done to waste time playing make-believe and arguing about issues unrelated to our common goal. Whether it’s the success of a small district in New Jersey or a small network of charter schools in Colorado, anyone who cares about expanding opportunities for kids should be happy to see schools–any schools–succeed.


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