Thursday, August 22, 2013

Brian D'Agostino in DN: Mike’s school management muddle: Choice vs. centralization—a contradiction

I've known Brian for about a decade.  I know his story and that of people in his family. He's seen the bad and the ugly of Bloomberg's management of the school system. I so believe there's some good  - which I believe an archeologist one day may find vestiges of one day.

Mike’s school management muddle:
Choice vs. centralization—a contradiction

By Brian D'Agostino / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Thursday, August 22, 2013, 11:19 AM

No future mayor can improve New York’s public schools without a sound evaluation of the Bloomberg legacy. Yet none of the politicians and pundits who have spoken at length on this subject has noticed the fundamental contradiction at the heart of this mayor’s entire school reform experiment.

On the one hand, Mayor Bloomberg has aggressively promoted choice in the form of charter and other small schools and an open market for hiring teachers. On the other hand, he has aggressively negated choice by centralizing key decision-making about individual schools in the chancellor’s Tweed Courthouse headquarters.

This concentration of power has taken many forms. For example, the chancellor has chosen to close dozens of schools with little input from their stakeholders, often over their strenuous objections. His administration has also converted the hiring of principals and assistant principals — which previously included significant input from teachers and parents — into a process typically dominated by centrally appointed “network leaders.”

Who, then, is really empowered to determine educational quality — the local stakeholders, as the rhetoric about choice suggests, or the educrats at Tweed?

For Bloomberg, this contradiction does not exist. He believes that educational quality can be reduced to numerical data and that rational decisions — whether by policymakers or stakeholders — should be driven by those numbers. The most important of these metrics are gains on state test scores for the lower grades and four-year graduation rates for high schools.

These “hard data” provide the mayor and chancellor with an educational equivalent of the corporate bottom line. And just as Wall Street evaluates companies by the criterion of profit, the administration has chosen which schools to close and which educators to reward and fire primarily on the metric of test scores or graduation rates. If stakeholders don’t agree with these decisions, it must be because they have a vested interest in a dysfunctional status quo.

There is something seriously wrong with this picture. If teachers can lose their jobs or receive merit pay based on improvements or declines in test scores, many will focus on raising the scores even if it means neglecting their students’ individual learning needs. This corruption of instruction will then corrupt the data, because teaching to the test or cheating can produce better data than putting children first, invalidating comparisons between teachers based on the test scores.

The same applies to principals and schools. Test scores and graduation rates provide at best a partial picture of educational quality and at worst can be highly unreliable and misleading.

There is a better way: Truly believe in the language of parental choice you endlessly recite.

Free educators to do the best jobs they can, then let stakeholders decide what is good or bad about their own schools and what should be done to improve them. Some teachers and parents think that traditional skill-building is the essence of a good education; others emphasize progressive pedagogy and critical thinking. Some think high test scores are important; others prefer portfolio-type assessments.

Let a thousand flowers bloom. The Common Core testing fiasco shows what happens when educrats impose centrally planned systems. If a school is bad by any criteria, teachers won’t want to work there and parents won’t want to keep their children there. A school of choice that does not meet the needs of its stakeholders will lose enrollment until it has to close its doors. There is no need or value for policymakers to play God on the basis of centrally managed, “objective” criteria.

Bloomberg’s unprecedented arrogation of power over the public school system has gone hand in hand with an unprecedented expansion of testing, test preparation, data collection and incentive systems. Research has shown some improvement in test scores under this regime, but this may mean that students have received more testlike instruction, not that they have learned more.

Meanwhile, teacher morale has plummeted, good principals are leaving the system and students and parents have become more alienated from their schools than ever before.

The next mayor needs to break with this paradigm. Instead of a school system that holds educators accountable for their test scores to remote power holders, New York needs a system in which administrators, teachers, parents and students hold one another accountable for quality, as defined by the stakeholders themselves.

D’Agostino teaches history at Empire State College and taught for 11 years in New York City public schools. He is author of The Middle Class Fights Back: How Progressive Movements Can Restore Democracy in America .

1 comment:

  1. Alas, regardless of who replaces Bloomberg, we will not get a system in which administrators, teachers, parents and students hold one another accountable for quality, as defined by the stakeholders themselves. Not with APPR in place. Not with RttT mandates in place. Not with Obama NCLB waiver mandates in place.

    The fix is in for a state-imposed, top-down system.


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