Monday, September 8, 2008

Common Sense, Rational Education Reform


What lies between the Joel Klein/Al Sharpton Education Equality Project (market based, narrow outcome oriented, punish schools and teachers) and the Bigger Bolder approach (schools can't do it alone without significant investment in support services)?

Does "Common Sense Educational Reforms" led by New York based Class Size Matters' Leonie Haimson and Julie Woestehoff's Chicago-based "Parents United for Responsible Education" (PURE) offer a 3rd way? (See the Common Sense blog.)

(Read Leonie Haimson's post at NYC Public School Parents, which fine tunes the CS position.)

Elizabeth Green of the NY Sun reports:

The parents criticize both groups. They dismiss Mr. Klein's as offering only a beefed-up version of President Bush's unpopular No Child Left Behind law. Mr. Klein's prescriptions are "NCLB on steroids," the parents' letter says.

They also reject charter schools, which are embraced by Mr. Klein and his supporters as a means of giving opportunities to poor children. The Common Sense group says charter schools actually further exacerbate income disparities by admitting only children who can do well at their schools and leaving the rest to flounder.

Admission at charter schools is regulated by strict lotteries in New York, but the parents argue that only the savvy students apply to them, and they say that the schools encourage more troubled students to leave.

The parents' statement also criticizes the Broader, Bolder Agenda's argument that schools alone cannot end the achievement gap.

"We cannot and we should not give up on schools being able to make a really transformational differencee in kids' lives," Ms. Haimson said.

Read Green's full story here. See the letter CSER has written to Obama and McCain here (after Green's piece.)

Will CSER become the third person between EEP and BB?
(Okay, it's a stretch - Orson Welles forgive me.)

Is this part of a movement for rational educational reform that will unite parents with progressive teachers who have seen their union drift into limbo between competing reform movements? (NYC Educator promoted it as did Ed Notes - I think I signed it.)

The UFT will jump on board - why not? It won't cost them anything but in terms of actually doing something about reform, don't expect much. After all, in addition to the BB, they also signed on to many of the aspects of the EEP - longer days, evaluations of schools based on narrow agendas, various merit pay schemes, charter schools and whatever crap is thrown against the wall and shows signs of sticking. Most of these concepts are criticized by CSER.

Bigger, Bolder does not claim schools cannot be improved at all and also seems to sign on to some of the accountability themes of EEP, though calling for an expansion beyond narrow test scores of how schools are held accountable. Bigger, Bolder's main themes are:
  • Continue to pursue school improvement efforts (with a big component being reducing class size.
  • Increase investment in developmentally appropriate and high-quality early childhood, pre-school, and kindergarten education.
So it is not clear exactly how different Common Sense is from Bigger, Bolder?

Philissa and Kelly at Gotham Schools called the school wars between EEP and BB a "false choice." Kelly raised the common sense concept:

As a policymaker evaluating schools, it makes no sense to ignore context. Set a high bar for everyone, of course - but recognize that it will take a lot more resources for some schools to achieve that than for others. If you don’t provide those resources - I’m talking small classes, rigorous, proven curriculum, recruitment, development, and retention of the best teachers, and it’s all going to take money - then you’re just setting up schools to fail.

And as a society, it makes no sense to put the whole burden on schools. I will know that our nation really wants to leave no child behind when I see a complete package of funded legislation that takes on health care (physical and mental), housing, environmental justice, early childhood education, and a host of other issues that affect the development and opportunities of our kids. “Our schools are failing,” is nothing but an excuse when the rest is left unaddressed.

To me, it looks like common sense: no excuses schools in a no excuses society.

I believe that most teachers who see the full consequences of how education in urban areas is given short shrift compared to places they send their own children to school do not take an approach to their jobs that things are hopeless. Teachers see real progress in many kids every day and put out their best. The real accountability they feel is to their students.

What they do see is the shame of what could be. What could be if only they didn't have 5 classes with over 30 kids in each, etc. (You know the drill.) There are kids who just don't make progress and they don't know what to do about it in the context of the resources they have at hand. Frustration, yes. But give up? No. The job becomes just too much heavy lifting when you do that. But when you add this market based competitive accountability thing to the equation then a job that was manageable to live with can become oppressive as the years go by.

What many, if not most, teachers who don't leave end up doing is finding ways to get out of doing a full schedule (comp time, dean, etc) or a gig that is less intensive teaching wise - there are a hell of a lot of non-classroom or part-time stuff that could be used to reduce class size. (We'll get into this aspect another time.) Finding teachers who do the blood and guts full schedule teaching for a very long time will be an increasingly rare thing.

My problem with one way accountability - hold teachers, schools, kids responsible while the people who hold the keys to the money escape - is that the fight for proper allocation of resources to close the equality gap between wealthy and poor schools gets lost in distraction over issues like teacher quality and accountability. Spend a fortune on monitoring, weeding out (isn't it cheaper to just find other useful things for people to do if there's a feeling they are not the best teachers), etc. instead of funneling all money into the classroom.

More from Kelly
How could two-way accountability actually work? If a school fails, but other services aren’t in place, schools are underfunded, and so forth, should the school still be held accountable? How could parents and educators in that school hold the government accountable for doing its part?

Let’s move beyond the “false choice” and explore what two-way accountability could look like in practice. Anyone?

I've been wrestling with Kelly's challenge and cannot see how 2-way accountability can work without a mass movement. Such a mass movement can never get moving with a progressive teachers union that bridges the gap between various elements and organizes and mobilizes its membership. That is why I have put a lot of my energies over the past 40 years into trying to spark a movement for progressive change in the UFT (with little success, I might add.) The UFT has bought into one way accountability and only pays lip service to holding political forces accountable - just look at their endorsement list (Pataki and worse.)

Class size is the bell weather issue that defines the separation of quality schools and the work Leonie has done for the past decade has been a focal point in the call for 2 way accountability. She has become one of the most vocal parent leaders in the city and beyond while attracting a lot of support from progressive teachers (as opposed to the UFT which also supports her - but you know the view from the anti-union right wing- they are only interested in class size so they can add members and dues.)

Parents organizations are difficult to sustain as they are mostly in the struggle for the years their kids spend in schools. Can create a movement without allying very strongly with teachers, who unless they are the new "peace corps" temporary teachers, are in it for decades and even if looked at from narrow self-interest, still have enormous incentives to see schools work well? That is why class size is such a unifying issue for all.

Gary Stager in his article in Good Magazine "School Wars" says, "Politicians, billionaires, and mavericks all want to fix public schools. They won’t. Parents will." Okay, I don't agree that parents will - alone. But these points focuses on the lack of accountability when it comes to the funders of the EEP approach are worth closing with:

Traditionally, corporate philanthropy in education consisted of a speaker on career day or sponsorship of a softball team. I’m all for generosity, but I’m also for accountability. And I wonder, to whom are the Gateses and the Broads of the world accountable? They were not elected or even appointed, but their money is changing the ways public schools operate. They may do this for altruistic reasons, but what is a citizen’s recourse if their ideology harms children? And, worse, what happens if a billionaire finally throws up his or her hands and publicly exclaims, “Even I can’t fix the public schools”? Our schools may not be able to survive the sudden cash withdrawal—or the backlash.

One way to navigate this new era of “giving” is by asking a simple question: Would these folks send their own children or grandchildren to their “reinvented” schools? Is a steady diet of memorization, work sheets, and testing the sort of education the children they love receive? Of course not. If affluent children enjoy beautiful campuses, arts programs, interesting literature, modern technology, field trips, carefree recess, and teachers who know them, I suggest that we create such schools for all children. What’s good for the sons and daughters of the billionaires should be good enough the rest of the children, too.

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