Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Obama Follows Herd

In his 2011 State of the Union address this evening, President Obama came out with his New Reform credentials displayed proudly on his chest.  After making passing comments about the need for proper parenting, he tore right into what he considers the the main problem: bad schools and bad teachers!
Our schools share this responsibility. When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don't meet this test. That's why instead of just pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top. To all fifty states, we said, "If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we'll show you the money."
Notice he didn't say that the biggest problem in American schools is concentrated around family socio-economic status.  He didn't say that poor schools are struggling against overwhelming odds, trying their best to salve the wounds of communities in crisis: the stress of multiple jobs, single-parent families, low educational attainment, non-academic culture, and plenty of abuse and neglect to go around.  He didn't mention that any of this is driving the achievement gap, and that educating the poor in America is a herculean task, especially when given roughly the same resources as are targeted to more affluent schools.  He didn't mention that "turning around" a school isn't a simple thing, and that is often something being asked to do with - certainly in these economic times - much less than adequate resources.

No, he blamed the schools.  He championed Race to the Top:
For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning.
Really?  Higher standards?  I'm not quite sure what he means by standards.  I don't think he means educational content.  Because that isn't the problem.  Does he mean holding teachers accountable?   So you stick them in a classroom full of 40 poor kids who come from disadvantaged homes and whose parents don't prepare them, they hate school, and you expect them to not only keep them making adequate progress but - as is often needed - bring them up multiple grade levels?  All without extra funding to pay for extra support for tutoring, longer hours, smaller class sizes or longer days, of course. Doe she mean standards as in "expectations"?  Oh, we expect a lot from poor students.  We expect them to pay attention in class, take notes, do their homework, work hard.  And when they don't, they go to summer school, fail and eventually drop out.  In elementary school you can hold them back once - but kids grow, you know.  I honestly don't know what he's talking about.
You see, we know what's possible for our children when reform isn't just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.
This is especially rich.  RTT is not a top-down mandate - the work of teachers and principles.  I understand that he may have felt these words sounded good.  But so does "I am relaxing on the beach in the Bahamas".  But I don't get to say them.  Especially not on national television.

He then pointed to Bruce Randolph School in Denver, CO:
Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college.
Oh, boy.  I could only have imagined.  The school was indeed a high-poverty, poor performing school, and then underwent a remarkable turn-around.  Not only are almost all the student graduating, but 87% are apparently going to college.  OK.  I was wrong.  You don't need to "pour money into schools".  All you need to do is get rid of the union, get rid of the bad teachers, and ummm... give up some union and district rules.  That's it!  Hurray!

Wait a second.  That's it?  All you have to do is fire all the bad teachers and, like fantasy phoenixes, poor schools simply soar into paradise?  Arghhh... those terrible teachers and unions - ruining everything!

But, why hasn't this happened more often?  Plenty of schools without unions are struggling.  Southern schools certainly have their share of problems, but union strength isn't one of them - many lack representation entirely.  In fact, the results are very mixed as to whether union vs. non-union schools perform very differently at all.  A more interesting question might be just to ask what was happening at Randolph that impacted student achievement so much.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to come up with much.  These two articles, both from the Denver Post, and by the same writer, don't offer many clues.  After a shake-up, most of the staff did indeed leave - only 4 out of 40 chose to remain.  Vague references are made to the school's decision to opt out of regular district and union rules.
The high-poverty school was the first to petition for and be granted innovation status — an agreement by union teachers to waive certain district and union rules.....giving the school flexibility with its budget, hiring decisions, time, calendar and incentives..... They gave struggling pupils Saturday and after-school tutoring and eventually offered Advanced Placement courses..... The idea was to give teachers more time, money and other resources to work with struggling students. The school has been climbing in achievement over the years.
Hmmm.  Something that also stands out in the articles is a sense from staff and students that the staff and new administration seemed to really care.  One of the elements of a quality school that often goes unmentioned, and is almost impossible to quantify, is the degree to which a school's culture emphasizes kindness and respect towards students.  This is the stuff that is most rare and difficult to nurture in poor schools, as the environment is already filled with enough stress, frustration and apprehensiveness.  But it makes all the difference.

So, one wonders where they got the funding to provide extra tutoring and Saturday classes.  But aside from that, there doesn't seem to have been much more going on than a shift in momentum at the school.  And while we can wish them all the best, these sorts of examples of high performance at poor schools can be sadly short-lived.  Given the extent to which the students - and thus teachers - at poor schools are at a disadvantage when it comes to success, should we be placing all of our faith in finding the perfect teachers, those with the higher-than-average ability to deal with what are generally the most difficult and stressful teaching environments?  And in doing so, should we punish the vast majority of teachers who deserve their tenure and union representation?

The president continues to add his voice to the chorus of well-meaning but misguided and naive New reformers who, in the process of trying to create a better system, are making things worse.  For every Bruce Randolph, there are hundreds more who are crumbling under the weight of meager resources, broken communities, and ever-more top-down mandates and scrutinized protocols designed to assess and promote achievement, but which are killing the soul of education.

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