On February 1st, he wrote on his blog about the ongoing feud between reformers and - for lack of a better term - traditionalists.
As it stands, both sides occupy some pretty shaky ground. Who's going to get this discussion restarted? The rabble rousers on both sides will continue to exaggerate and pontificate -- that's their job, or at least their habit -- but what's really needed is someone who can figure out how to admit past mistakes and move forward.The reform "brand" has become tarnished, sure, but so has the reputation and credibility of all too many reform opponents. And right now, those of us in the vast middle sort of hate you all -- both sides -- in roughly equal measure.
While we are proud reformers, we always appreciate the need to find common ground and develop a shared agenda. So with that in mind, we will endeavor to identify some things that reformers could do better.
1. It takes time: We were certainly enraptured by Wendy Kopp's persistent use of the phrase "the fierce urgency of now," which, of course, was famously uttered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, running large public bureaucracies, creating successful non-profits or businesses, and actually impacting students in a significant and positive way takes time and some patience. Traditionalists were right to warn of going too fast in some circumstances. It seems to us that more patience in implementation would have been more helpful for many reformers, Michelle Rhee for one.
In Chicago, Mayor Emanuel, who we like a lot, has been so heavy-handed with his efforts to increase the school day and close schools that he has imperiled the larger reform agenda and given CTU the opportunity to create an alliance with activists. He would have been much better served if he had spent the first year of his administration repairing CPS central management and talking to parents about his plans to increase the school year, expand charters, etc. Instead, he hurried an incompetent bureaucracy to do something that was complicated and unpopular and it will take years to undo the damage.
2. It's not just about the kids: If we want more common ground, everyone needs to stop hiding behind the kids. Once people declare that "I'm in this for the kids," they have already become crusaders rather than discussants. Besides there are other moral goods here that directly effect adults; the unions are not wrong to ask about the impact of a measure on teachers and reformers are not wrong to look for more efficient ways to spend the money they already have (we are thinking of Hess, for instance). Moral crusades often make for bad public policy.
3. Choice will only have a modest impact on student achievement: We are strong supporters of choice - vouchers, charters, home schooling, etc - but choice per se will only improve outcomes at the margins. That is in part because only a limited number of parents will participate in such efforts and some of those will prioritize things other than academic excellence (safety or convenience, for instance). Charters might have a bigger impact but only if they devise an innovation that profoundly impacts performance and then this innovation is adopted widely.
4. Charters have demonstrated limited strength so far: We love charter schools. By and large they go into the poorest communities and work with students who have little going for them in terms of demographics. But as we've noted before, their primary impact thus far has been to take students who are at, say, the 15th percentile of achievement and moving them to the 35th percentile of achievement. This is huge but doesn't make the charter movement a game changer yet. At this point, charters have just under 5% of the total number of public school students. Even the strong gains in New Orleans consist primarily of taking very poorly educated students and turning them into merely below average students.
As for gifted children and the kids from middle-class and upper middle-class families, charters have had very little to offer. In terms of improving economic impact, this is where we need to improve achievement the most. Our best are no longer the best in the world. At this point in time, education reformers have little to offer in terms of concrete proposals to address this.
5. Teacher evaluations are more complicated than anyone expected: Again, we support teacher evaluations that include a VAM component. But it has been undeniably messy and we are unlikely to have a set of metrics that will be truly objective. And assigning percentages for each part of an evaluation seems arbitrary. Having said that, we feel that DCs IMPACT is an excellent start but there is certainly much room for continuing discussion. There are also models, such as the one in New Haven, that are more driven by peer review that deserve to be part of the conversation.
6. There are teachers, parents, administrators, citizens, and students on all sides of the conversation: There are people from all parts of the education spectrum on both sides of the conversation. There is no one authentic "teacher" or "parent" perspective that can cast aside other perspectives.
7. No one really does discipline well systemwide: In the wake of the recent Washington Post article about expulsions in DC charter schools, Rotherham noted that DC public schools also have ways of moving students who are behavior problems out the door. In Chicago, we have rampant truancy in our public schools which serves as a release value for problem students. This is an urgent issue that chastens everyone involved and should be a fertile setting for finding common ground.
Note: Noble St. schools and other "no excuses" schools are NOT prisons, and people should stop suggesting they are.
8. There are great educators whose work deserves more attention from everyone: Last year Deborah Kenny gave a great talk in Chicago where she referenced the work of Theodore Sizer. He was a bold visionary whose ideology doesn't easily map onto our current categories. We need to remember examples of earlier reformers and build on their successes. A younger Deb Meier and Sigmund Engelmann are two other visionaries whose work deserves to be brought back into the conversation.
No doubt we could come up with other areas where reformers should be more amenable to working with traditionalists but this list is a good faith effort to start a conversation.
One final point: everyone gets so heated because there is a lot at stake: jobs, money, prestige, the future of our country, and power. We have a suggestion for those people who want a polite discussion about the abstract merits of this or that: debate whether we should continue to mint the penny. But as long as we are talking about education, we are talking about the things that really matter. And that will never be a very civil discussion.
That's what everyone agrees on.