Tuesday, February 5, 2013

ICBS Takes the Russo Challenge

At ICBS, we are big fans of Alexander Russo. Along with Andrew Rotherham and Jay Matthews, he is one of the honest brokers of information while retaining sympathy for the aims of the education reform movement.
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.


  1. Here's my thoughts on Alexander's post.

    Regarding your post, if you would back off from value-added evals, I'd expect the overwhelming majority of teachers would agree. Then we could move on together.

    In my opinion, the next step regarding evals like IMPACT must be the aggressive litigation against terminations that come from it. But, adopt New Haven and/or peer review, and we'd have a deal. And, remember, we'd then remove more ineffective teachers in a fair and efficient manner than dangerous systems like IMPACT have removed. Teachers have always been the toughest evaluators of teachers, but there is no way we can trust evaluators hired, trained, and brainwashed by teacher-bashing central offices.

    Again, most administrations aren't teacher-bashers. I have no doubt that IMPACT would work in many districts. We simply can't allow administrators who have established indefensible high-stakes vams to determine whether it is the failure to meet growth targets is the teachers' fault or not, and meet fight on that point till the end. In the hands of teacher-bashers like Rhee or Emanuel,vams are an existiential threat.

    Also, I wouldn't criticize charters for using high-stakes standardized tests. They are wrong for public schools, unless VOLUNTARILY adopted. Bubble-in accountability simply causes too much harm to too many adults and children. It should have never been seen as a viable tool. If you don't believe that bubble-in accountability is morally wrong, promote it for your kids' school. But don't impose it on my kids, or I'll fight like a momma bear. I've seen it do too much damage to kids.

    You probably won't agree, but the policy that would do the most good would be discipline. Creating safe and orderly schools would dwarf the benefits of better evals and it would do far more to attract and retain quality teachers.

    BUT, discipline is the ultimate issue where civility is a prerequisite. It is even more sensitive that teacher evals. It sounds and feels too much like law and order. And, no, No Excuses should not be condemned by people who disagree with it. None of us have systemic answers on discipline. We need to reason together.

    1. Thank you for your reply. I read your blog regularly even though I almost always disagree with you. It is frequently claimed that teachers are the hardest reviewers of other teachers but that is not clear. While New Haven seems to be moving along nicely, Toledo was something of a failure. What is great about IMPACT is that it is also identifying the high performers, the people we need most to retain and to develop full career pathways for. But encouraging experimentation of both models seems well worth doing.

      Since IMPACT and similar models are baked into contracts or state law, I don't see much future in litigating them. Besides, doesn't that just reinforce the idea that adults have property rights in these jobs rather than the privilege of teaching the next generation of Americans?

      Discipline is indeed central. One thing charters have demonstrated is that there is still a market for compelling a culture of respect and discipline. They have been less adventurous in developing alternative models, which are desperately needed. My BIL designs behavioral interventions using PBIS, there should be a lot more of that.

      Anyway, I great appreciate your feedback.

  2. Gosh, did you just admit that you were too eager in your wonderfulness? You're right about one thing, though; corporate reform has been about the money all along.

    Here’s Jeff Bryant’s discussion of “The Inconvenient Truth of Education Reform.” He describes both the effects of “reform” on the real kids who went to DC this week to protest the destruction of their schools, and the conflict-of-interest revelations about Jeb Bush’s specific donors.

    Bryant’s conclusion is,
    “Over 10 years later we see how education reform mandates have played out – powerful corporate interests are mining new profit centers while poor children of color, who were the intended beneficiaries of reform, are getting stuck with the shaft.”

    He asks you to pause to reconsider, whose side are you on?

    1. See, now this is why discussions so quickly run off the rails. The sarcasm, the convenient misreading, following by an over-the-top interpretation of the matter, finishing with a judgmental rhetorical flourish is all-too-typical of the current discussion.

      Human nature and its hypocrisy cuts both ways, particularly when money is involved. I will spare you a long list of union efforts to fatten their wallets through duplicity and give just one example. In WI and numerous other states, the union negotiated that the district buy their health insurance from union-affiliated health insurers, which charged a premium.

      Anyway, we are more than happy to call out those using their official position to profit, either directly or indirectly.