Responding to Diane Ravitch's drive-by shooting of Cleveland’s school-reform plan

Diane Ravitch's blog earlier this week on "Desperate Times in
Cleveland and Ohio" was troubling in how much it got wrong. Specifically, she
totally misconstrues what Mayor Frank Jackson's bold school reform plan is trying to do and who it is trying
to help. According to Diane's post, Jackson’s plan is nothing more than an
attack on hardworking teachers and an effort to enrich for-profit charter
school operators (namely the Akron-based, for-profit White Hat). This assertion
is simply wrong.

I live near
Dayton - another struggling former industrial power that is a shadow of its
former self - and spend a lot of time in Cleveland meeting and working with
some of that community's fantastic civic leaders, philanthropists, educators,
and business people who are trying desperately to save their city. There is no
doubt that Cleveland is hurting and it is bleeding families and children. The
city has 30,000 fewer children today than it did just a decade ago, and many of
the children left behind are struggling academically. In 2010-11, 56 percent of
students in Cleveland attended a school rated D or F by the state. This is
despite the fact the district spends a little more than $14,000 a pupil.

Because
Cleveland is shrinking, its schools are facing a serious fiscal crisis. The
district faces at least a $64.9 million budget deficit in 2012-13, and without
additional cuts and or revenues the district's five year budget forecast shows
a shortfall of close to $300 million by 2016. Despite the fiscal challenges,
Cleveland has seen the emergence of some truly high-performing schools. Some of
these schools are innovative district-operated schools like Campus
International, a high-demand K-3 school housed on the Cleveland State
University campus, and MC2STEM high school located at the Great
Lakes Science Center. The district also has some successful “traditional”
schools, like Louisa May Alcott Elementary (which we featured in our 2010 report on high-performing, high-need urban
schools).

Other
high-performing schools in Cleveland are charters like the Breakthrough Schools
network, in which student achievement rivals and even surpasses that of the
highest performing suburban schools in Ohio. In fact, in 2010-11 nine of
Cleveland's top 15 schools were charters. While Mayor Jackson’s plan puts a
priority on partnering with such high-flying charter schools, NOTHING in it
favors for-profit or low-performing charters, and certainly the plan is no gift
to White Hat or any other management company, as Diane alleges.

The fact is that
Jackson’s plan seeks to confront a stark economic and academic reality by focusing
on what works in education and cutting out what doesn't. Those schools that
work for children and deliver academic results - be they district schools or
charter schools - will be encouraged to expand their enrollments and even add
new buildings. Those schools that are struggling the most (be they district or
charter) will face either serious restructuring or closure. The plan focuses on
performance and seeks to identify and keep in Cleveland the community's very
best teachers while in time recruiting more to its schools through programs
like Teach For America and the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program.

In order to
maximize its talent pool, however, Jackson is calling for giving the school
district more flexibility over personnel by doing away with damaging policies
like Last In/First Out (this will require a change to state law). Currently, as
Cleveland has shrunk it has had to dismiss its teachers based solely on
seniority. This has hurt the district in two ways. First,
such quality blind policies mean that some of the district's most effective
teachers have been let go for more senior,and possibly less effective teachers. Second, the per teacher
costs in Cleveland are higher than most other school districts in Ohio because
it is populated by older teachers who have accrued larger salaries by
accumulating years of service.

What Diane calls
an attack on teachers is actually an honorable response to a brutally tough
dilemma facing a city that has to shrink its overall number of schools and
teachers. Mayor Jackson's plan is an honest effort to do this in a way that
will result in fewer, but better, schools. It is in fact a brave effort to try
and make the best of a truly difficult situation. Fair-minded people in Ohio
understand what Mayor Jackson and his district CEO, Eric Gordon, are up to.
This is why the State Board of Education - both Democrats and Republicans -
gave Eric Gordon a rousing applause when he presented the plan to them earlier
this week.

Cleveland and
its leaders are trying to do right by their children, their city, and their
future. They need and deserve all the support and encouragement they can get.
They certainly don't deserve to have bullets shot at them by a drive-by pundit.

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