Governance

I was prepared for a rant against all things reform when I started reading the New York Times Q & A interview with Maria Velez-Clarke, the principal of the Children's Workshop School in Manhattan's East Village, about the school's C-grade from the City.? The school is ?one of several small schools,? said the Times intro, ?started in the 1990s by people who had worked at the widely praised Central Park East School.?

Central Park East?? The school started by Deborah Meier, current scourge of standardized tests, charters, accountability, and just about everything associated with Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein, who initiatiated the school report cards program? ?(See the Bridging Differences blog Meier shares with Diane Ravitch and this wonderful 1994 profile of Meier and her hugely successful Central Park East experiment written by veteran NYC educator Sy Fliegal.)? Children's Workshop offers ballet and yoga, for heaven's sake!

Instead of a progressive principal complaining about Gotham's new accountability system squishing her student's creative impulses, however, we hear an 18-year veteran school leader who was shocked by the C grade the school received in 2010 and determined to do something about it:

I shared it with absolutely no one because it was so devastating to me. I took it home. I sat with my husband and I said, ?My God, do you know what this is going to do to morale?? And he looked at me and he said, ?O.K., you have the weekend: have a pity

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The wonderful hubris of the new National Education Policy Center study on Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice, is not the assertion that discipline data should be an essential metric in gauging a school's success ? which it should ? but that current disciplinary policies and practices are racist. [pullquote]Losen bluntly states, student suspensions ?are significantly influenced by factors other than student misbehavior.?[/pullquote]

The author of the report, Daniel Losen of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, is more diplomatic than that, but he does suggest that many current discipline policies may be ?unlawful? because of their ?disparate impact? on African Americans and the disabled.? And I would have to agree.

In our post-Columbine, zero-tolerance, character-first education world, Losen proposes a radical thesis (that the race of the student counts more than his or her behavior) and mounts a remarkably persuasive argument for doubting that current mainstream beliefs ? and the policy and practices that they have spawned ? about disciplining our students are sustainable. ?In fact, Losen bluntly states, student suspensions ?are significantly influenced by factors other than student misbehavior.?

If that sounds radical, even counterintuitive, read the study.? Among the findings reported here are these:

  • ?School suspensions nationwide have risen steadily since the early 1970s, and racial disparities have grown considerably as well.?
  • ?In 2006, at least one district in each of 46 states imposed long-term suspensions or expulsions on students with disabilities significantly more often than on nondisabled students." [pullquote]Children who
  • ...

I happened on a small story in the Times on Sunday, called ?Deadlines Get Results,? which immediately drew me in, not because deadlines are the bane of a writer's life, which they are, but because the most frustrating part of education governance is the system's resistance to getting things done, including changing.

In fact, the headline over the online version of this story is, appropriately, ?Making Change Happen, on a Deadline.? It is not some kind of generic affection for the status quo that causes entropy.? Not getting things done seems to be an affliction in the very bones of the thing. The drinking fountain that has been broken for two years.? The doors that stay locked despite pleas to open them.? The pothole at the school driveway entry that has been unfilled for more than a year?. The curriculum that remains unwritten?. The test scores that defy change?.? It is true: if you can't fix the little things, your chances of resolving the big problems are slim.

This is not a new subject in education.? See Charles Payne's So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools or Rick Hess's The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas.

But Tina Rosenberg's Times story is instructive because it is not about schools or education; it is about construction projects in underdeveloped Africa.? Could have fooled me. This line from the story sure sounded...

As much as it pains me every time I hear Checker Finn say it, school boards may indeed be irrelevant.? And Checker's new essay in National Affairs lays out a pretty persuasive case for why they will disappear; not, why they should go away, but why they will simply die on a vine that is no longer part of a healthy education system.? What is most unnerving about Checker's argument, is that this will happen, somewhat counterintuitively, while making ?education local again.?

In short, the new essay, ?Beyond the School District,? is an ambitious rethinking of school governance, top to bottom, that weds the best of our past (true local control) with the best of our present (charters, vouchers, mayoral control, technology) to create a workable school system for the 21st century.

And I hate say it, but from where I sit, on a local school board, it makes sense.

As Checker says, with an understatement that should require no argument, our current system isn't working. ?And his attribution of cause surely matches my experience: we have a ?confused and tangled web? of local, state, and federal rules and regulation, not to mention a web of ?adult interests? like teacher unions, textbook publishers, tutoring firms, bus companies, and the like, that has thwarted the best of reform intentions. Despite spending billions of dollars to fix things, the results continue to be lousy: ?millions of children still can not read satisfactorily, do math at an acceptable level,...

So, it's official:? today the Obama Administration, according to Sam Dillon at the New York Times, ?will offer to waive central provisions of the No Child Left Behind law for states that embrace his educational agenda, essentially ending his predecessor's signature accountability measure, which has defined public school life nationwide for nearly a decade.?

Sounds pretty drastic.? And, indeed, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, head of the House Education and Workforce Committee, says it

sets a dangerous precedent. Make no mistake ? this is a political move that could have a damaging impact on Congressional efforts to enact lasting reforms to current elementary and secondary education law.

But before leaping for joy about the death of the wicked NCLB witch of the east (or west), or condemning the waiver option, we need remember who NCLB was meant to help; that is, kids.? Of course, the law's reach was farther than its grasp. Of course, its standards were onerous. Of course, teacher unions hated it.? Of? course, state and district education bureaucrats saw it as a nettlesome intrusion.? But there are today tens of thousands of students who have had an opportunity to get educated that they would not have had without NCLB; there are thousands of special ed kids who have been given the opportunity to learn what their more abled compatriots learn; and many more thousands of poor and minority children have been brought to the front of the bus of putative integrated schools thanks to...

What was so odd about Dennis Walcott's announcement that New York City was opening 50 new middle schools is that the most recent research suggesting that a middle school ?grade configuration (generally, 6?8) is probably not the way to go was done in his city.? In last year's fall issue of Education Next Columbia Business School researchers Jonah Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood reported their findings from a review of almost ten years of data for Gotham school children who were in grades 3 though 8, in all different school grade configurations, and concluded rather ominously:

In the specific year when students move to a middle school (or to a junior high), their academic achievement, as measured by standardized tests, falls substantially in both math and English relative to that of their counterparts who continue to attend a K?8 elementary school. What's more, their achievement continues to decline throughout middle school. This negative effect persists at least through 8th grade, the highest grade for which we could obtain test scores.

I found other research that supports the Rockoff and Lockwood findings -- that grade configuration matters --? in my report for Education Next earlier this year.? I traced the history of the modern middle school movement, known as ?middle schoolism,? which was born with a Cornell University speech by educator William Alexander in 1963.? It is a movement that came of age in an era in which the psychological society teamed up with the sociological one and...

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