Will Rhee be a footnote in school reform history?
My guest is Larry Cuban. He is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, Virginia) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for 20 years. His latest book is "As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin.".
By Larry Cuban
D.C. Schools Chancellor is probably going to leave her job sometime soon now that her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was defeated in the Democratic primary by Council Chairman Vincent Gray. But that doesn't mean business-driven reform is going out with her.
"I will be fine ... and Adrian Fenty will be fine," she said. And she is correct. Both are smart and ambitious but with a political deafness that is debilitating. Nonetheless, they will likely go on to high-paying jobs. They will also create explanations for the fiery years they served in the nation’s capital trying to improve the school system, years that offered so much promise but ended with a thud.
But like Hugh Scott, the first African American superintendent in Washington D.C., who served in the early 1970s, Rhee will be a footnote in a doctoral dissertation on the D.C. schools a generation from now. No more Wonder Woman. No more super-hero to rescue the D.C. schools. And thousands of teachers will teach their daily lessons as she exits and the new mayor will scramble to advertise another vacancy to be filled by the next "hero."
Will Fenty’s loss diminish faith in mayoral control turning around failing schools? Hardly.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, continue to run the New York City schools. Boston and Chicago mayors will still have their appointees overseeing schools.
Business and civic leaders’ faith that mayoral control is the key to "real" reform may be tarnished somewhat by what happened in Washington D.C., Detroit, and Baltimore, but it continues to entrance educational entrepreneurs and policy wonks inside the Beltway; just look at the $100 million donation that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, just handed over to the mayor of Newark to fix the public schools there. Other mayors will learn from Fenty’s loss that voters can turn on you if you fail to heed your community and give your superintendent too long a leash.
Will Rhee’s departure lessen policymakers’ embrace of the business model of schooling that includes charters, pay-for-performance, accountability through testing, more technology, and national standards? Nope.
The D.C. episode is a mere road bump that will fade in the rear- view mirror. Endorsed by both political parties, these business-driven reforms will continue to ride high for the next few years regardless of what happens in classrooms.
When it comes to classroom teaching, however, super-hero superintendents--beyond their amazing energy, drive, and commitment--are myopic. They, like dozens of policy wonks see charters, pay-for-performance, testing, etc., altering what teachers do daily in their classrooms and magically leading to higher test scores.
The logic behind these reforms is that you adopt, fund, and implement them in schools and presto!, teaching practices change in the right direction. This narrative then says that because of these changes in teaching practices, kids will learn more and better. The logic is flawed, of course, because no one can tell the public (much less teachers) how this transformation in classrooms will happen.
Moreover, not all policies are fully implemented. And even when they are, few super-hero superintendents (or their policy analysts) take the time to find out systematically whether what teachers do is the same-old, same-old or has shifted.
Yes, Rhee did put into practice a teacher evaluation system that would identify high- and- low-performing teachers through classroom visits and test scores. The Rhee agenda, however, was to reward and punish both, not determine whether teaching practices had changed and students learned more and better.
And that is the weak link in the chain of logic behind all of these grand policies delivered from the federal, state, or district leaders: Those who make the big decisions should know what occurs routinely in classrooms.They do not. They hear scattered stories told by district officials, journalists, and relatives of friends who teach. Without systematically collected evidence, attributing a rise, plateau, or decline in annual test scores to a reform policy is, at best, a guessing game and, at worst, foolish.
When test scores rose in New York City the past few years, the mayor and chancellor took credit, saying that their reforms (new curricula, small high schools, charters, entrepreneurial initiatives) caused the improvement. Yet this past year when the state changed tests and scores dipped, not a word about what caused what to occur. And so it goes.
There is so much chatter in an urban district when undertaking major reforms such as pay-for-performance, charters, new reading curricula, and professional development, that determining whether daily teaching has changed to mirror the reform designs gets ignored. And without reliable information, little can be said about whether students are learning (and not learning) or whether changes have occurred that might (or might not) be picked up by existing state tests.
Super-hero superintendents, even ones who have had some teaching experience as did Rhee, are too caught up mandating changes and basking in media attention to spend the time and resources to find out what goes on routinely in classrooms. Without that knowledge, without a commitment to strengthen the teacher corps, and without longevity in school leadership, reform success remains a mirage.
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| September 26, 2010; 1:03 PM ET
Categories: D.C. Schools, Guest Bloggers, Larry Cuban, School turnarounds/reform, Teacher assessment | Tags: $100 million and newark, $100 million newark schools, adrian fenty, gray and schools, larry cuban, mark zuckerberg, michelle rhee, newark schools, rhee and fenty, rhee and vincent gray, school reform, teacher assessment, teachers, will rhee stay, zuckerberg and newark
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