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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 08/ 6/2010

Principal: Not the change I had in mind

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of the non-profit Forum for Education and Democracy, a collaboration of educators from around the country.

By George Wood
I am still not over the sadness and anger I feel over what happened to my colleague, Joyce Irvine.

Even though I have never met her, I call Ms. Irvine my colleague because of the way her work as principal of Wheeler Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont, has been described.

As reported in the New York Times, parents are grateful for her leadership, she knows all of her students, she launched innovative programs, her teachers and her superintendent give her high marks, and even her U.S. senator has praised her work.

And she has been fired.

Yep, call it what you want (she has been transferred to a district administrative spot) but she has been fired because the children in her school, overwhelmingly poor and immigrant, did not get the test scores the federal government says they should have.

And given the choices the district faces—pass up on federal stimulus money or take on one of the federally mandated ‘school turnaround’ strategies—Joyce Irvine was removed from her job.

Recently, apparently feeling the sting of repeated criticisms of his administration’s education policies, President Obama said in a speech last week that part of the resistance to his Race to the Top initiative (which led to Ms. Irvine’s firing) “reflects a general resistance to change.”

Guess again.

What it reflects, in the case of many dedicated educators, is a resistance to change that has no basis in reality.

Many of us have been involved in the front lines of change in our schools since the time that the president was an undergraduate at Harvard University.

While not counted among today's so-called education reformers, leaders such as the late Ted Sizer, Linda Darling-Hammond, James Comer, Gerry House, John Goodlad, Robert Moses, Deborah Meier, and others have demonstrated how to change schools so that all of our children can have more equitable educational opportunities and outcomes.

There are lessons to be learned here, but they do not include firing principals who choose to work with those students whose test scores will never reflect the mandates of Washington.

As noted, some of the critiques of the current administration’s agenda seem to be getting through. In a recent speech, Education Secretary Arne Duncan admitted that the current ways we measure student progress are wrong and that the criticism of teacher’s unions and blanket praise of all things ‘charter’ are not useful or factual.

Perhaps this is in response to the recent critiques put forth by a network of civil rights groups. And maybe the secretary will look at the alternatives to his current ‘turn around’ strategy found in the recent report put out by Communities for Excellent Public Schools.

But this comes too late for Joyce Irvine.

As I have pointed out many times before, current federal policy has created at the local level all the wrong incentives.

When rewarded or punished solely on test scores schools are encouraged to push out or not take students who will not score well, narrow the curriculum to basic skills, cut out enrichment and engagement activities, and narrow teaching to rote memorization drills.

Joyce Irvine would not do any of that, and she is paying the price for it.

Federal policy works by creating incentives for particular actions. Funds are dangled before states or other entities if they will do what the feds want. We know this strategy can work—it desegregated schools and has opened up educational opportunities for groups of students excluded from public education.

The problem with the current set of incentives is that they have things backwards. Rather than reward principals like Irvine for taking on students who are the least likely to do well on standardized tests, it punishes her for the work we all want to have done.

Meanwhile, schools that work with the easiest to teach—through district boundaries or admission policies in some charter or similar schools that skim off the most motivated students and parents—get all the praise and rewards.

Over the next few weeks school will reopen, ushering in a school year in which ESEA may be reauthorized. Congress should heed what happened to Joyce Irvine and her school when they finally get around to overhauling NCLB.

The Forum for Education and Democracy has, as have many front-line educational groups, issued our recommendations for change. But above all when Congress acts they should remember the physician’s admonition—first, do no harm.


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By Valerie Strauss  | August 6, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, George Wood, Guest Bloggers, Race to the Top  | Tags:  George Wood, Joyce Irvine, Race to the top, education reform, principal fired, race to the top policies, school reform, vermont principal  
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I read about Joyce Irvine earlier. This principal was doing excellent work for her students, their parents, the school and the community. However, since test scores were low, she was removed from her job.

This case illustrates perfectly what's wrong with NCLB and RTTT. The only measure that apparently matters is the almighty test score. All of the other amazing changes Ms. Irvine brought to her school don't count.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | August 6, 2010 7:13 AM | Report abuse

Obama's repetition of...,"reflects a general resistance to change," is a crowd manipulation technique. He is really showing some stupidity here. Any thinking person could transfer the statement to something else such as a move to the South Pole - that would be a change as well, but who wants that. The coercion involved in the Obama/Duncan stategy of privatizing the public education of our youth is most replusive. Principal Irvine (and others like her) is merely collateral damage and serves somewhat of a show of force - the hanging out the educator as an example to other educators to either conform or be gone.

The Obama/Duncan duo attempt to minimize the resistance to their "war on education" by trivializing the legitimate concerns of authentic educational leaders and civil rights groups. The duo displays not only bad manners, but oh-so-bad leadership style.

Posted by: shadwell1 | August 6, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

Obama cannot be seen as not being supported by civil rights groups, particularly those that are African American. This is the only reason Duncan said what he said. But I would be careful, he may have just been massaging the truth in order to keep their support.

Posted by: educationlover54 | August 6, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

"While not counted among today's so-called education reformers, leaders such as the late Ted Sizer, Linda Darling-Hammond, James Comer, Gerry House, John Goodlad, Robert Moses, Deborah Meier, and others have demonstrated how to change schools so that all of our children can have more equitable educational opportunities and outcomes."

Is that the same Darling-Hammond whose charter school was closed because it was such a failure? Good track record there.

Posted by: educationobserver | August 6, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Wood,
There are some documentaries out promoting charters etc. and the kind of reform that's not working.
Have you thought of doing a documentary on you and the other reformers you have listed in your post?

Posted by: tutucker | August 6, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse


You say, "Is that the same Darling-Hammond whose charter school was closed because it was such a failure? Good track record there."

You could look at Darling-Hammond's charter school experience as a failure or you could look at it as a reality check. Even the monetary and intellectual might of the likes of Stanford University can't overcome the racial and socioeconomic circumstances of our neediest children.

Posted by: stevendphoto | August 6, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Eight years of No Child Left Behind or a proficient child in every pot from the Republicans.

Now two years with Race To The Top or an effective teacher in every pot from the Democrats.

This President still has not explained how forcing states with high standards to accept inferior standards with Race To The Top will improve education by lowering standards in the states that have high standards.

So far this President has shown he is no different than the previous President in regard to public education. He is only concerned with reelection.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 6, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: tutucker
I responded to your comment in: Accountability in DCPS: Details from teacher's IMPACT report

Posted by: bsallamack | August 6, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

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