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Miracle superintendents and nonsense

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Dear Diane,

As I was watching the Democratic party presidential wanna-be's the other night, I thought about our misuse of language. Was that a "debate"? But worse, what does it mean to ask serious potential presidents to talk about important matters—in 30 seconds?

So, in answer to: why educate? So that someday we might have a public that would be embarrassed to watch such nonsense and a media that knew better.

I turned off the TV at last and started reading my cousin Judith Larner Lowry's book on restoration gardening in California—"The Landscaping Ideas of Jays". After reading it I changed my mind. The central purpose of schooling is to help each and every child find something worthwhile they love to do the way Judith loves to garden and to be good at it the way she is. If we could just do that!

That's what I hoped education would do for my own children. As John Dewey said, what we want for our own should be what we demand for every child.

Questioning nonsense and doing work one loves well are not incompatible or unreasonable goals. And maybe only a democratic society can hold out the dream that both of these are possible for all of us.

How does this fit in with your questioning, Diane, of the Mayor's data on the success of his NYC reforms? Maybe if we had the schools we deserve neither readers nor writers of our daily media would be so easily fooled; and we'd be asking for data that's harder to fool us about. Note that every superintendent in the country has, for half a century, touted the increases in test scores and graduation rates under his/her tenure. They never go down. Can this be? Yes, if we devote only 30-second sound bites to education.

The "miracle" superintendents are over and over again replaced by others who instantly declare these same schools to be in dire crisis, e.g. Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego. [Paul] Vallas has now saved two cities and is off, with the media's blessing, to save a third. The day the miracle-workers leave, amnesia sets in. We start all over again. The New York Post and New York Times reporters repeat, like parrots, that small schools started in 2002 with Klein! The NY Times actually once ran a front-page series on the old wave of new small schools, the pre-Klein one. (They can't even check their own files?) Like you,
Diane, I would like to make it harder to get away with nonsense—in part so that I could safely celebrate the successes. But Bloomberg's comparing apples and oranges.

Martin Luther King Jr. H.S. now has a 90 percent graduation rate (vs. 41 percent in 2002)? Ditto for Erasmus, Wingate, South Bronx et al? (NY Times, Saturday, June 30). Julie Bosman (the writer of the above), be serious! Questioning nonsense is surely at the heart of being well-educated, not to mention trying to educate others.

My old secondary school (CPESS) had a 90 percent graduation rate between 1989-95, and I know what that took to do. It's not impossible. I also remember that I warned my colleagues, when they started similar schools in the Bronx, not to compare their data to ours. We were working with many kids who had been with us since elementary school, we had a more heterogeneous population than they'd have in the South Bronx, and we had 100 percent experienced teachers. I knew a lot about how to fudge data, but I also knew the risk was not mostly in getting caught as in discouraging one's colleagues, spreading an already deeply cynical culture.

Diane, you suggest national tests—in reading and math as one answer. Without stakes, given less often (I'd add, to a sample population) and with the interpretation of the results left to lay bodies (note the plural)—I'm ok with it. But using these still requires a public media willing and able to ask questions about complex data. Bloomberg is a reminder: even national standards that define graduation rates can't control for changing the kids served, for example.

Sure it would be nice to tie my banner to Bloomberg's claims. As the "grandmother" of small schools it ought to feel pretty great. But, it doesn't. In part, because they are un-believable. And, in part because we can't learn from experience when we simply proclaim it a success and move on, without paying attention to the casualties we've left behind. The best of reforms requires caution. The more recklessly we surge ahead, paying little heed to the voices on the ground, the more dependent we become on questionable, highly manipulable, self-serving data.

The ordinary people working in ordinary big and small schools are silenced in the process, classified as "whiners", "losers". Meanwhile the heralds of the "good news" will, as usual, have left for new ventures by the time the next Chancellor brings us his bad news and promises to "turn the system" around once again. And again.

Deborah

8 Comments

Deb,

You write, "The ordinary people working in ordinary big and small schools are silenced in the process, classified as "whiners", "losers"." (1) Why do you think the educational establishment has essentially been ignored under education reform by state legislatures and the business community? and (2) What is your impression of the NEA and their take on statewide education reform, and NCLB?

(1) What/who have you in mind when you speak of "educational establishment"? Teachers, principals?
(2) NY State and Boston (which I know best) are not NEA but AFT--and I think they are both struggling to figure out where and how they can react to both. It's a big topic! At some point perhaps Diane and I will take up our reactions to the AFT/NEA (union) as players in the field. More on that another time.

I suspect you could change your mind several times on the purpose of education and still find important things that schools should be doing.... Whether that's politically sustainable in a way that's helpful to the range of useful and meaningful purposes is a different question, alas.

On high schools in NYC: Calling Leo Casey! Since he's the person at UFT's HQ who focuses on high schools, I'd love to get his response here.

Sherman:

A few months back, I did a post on Edwize which addressed the very same claim for superior small school graduation rates, which the DOE also made last year. It will take us some time to reconstruct the schools for this year, because the DOE has not published their data, like they did last year. But when we have completed, we will do the comparison. I don't expect any changes from last year.

Leo

Deb,

(1) By educational establishment I mean; local school boards, adminstrators, teachers, teacher unions, and schools of education.

First I want to say how excited I am to read this dialogue between two great thinkers -- equals really -- both in intellect and passion. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this kind of intelligent, ongoing discussion between influential people or parties from disagreeing camps were the norm and not an anomaly.

My comment is general, responding to thoughts that came to me as I was sitting at my 4th of July bbq yesterday, having read several entries earlier in the day.

I was with a group of about ten friends celebrating the fourth of July holiday. It might be too strong to say that we were "celebrating" and more accurate to say that we were taking advantage of having the day off to relax together before the fire works display. I say this because no one (myself included) seemed to feel anything resembling appreciation for our national independence or pride for our country. Just for fun I began asking the group American history trivia – facts that I am sure all of us learned in school: “why do we celebrate 4th of July?; how many original states were there?; why did Paul Revere make his Midnight ride from Charlestown to Concord, MA?; what is our national anthem? Etc.” Together this educated group was able to answer all the questions, but no one knew all of them on his/her own. What strikes me is that this is the nature of factual information, the kind of “musts” that would be part of a National curriculum and that would be tested by a national test: we learn them and, if there is no reason to use them in our daily lives, we forget them. I agree that we all should know basic information about our nation’s history, but it seems more significant to me that we should live in a society that teaches its citizens to care about such things as national independence and, I believe as Diane says in an earlier post, a sense of civic responsibility. I am not opposed to a national curriculum per se, but I do think that it might interfere with the creativity that is required of schools that endeavor to teach kids to value contextual significance and conceptual understanding over the memorization of (albeit important) facts.

It is true that this hoopla about how Bloomberg and Kline are saving New York schools is quite frightening. An article by L. Hancock in the July 9 Nation, entitled, “School’s Out,” offers poignant vignettes that capture teacher and family frustration with some of the sweeping “reforms” the two self-appointed education tsars have been instituting. The really frightening and bizarre piece of this is that several cities are looking to the NYC experiment as a viable model. DC and Boston, among others are following suit in terms of putting education under mayoral control and appointing “experts” with very little educational expertise to “get tough” on poor performing schools. This getting “tough,” no-nonsense attitude has its place, but it is not, in itself, enough to solve problems that are primarily ones of quality. A 35-50% (depending on whose data one reads!) drop-out rate signals something larger than the failure of some schools to teach students what they need to pass tests (which seems to be all that Mayor and chancellor teams are concerned with). I would say that it’s symptomatic of systemic discontinuity in which students feel that schools have nothing relevant to offer them. If kids felt that the skills they acquired in school might lead to meaningful, or even descent paying work, they would probably stay; if students were enjoying learning for its own sake, if they felt that they were growing intellectually, artistically, athletically, practically as individuals, then they would probably stay. Students are voting with their feet. They are dropping out. How getting tough on schools and spending millions just to get kids to pass tests will help this problem is a mystery to me.

Deb

I wonder when it might be possible for the educational press to learn that maybe they should talk with those actually in the trenches about education. Far too much of the public discussion about educational policy does not include the voices of teachers, or for that matter of students, except when those individuals have been carefully screened to reflect the perspective of those imposing change from above.

As I remember you came to do what you did at Central Park East not by imposing top down, but as the result of a collaborative effort. Yours is not the only such example. Why cannot the general press examine successes such as these more often, rather than fall prey to the manipulations of politicians (and I include the Joel Klines and Paul Vallases in that category)?

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