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John Thompson: What Happens when Magical Thinking is a Condition of Employment?

Guest post by John Thompson.

Sometimes it seems like every five foot tall male 8th grader is convinced that he will make it in the NBA. Teachers have to gently explain the need to study in case, by some fluke, a teenager does not become a first round draft choice.

The Washington Post's education columnist Jay Mathews recently made a comparable mistake, and I want to be equally nurturing in reply. I kid Mr. Mathews, because he has great integrity, but sometimes I fear that he assumes that everyone is as upright as he is. (And besides, Mathews has been generous in allowing me to guest post for him.)

Mathews wrote that principals should have the "same powers that baseball general managers have--they can hire and fire whom they want, whenever they want, in order to produce a team that plays together and wins. ... If the general manager's team doesn't win--in school terms doesn't find a way to significantly raise student achievement--he or she ought to be let go, and have someone else give it a try. But the general manager should always have the ability to remove players who don't want to be part of the team, who complain and create dissension and do things their way."

The my-way-or-the-highway system that Mathews supported might make sense if every principal had the same sincerity as Mathews, and big-league abilities. And if the average salary for millions of teachers was comparable to the average of $3.3 million earned by 844 major league baseball players, maybe principal/managers would have talent to burn when running the team as they saw fit.

In high-challenge neighborhood schools, those principals would have to have a rare combination of superstar skills and moral courage. For instance, those leaders would have to explain to their bosses why classroom instruction, by itself, can not overcome the legacies of intense concentrations of generational poverty. Then, even if the central office mandated suicidal policies (such as scripted and paced instruction, nonstop test-prep, etc.), principals would have to accomplish something that has rarely been done - raise test scores without fabricating numbers and/or "creaming" the easier-to-educate students. And if these big league principals failed to work miracles, presumably they would have the moral character to fall on their own sword rather than blame teachers ...

The issue that prompted Mathews to call for such powers for principals was the controversy over a teacher who claimed that he was fired for practicing the free expression of ideas contrary to those of the principal, and not because of his alleged ineffectiveness as a teacher. D.C., we should recall, was one of the first systems to impose litmus tests on educators. Michelle Rhee famously said, "If a teacher doesn't believe it is possible for a teacher or a school to overcome those factors, that is actually okay. That teacher should teach in Fairfax County ..."

A D.C. newspaper also told the story of a prospective educator who was not hired because she gave the wrong answer to the question, "pretend you are a teacher at a cash-strapped urban school who just found out, a week before school starts, that you're going to use a curriculum the rich suburban district has been using."

The most extreme example of this group think was the Chicago "TeacherFit" aptitude test that "blacklisted" 30% of applicants. Prospective teachers had to give the right answer to questions probing how they would feel if too many disruptive students were assigned to their class and whether they would be "willing to work for free."

I could go on with examples of "magical thinking" that is being imposed on teachers, but I suspect that most readers have more than their share of their own horror stories. Instead, I want to make two points. The question is not whether there are numerous individual teachers and individual students who have overcome extreme adversity to produce excellence. The issue is whether we allow Orwellian practices to censor the discussion of how we can provide systemic and sustainable improvements for kids. Had D.C. allowed for an evidence-based analysis of the best methods to help low-income students, the district might be producing better results for its schools in the poorest neighborhoods.

Secondly, how do I know about poor performance in those schools, despite Rhee's spin, and the Washington Post's support of her reforms? We know these inconvenient truths because they were reported in the Post. The Post editors and owners may disagree with their reporters. But the Post, like our schools should be, was built on a heritage of respect for the free flow of ideas.

And how do I know of Rhee's litmus test? I read about it in Jay Mathews' column. Mathews was supportive of those policies. But Mathews embodied the principles that American democracy, journalism, and public schools are based on. He respected persons with diverse viewpoints, and welcomed dissent.

So, maybe Mathews was half-right. Schools should be a team, but a team that puts the intellectual journey of teaching and learning over putting up points on a scoreboard.

What do you think? How should schools balance the legitimate need to build teams of educators with constructive attitudes, while still allowing for policy debates? Are "reformers" driving freedom of speech and thought out of school systems? Do you have any ideas on this subject that can not be expressed in school level policy discussion, but which could help us better serve students?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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