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Turmoil Seems to be Chief Product of Education "Reform"

When something keeps on appearing as a byproduct of an activity, eventually you might begin to wonder if perhaps the byproduct is actually the objective.

The one result that education reform efforts seem to have in common is turmoil in our schools, especially those where there is high poverty. Let's take a look at the strategies being employed, and what they are yielding:

Charter schools: From Chicago comes fresh news that once again, poverty usually trumps a longer school day and the capacity to hire and fire teachers at will.

Charters with the highest numbers of students from low-income families or those with recognized learning disabilities almost universally scored the lowest last year on state exams, a trend common throughout CPS.
"In general for charters that have been around for more than five years and not performing, we're supporting their closure or restructuring of these schools," said New Schools Chief Executive Phyllis Lockett. "At the end of the day, we need the bar set on what achievement needs to look like."

Which brings us to the next big tool in the reformer's toolbox, school closures. If a school does not raise its test scores, we punish the school and its lackluster employees by closing it and sending them packing.

Once again, Chicago was a proving ground for this approach - the only problem being that no positive effect was proven. Research was conducted following the students who were shifted after then-CEO Arne Duncan closed a number of Chicago schools. There was no significant change in their academic progress as a result.

Then we have Teach For America.
This organization was originally founded in order to provide bright young talent to schools who were lacking qualified teachers. Even in these cases, it is a debatable investment, since in districts such as my own, 75% of TFA interns have departed three years after starting. Now that it has become one of the favorites of the "reform" crowd, and is receiving multi-million dollar grants from the Department of Education, TFA is expanding into states and districts where no teacher shortage exist. Philip Kovacs has raised serious questions about the decision to spend scarce funds on TFA in Huntsville, Alabama. Educators have raised similar concerns about TFA's efforts to place teachers in Seattle, where there is a surplus of qualified, credentialed teachers.

My chief concern with TFA is not the quality of the people it brings to our schools, but, once again, the fact that they are so unstable. Why should we choose people with a record of high turnover over people who are choosing teaching as a career, who take a path that demonstrates more than a two-year commitment to our students? Once again, our education "reformers" have chosen churn over endurance, turmoil over stability.

Nobody would explicitly advocate turmoil as their objective. But when reformers are challenged about the lack of evidence for their approach, as Arne Duncan was a couple of years ago in this EdWeek interview, the response is usually very similar to his:

So I would argue the whole turnaround stuff is relatively new but I think there's a lot of scientific evidence that the status quo doesn't work and that's the evidence that I'm looking at.

In other words, since the schools are broken, we will try anything instead. As New York principal Carol Corbett Burris points out, "That is akin to saying, 'I know my child is ill so I will give her any new medicine I happen to have in my cabinet.'"

The chief argument of the reformers rests on a successful indictment of the "status quo," meaning the individuals, their relationships, the curriculum and instructional practices in our schools. Charter schools represent a hothouse where reform strategies can be implemented. In order for the indictment of the status quo to stick, you must have demonstrably better results when you make these changes. If your chosen solutions do not fix the crimes you have blamed on the "status quo," perhaps you need to take a second look.

School closures, the ability to hire and fire at will, the use of high-turnover interns - all these strategies have resulted in turmoil in our schools. They have succeeded in making teaching a much riskier, less rewarding profession. They have made teachers feel insecure, since they have made them vulnerable to poor evaluations and pay cuts based on student test scores that may be beyond their control. And they have subjected vulnerable students to even more inexperienced, poorly trained teachers.

There were things that were working in our schools that have been destroyed by this turmoil. I know, because I was part of a team at my school that had done some wonderful things over the course of a decade. We had dramatically increased teacher retention, and student performance was improving. We had a lively community of teachers engaged in teacher research and collaboration. We were leading efforts to strengthen the science curriculum on a district-wide basis, and shared our experience with scores of teachers from other schools. This school-based community became impossible to maintain after NCLB came along, and year after year labeled us as "failing."

Unlike the salesmen promoting education "reform", we never promised we would eradicate the effects of poverty.
I do not believe a school alone can do this. We just said we could do better, and we gathered resources and supported one another to do so. We invested in strong relationships with one another, and found ways to support the newer teachers on the staff by pairing them with experienced colleagues. We found resources to buy hands on materials. And when we had strengthened our own school, we reached out to others to help them as well.

When we evaluate proposals for improving our schools, we need to consider stability as a core value. It takes time to develop the relationships and institutional memory that can sustain a community of educators. Just because a school is not at the top of the test score pile does not mean there are not great teachers there, or things worth preserving and strengthening. Turmoil may occasionally result in creative innovations, but it is certain to destroy whatever might have been working as well. Unfortunately we are finding that it is a lot easier to tear down a school than it is to build one.

What do you think? Is turmoil an accidental byproduct of education reform? Or is there a method to this madness?

Follow me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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