Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The reform pretenders

Valerie Strauss (who else?) ran this article on her blog by a NY school principal, slamming reformers in general and Joel Klein in particular:

The word "reform" used to be important. To be called an educational reformer placed you in the company of John Dewey and other great teachers who understood children, the culture of schools, and most importantly, the complexity of the art and science of teaching. The late Madeline Hunter taught elementary students at the UCLA laboratory school nearly every day so that she could be sure that the teaching practices she labeled effective were not only grounded in research, but confirmed by her own practice. The late Ted Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, worked with hundreds of high schools before he wrote Horace's Compromise , and after he retired from Brown University, was a co-principal of a school. In the eras of Dewey, Hunter, and Sizer, the title reformer was used sparingly, reserved for those who dedicated a lifetime of work that was distinguished by a fierce belief in public schooling, innovation that increased student learning, and a profound respect for the work that educators do.

I wonder when exactly the word reformer was cheapened to a political sound bite. When did billionaires buy it and re-define it by the crass rules of the marketplace? When did it become a requirement that one must believe that our schools can only be fixed by oppressive testing, number ratings, snarky data systems designed to determine winners and losers, and an undying faith in privatization and marketplace policies? When did public schools serving public interests begin to devolve into corporate schools serving private interests, all under the guise of reform? . Perhaps Joel Klein knows. In his recent opinion piece in The Washington Post, he presented a roll call of young reformers, fashioned in his image, who bring to our schools a 'sea change' of reform.

He tells us that he and Michelle Rhee are not alone, and that those who mourned their departure should not weep. Indeed, he assures us that many of the new generation learned at the knee of the master reformer during his New York City years. The curious thing, though, is that the so-called reforms, which this new generation advocates and implements, have little impact on student learning – even when that learning is constrained merely to the narrow measure of standardized assessment.

I really wish I had time to do my usual line-by-line rebuttal, but I don't, so here are a few thoughts:


It's very clever of Strauss to identify the author of the article, Dr. Carol Corbett Burris (here's her bio: (http://nepc.colorado.edu/author/burris-carol-corbett) as "the principal of South Side High School in New York" – at first glance, that sounds like an inner-city high school in NYC, right?  FAR from it.  South Side High School is in fact the only high school in the very wealthy Long Island town of Rockville Center (you can always tell when something is wealthy or overpriced when it's deliberately mis-spelled ;-).  According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockville_Centre,_New_York), the town of 24,568 is 84% white, the average home value exceeds $500,000, and the median family income is $128,579. 

Not surprisingly, her school reflects the local demographics (http://education.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-high-schools/listings/new-york/south-side-high-school):

Demographic Data



Minority Enrollment (% of total)


Black Enrollment (% of total)


Hispanic Enrollment (% of total)


American Indian Enrollment (% of total)


Asian Enrollment (% of total)


White Enrollment (% of total)


Economically Disadvantaged Student Enrollment (% of total)



The reason I share this is because, as best I can tell, Dr. Burris has ZERO experience with inner-city schools and what poor, minority kids go through – she's been principal of a wealthy, 80%-white school for the past 11 years.  This isn't an attack on her – I'm sure she's a wonderful person and educator and, by all accounts, her school is outstanding (it's won many national awards), but what, pray tell, qualifies her to comment on the reformers in NYC and their efforts, which are focused primarily on schools that are the polar opposite of hers.  Maybe she had some relevant experience prior to her current position – but I'd bet not.  In fact, I'd bet that I've visited more inner-city schools this year than she's visited in her life.


The end of her article really drives me nuts – her school has 9% economically disadvantaged students and she's lecturing Joel Klein and John King on what's best for them?!?!

Those with insufficient faith in the Klein/Rhee reform agenda are accused of not believing that poor kids can learn. They might be surprised to discover how much we do. We believe that poor kids can learn very well, but not by putting the dollars into testing systems and consultants. I suggest that the new reformers look to the graduation rates of economically disadvantaged students in integrated, suburban high schools like mine that are committed to equity. You will see rates for poor students that exceed overall graduation rates for NY State.

But, Mr. Klein might argue, these disadvantaged students attend well-resourced schools. Those schools, moreover, are not overwhelmed by students of great need. They are socio-economically and racially diverse. The highest achievers are not creamed off into specialized high schools which enroll few black or Latino students. Our schools have funds for the arts, adequate staffing, and strong special education programs. There are strong social support services like psychologists, counselors and social workers.

And that, of course, is the point. We know what it takes to help disadvantaged students do well, and we know what it takes to almost guarantee their failure. We know the reforms our students need—the really hard ones that are politically tough and not always popular. Let's hope that when all the pretend reforms go away, at least a handful of good schools survive. After the sea change, when the tide goes out, perhaps a few beacons of hope will remain on the beach.

The other thing that drives me nuts is that Dr. Burris, like Ravitch and all of the other defenders of the status quo, are brilliant at attacking reformers/reform and highlighting all of the downsides/problems/failures (and there's plenty to be sure, though these folks almost always cherry pick the worst data and ignore all successes), but they offer NOTHING but banalities as an alternative.  Dr. Burris seems to be saying that what we need to do is make all schools like hers, with "funds for the arts, adequate staffing, and strong special education programs. There are strong social support services like psychologists, counselors and social workers", and/or integrate more poor and minority students into schools like hers (which even she knows is unrealistic in big districts).  Regarding her first point, we've tried pouring money into failing schools and the evidence is clear – look at Newark or Kansas City – in the absence of REAL reform accompanying the money, it makes ZERO impact on students. 


What Dr. Burris is missing is that the key difference between her school and failing schools isn't the money – though sometimes that's a small factor – but the PEOPLE.  She's a talented educator and leader, but what would she recommend for schools with lousy principals?  How would she even identify such schools and such people since she seems to be opposed to all forms of testing and accountability?  As importantly, she surely has her pick of high-caliber teachers, who love to teach at lovely, bucolic, schools like hers filled with the most advantaged students.  But what would she recommend for schools with lots of mediocre – or worse – teachers?  To repeat, how would she even identify such teachers since she seems to be opposed to all forms of testing and accountability?


The reform pretenders

By Valerie Strauss


This was written by Carol Corbett Burris, the principal of South Side High School in New York.  She was named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.

By Carol Corbett Burris

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