Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Speaking of schools #3: school reform in DC is mostly flawed*

* flawed = "the other f word"

1. The cover story of this week's Washington City Paper is about Diane Ravitch, the once liberal, then conservative, now progressive again education researcher, based on the recent publication of her book Death and Life of the Great American School System, which is critical of the teacher bashing, anti-union, pro-charter school, pro-privatization "education reform" agenda pushed by big foundations, conservatives, and the very wealthy. See "Diane Ravitch, the Anti-Rhee Michelle Rhee went from DCPS to national crusader. Along the way, a 72-year old historian became her top critic."

When I saw the cover, I was hopeful, thinking about how in New York City for many years, the Village Voice, that city's alternative newsweekly, was known for hard-hitting dcoverage of the city's schools, by award-winning reporter LynNell Hancock.

The article was decent but I wanted more. The City Paper isn't ready to step into the fray the way that Village Voice once did in NYC. From the article:

Once a vocal proponent of No Child Left Behind, charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay for teachers, Ravitch decided sometime around 2006 that there was actually no evidence that any of those policies improved American education. She now believes that the “corporatist agenda” of school choice, teacher layoffs, and standardized testing has undermined public respect for one of the nation’s most vital institutions, the neighborhood school, and for one of society’s most crucial professions: teaching.

The best way to improve American education, the post-epiphany Ravitch argues, is to fight child poverty with health care, jobs, child care, and affordable housing. ...

If her late emergence as a liberal hero strikes progressives as ironic, it infuriates the Rhee fans who dominate both the Obama administration and the GOP. Critics call Ravitch a self-promoter, an opportunist, and a scholar who picks evidence to support her conclusions, rather than vice versa—in other words, a lot of the same things Rhee’s critics say about her.

“The problem with ‘I was wrong about everything’ as the prelude to an argument is that it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the repudiator’s judgment,” Kevin Carey of the think tank Education Sector complained in The New Republic. “[Ravitch] simply trades one pre-defined agenda for another: the collected talking points of the reactionary education establishment. It is a philosophy of resentment and futility, grounded in the conviction that public schools—and the adults within them—can’t really be expected to do better than they currently are.” ...

But a review of Ravitch’s career, which actually began on the left, suggests a more complex narrative. A lifelong political liberal who has always wrestled with a sort of innate personal conservatism, Ravitch—like Jane Jacobs, the urbanist whose book she referenced—has been constant in her deep attraction to institutions that have survived the test of time, and her aversion to intellectual fads. “It’s the fierce urgency of no,” Ravitch says of her worldview. “I like institutions, in part because I like to rebel against them, but also because I think society needs them and needs to continually reshape them, not blow them up.”

2. Since I function pretty similarly in terms of "liking institutions" but believing that they need to be continually shaped and improved, you can see why I like Diane Ravitch (or Jane Jacobs). In fact, on this note, but on the economy, the Post Business section article on Sweden is particularly apt on education reform and most any sector of society facing pressure to change. From "The rock star of the recovery":

ome of the reasons for the Swedish success are as unique to the nation as its citizens’ predilection for Abba, pickled herring and minimalist furniture. But there are plenty of lessons for other countries as they struggle to find a pathway toward prosperity.

The overarching lesson the Swedes offer is this: When you have a financial crisis, and Sweden had a nasty one in the early 1990s, learn from it. Don’t simply muddle through and hope that growth will eventually return. Rather, address the underlying causes of the crisis to create an economic and financial system that will be more resilient when bad times return.

It's incredible how most change efforts in the U.S. are more about muddling through rather than a focus on strengthening institutions and organizational processes so that preferred outcomes are generated as a matter of course.

3. So with that in mind, the Post story today about the resignation of a young, highly effective DC elementary school principal is quite damning. From "Why one D.C. principal is leaving":

Bill Kerlina won a plum assignment when he was hired away from Montgomery County in July 2009 to become a principal in Northwest Washington. Phoebe Hearst Elementary was a small, high-performing school, right across the street from Sidwell Friends.

He grew to love its students, teachers and — for the most part — its parents. “If I could lift that school up and put it in a functional school system, it would be perfect,” he said.

Instead, he said, the dysfunction he encountered in D.C. public schools led him to quit this month, fed up and burned out. ...

He said he is quitting a system that evaluates teachers but doesn’t support their growth, that knuckles under to unreasonable demands from parents, and that focuses excessively on recruiting neighborhood families to a school where most students come from outside the attendance zone. ...

Kerlina signed on just as Rhee was rolling out the IMPACT evaluation system, which called for five classroom observations to assess criteria such as clarity of presentation, content knowledge and ability to teach children with varying skill levels. Some teachers would be held accountable for student growth on standardized tests. Those with poor evaluations were subject to dismissal.

It was a major change.Kerlina said he was surprised when he heard it would not be tried on a pilot basis, which was standard practice in Montgomery. He said he came to believe that the initiative offered virtually no provisions to help teachers improve.

“The reform, in my opinion, is getting rid of people,” he said.

My criticism all along of DC's "education reform" agenda under Mayor Fenty is that it wasn't system/organizationally focused, it was based on a belief that the teachers in the current system didn't care, and that if you got young, energetic teachers, all would be well.

The sad thing is that the DC region has two highly performing school districts in Arlington County and Montgomery County that have a lot of similar characteristics with some of their schools, and MoCo in particular has developed a system to support schools, principals, teachers, students, and parents at schools that serve predominately low-income students that is a national best practice example. (Fairfax County is also high performing but has significantly different characteristics from DC.)

And the Post, which jumped on the Rhee bandwagon, could have been a countervailing force for improvement, instead of Chancellor Rhee's biggest cheerleader.

4. Of course, local civil society could have done a better job organizing a response also. It never did do so, despite examples from elsewhere, such as the Catalyst Chicago program, a spinoff from the Chicago Reporter organization.

Speaking of which, Tuesday night at 6pm Busboys & Poets on 14th Street NW, there is a presentation by Soo Hong, author of A Cord of Three Strands A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools.

There will also be a screening of the short film, "Parent Power". How can low-income, non-English-speaking parents become advocates, leaders, and role models in their children’s schools? The book provides a close study of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, a grassroots organization on the northwest side of Chicago, whose work on parent engagement has drawn national attention.

I'm going to try to go, and to get a review copy of the book.

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