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Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 08/07/2012

Principals: Our struggle to be heard on reform

This was written by Carol Burris and Harry Leonadartos. Burris is the principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York.  Leonadartos is the principal of Clarkstown High School North in Rockland County, New York. Carol is the co-author and Harry is an active supporter of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student scores. Over 1,500 New York principals and more than 5,400 teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens have signed the letter which can be found here.

 

By Carol Burris and Harry Leonardatos 

Several weeks ago, on Meet the Press, Michelle Rhee unveiled her new ad, designed to hammer away at how bad she believes American schools to be.  The ad likened public schools to an unfit male athlete competing unsuccessfully in a women’s sport.  Many found the ad to be offensive in its stereotypical portrayal of an overweight and effete man. But the true offense was that it took a moment of national pride, the Olympic Games, and used it to give American educators a kick in the pants. 

It is reasonable to wonder why it is so important for Michelle Rhee and other “reformers” to constantly deride and disparage American public schools.  Although we should always seek to improve, why should those efforts be expected to follow from derision?  In truth, while we and others see daunting and unfilled needs in many schools, there has not been a sharp and sudden decline in student performance as is being implied, and in fact scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — sometimes referred to as the nation’s educational report card — are higher than ever before. 

The answer is simple. School reform has generated a marketplace, and a profitable one at that.  Michelle Rhee’s standard fee is $50,000 an appearance, plus expenses. In Michigan, Clark Durrant is paid over half a million dollars a year to run five charter schools. Eva Moskowitz, Geoffrey Canada and Deborah Kenney all make between four and five hundred thousand a year running their New York City charter school organizations.

And these are the minor players. The real money is corporate.

StudentsFirst video

Rupert Murdoch announced that public education is a $500 billion market waiting desperately to be transformed. He is creating the data systems and hiring the people to help him make that profitable transformation happen. All the while, the editorial departments of his newspapers hammer away at New York City’s schools and teachers.

 Reformers’ financial successes, their careers and their celebrity rest on their ability to convince the public of the failures — real, perceived, and generated — of our nation’s public schools.  Yet in national polls the vast majority of Americans have continually awarded high marks to their own schools, even while giving substantially lower marks to public schools across the board. The poll results represent the disconnect between the judgment  that the public makes based on  day to day experience with their own neighborhood schools, and the perception the reformers and the press have created.

 And this is all before the upcoming Parent Trigger advocacy movie, “Won’t Back Down.” There is now so much money and power backing market-driven reforms that it is nearly impossible for alternative views to break through.

 We recently had our personal experience with how difficult it is to be heard. On July 26th, New York Governor Cuomo’s Education Commission held its only meeting in New York City. The purpose of the commission is to travel around the state in order to hear from stakeholders regarding suggestions for New York State school improvements.

Prior to the time and place of the meeting being posted, both of us sent a request to testify on the topic of teacher and principal quality. As high school principals, we are deeply concerned about the direction of the Regents reform agenda, especially in regard to evaluating teachers using test scores. We were joined by an outstanding New York City high school principal and two teachers from South Side High School. Both teachers had submitted requests to speak, one sending that request and her remarks weeks in advance. 

We were not allowed to speak. That was certainly troubling, but even more troubling was the overall staging of the event to ensure that the weight of testimony would support the predetermined, favored policy agenda. The selected panelists on teacher and principal quality were not practicing educators. The first speaker, former CNN reporter Campbell Brown, spoke about sex abuse and arbitrators’ decisions.  Brown has no experience as an educator or public school parent, and she has been inconsistent in disclosing that her husband is on the board of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.

The other panelists were Jermima Bernard, the New York executive director of Teach for America; Lesley Guggenheim from The New Teacher Project; and Evan Stone, an 18-month sixth grade teacher who described himself as the CEO of Educators 4 Excellence, another group aligned with the favored policy agenda.

So, with the exception of Campbell Brown, they all represented organizations that embraced the governor’s policies, and they all advocated for the following three policies: state imposition of teacher evaluation systems if local negotiations are not successful, elimination of contractually guaranteed pay increases, and the use of test scores in educator evaluations.

 We patiently waited through the testimony because the directions on the website stated that the final 30 minutes would be reserved for those who wished to speak, determined via a sign-in, first-come basis. Because we were among the first five to sign up, we believed we would have time to make brief remarks. We were stunned when the list in the lobby was not used. Instead, additional speakers were hand-picked. The speakers selected to comment on teacher and principal quality were a teacher who told the committee how she looked forward to being evaluated by test scores, and Anna Hall, the new head of StudentsFirst NY. Hall is a former principal from the Bronx, and she argued that teacher tenure should be abolished. 

After one of us (Harry) confronted the governor’s representative, he promised us that we would be allowed to speak at later hearings. We are hopeful that he will keep his word. The rules on the website regarding public comment have changed to now say that the speakers chosen would be the first to email rather than the first to sign in. You’ll excuse us for worrying that this might be one more attempt to control testimony at what is supposed to be an opportunity for the public to speak.

 None of us who came to the Bronx on that sweltering July day believed that we would change the direction of the Governor’s reform agenda by our testimony. We were there to give testimony and witness to the teachers and principals across our state who know that the barrage of negative press and misguided solutions generated by the young “CEOs” of hundreds of Gates-, Broad- and Walton-sponsored reform centers is wrong. We were there to give testimony that by setting teachers up on a bell curve, you are creating the contrived headline — “Half of all New York teachers not effective when judged by test scores,” thus cynically undermining the faith of parents in their public school teachers and principals.

 We hoped to speak for the teachers and principals who know that our students are being over-tested and that this is happening for purposes other than the assessment of their learning. We were there to represent the views of the 1,508 New York principals and the 5,400 teachers, parents, school board members, professors and administrators who have signed on to the principals letter in opposition to using student test scores in teachers evaluation. South Side High School teachers, Katie Burke and Debbie Tanklow were there to say how the evaluation system would undermine their relationship with their students. We also went to present our own ideas on how New York State schools can serve students better.

 Ironically, across town on that same day, venture capitalists were eagerly searching to invest in companies that will sell the products to ‘fix the crisis.’ They were huddled in a private club in Manhattan to scope investment opportunities. As reported by Stephanie Simon of Reuters, the venture capitalists were told to “Think about the upcoming rollout of new national academic standards for public schools… If they’re as rigorous as advertised, a huge number of schools will suddenly look really bad, their students testing way behind in reading and math. They’ll want help, quick. And private, for-profit vendors selling lesson plans, educational software and student assessments will be right there to provide it.”

  These venture capitalists could stay in the club. They had no need to worry about their concerns being heard, and they had no need to attend the Governor’s hearing. They were well represented.

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