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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 06/27/2011

The reform pretenders

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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

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.

Joel Klein continues to boast of increased graduation rates even as the new NYC chancellor has promised to investigate continuing reports of pressure on teachers and principals to pass and graduate students regardless of the quality of student work.

He crows about the college graduation rate of KIPP students. There are eight KIPP schools in New York City. Only one, which began in 1995 with 45 fifth graders, has been in existence long enough to produce even one college grad . I cannot understand how Mr. Klein can justify taking any credit for any increases in graduation rates associated with KIPP.

Klein’s Washington Post commentary was, as noted above, on his new generation. He proudly asserts that one of his reformers, Jean Claude Brizard, was recently appointed to lead Chicago’s schools.

After leaving New York City, Mr. Brizard led Rochester’s schools. He got the job after promising that he would raise the graduation rate to 75% by 2012. As he departs for Chicago after three plus years, the four-year graduation rate is nowhere near 75%, but rather at a dismal 46.1 %. In 2008, it was 48%. I guess the miracle reform was going to be left for the finale. Too bad for Rochester’s students that their superintendent is moving on before he got the chance to make it happen.

I do not blame Mr. Brizard for not raising the graduation rate to 75% in so short a time. Anyone who has engaged in real school reform knows that it would be virtually impossible to do what he promised that quickly. However, I do blame him for pretending that he could. Yet if one is a Klein reformer, trained by the Broad Superintendent Academy, one is taught to scoff at incremental change. The hard work of deep reform that transforms systems is for those old apologists who stay in town for a decade.

Mr. Klein also tells us that John King, the new commissioner of New York State’s schools, must be a new reformer because he “grew up in the charter school movement.”

I find that to be a curious commendation considering that the 2010 four-year graduation rate for New York State’s charter schools is only 56%. Should we pretend that the recently released college readiness rates of the charters, a frighteningly low 9.5%, is the start of the sea change we have been waiting for? It’s worth noting that the vast majority of charter schools in New York State are in New York City.

Let us not give up hope, however; there is Albany reform afoot that reaches far beyond charter schools. Mr. Klein’s former Chief Talent Officer, Amy McIntosh, now a Regents Fellow, will guide the new Teacher and Principal Evaluation System, called “APPR,” for New York State. Before Ms. McIntosh became expert in rating teachers based on student test scores for Mr. Klein, she was the CEO of ZAGAT. I guess we should pretend that rating a burger and rating a teacher are transferrable expertise.

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.

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