School reform’s new generation

June 10, 2011

Something remarkable has been happening in public education. Since the beginning of the year, the people appointed to run major school systems at the district and state levels have all come from a clearly identified reform movement that seeks to dramatically change the current system. For example:

l In Chicago, J.C. Brizard has become chief executive of public schools; in New Orleans, John White is superintendent; in Newark, Cami Anderson is superintendent; in New Jersey, Chris Cerf is acting state commissioner of education. All are New York City alumni who were deeply involved in the major reforms that have been taking place under Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s leadership.

l In Los Angeles, John Deasy, a recent graduate of the Broad Academy, which trains superintendents with a heavy reform focus, was recently appointed superintendent. (He was superintendent in Prince George’s County from 2006 to 2008.)

l In Tennessee, Teach for America alums Kevin Huffman and Chris Barbic were just named to run, respectively, Tennessee’s public school system and its Achievement School District for troubled urban schools.

l In New York, Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for education, Dennis Walcott, has taken over as chancellor, while John King, who grew up in the charter-school movement, was appointed education commissioner of New York state.

What they have in common is recognition that the status quo in public education is broken and that incremental change won’t work. They are ready to challenge the heart of the educational establishment rather than tinker around its edges, which has been the hallmark of past, failed reform efforts.

This reflects a sea change. Not so long ago, people pointed to Michelle Rhee in the District and me in New York as the major “reform superintendents.” When we left those positions in the past year, some asked whether it was the “end of an era” and questioned the future of education reform. What a difference a few months can make!

So what drives this new generation of reformers? In contrast to the unions, bureaucrats and other predictable apologists for the failed status quo, they believe our schools can do a whole lot better than they are doing, especially for poor kids growing up in challenged families. Sure, educating children from difficult circumstances is often much harder, but the notion that schools can get much better results with those same kids than they’re now generally getting is no longer a matter of abstract debate. It’s now established fact.

Consider the study released last month of graduates from the original KIPP charter schools in New York and Houston who were followed for a decade after eighth grade. Given their demographics — 95 percent black and Latino, 85 percent living in poverty — these young people had an expected college graduation rate below 10 percent. Their graduation rate, however, was 33 percent, about four times their expected rate and the same as that of white students. In other words, the KIPP students essentially eliminated the achievement gaps with respect to race, ethnicity and poverty. What made the difference was the education they got at KIPP. There are so many examples like this that it’s long past time to stop blaming educational failure on poverty and its attendant disadvantages.

At the heart of the reformers’ view that we can get very different outcomes than we’re achieving is the demonstrable fact that teachers matter, big-time. Nothing has done more to harm the educational system than the failure to differentiate among teachers by rewarding excellence and imposing consequences for nonperformance. The long-standing holy trinity in education — life tenure, seniority and lock-step pay (followed by a lifetime pension) — encourages sticking around rather than doing well. You can expect that, in an effort to truly professionalize teaching, the assault on this established, dysfunctional structure will be vigorous.

The other thing these reformers are likely to push is much greater choice for families, especially those in low-income communities. A monopoly public provider that locks families into a single community school hasn’t worked and won’t work. Not surprisingly, middle-class and affluent families have always insisted on choice for their kids, meaning that, if they don’t like the neighborhood school, they go elsewhere, even moving to a different community or sending their kids to private school. For the poor, who can’t move or pay, it’s one and done, good or bad. These expanded choice programs are sure to include more charter schools, which are catching on among families in high-poverty communities and getting results at scale in cities such as New York and Houston. In fact, post-Katrina, New Orleans has become an all-choice, 70 percent charter-school district, and the progress has been exceptional.

But these and other reformers can’t get the job done alone. The forces committed to protecting the current, failed system — the unions, bureaucrats and politicians — are well-financed, well-motivated and extremely adept at pushing back. After all, the existing system, with its lifetime job security, annual pay increases and very generous lifetime pension and health provisions, serves adult interests quite well. Parents, community and religious groups, philanthropists, and an engaged and mobilized public will have to make sure these reformers get the political support they will need to do what’s right by our kids.

This is a critical juncture. We are blessed with extraordinary leadership at the helm of many of our most challenged school districts and states. They need our strong, active and outspoken support. Let’s not miss the opportunity and subject another generation of children to educational neglect.

The writer, a former chancellor of New York public schools, is chief executive of News Corp.’s educational division.

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