I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reforminess: Impossible

One of my guilty pleasures is the Food Network's Restaurant: Impossible. Jacked-up chef Robert Irvine comes into a lousy restaurant, yells a lot at the owner and staff, redecorates, and comes up with a new menu. The show always ends with a grand re-opening featuring lots of tears, happy costumers, and redeemed owners thanking Irvine for saving them from themselves.

It's my personal experience that people and institutions, including restaurants, very rarely change overnight. So I read this article about what happens to these places after the cameras leave with interest - and I had a thought that was related to education reform:
On its surface, “Restaurant: Impossible” is about the quintessentially American love of second chances and magic-wand makeovers. But the more you talk to owners who have been revamped, Chef Irvine-style, the more a deeper theme emerges: the myth of the management consultant.
Like all consultants, Mr. Irvine  parachutes in and reconfigures a business, bringing to bear his skills and decades of experience. It would be hard to argue that the changes he imposes are, on paper, anything but a major improvement. On paper. In practice, there is the strange, hard-to-quantify variable known as people. And a lot of them have their own definition of “major improvement,” which, in some instances, would confound anyone who has ever attended culinary school or frequents upscale restaurants.
“The food was good; it just didn’t fly,” said Mr. Meglio, who is still not sure if his restaurant will survive, more than a year after the episode was broadcast. “It’s a Midwestern thing. You make too many changes too fast and all it’ll do is upset people. And the changes upset people to the tune of not coming back.” [emphasis mine]
Hmmm... you know, that reminds me of someone:
The Post reports that 75 teachers fired by former Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee may be reinstated, and given $7.5 million in back pay. 
The District's Public Employees Relations Board upheld a February decision by an arbitrator. Apparently, "the dismissals were improper because the teachers, who were in their two-year probationary period, were not told why they were let go. He called it the 'glaring and fatal flaw' in Rhee’s action." 
Rhee's acolytes, no doubt, will say that it is another case of a bureaucratic system more geared to protecting employees than to serving kids. But it's also another indication that speed—the watchword of the Rhee era, and a key part of her legacy—leads to carelessness, which in turn leads to massive setbacks like this one. [emphasis mine]
Back to Irvine:
“Let’s face it, most of us had a foot in the grave to begin with,” said Timothy Queisser, owner of the Snooty Fox in Indianapolis, which showed up in Season 2 and closed last October after nearly 30 years. To Mr. Queisser’s dismay, Mr. Irvine gave his restaurant a pub motif and some British entrees, a dramatic departure in cuisine, the Anglophilic name notwithstanding.
“How often do people say they want to eat British?” asked Mr. Queisser, who now works for a company that manages gasoline stations and convenience stores. The rebranding actually worked for more than a month, thanks to curiosity seekers who had heard about the renovation. During this initial onslaught, Mr. Queisser recruited his brother, a chef, who took a look around and issued a dire prediction.
“He said, ‘You won’t have time to build a new reputation, and in the meantime your old customers won’t like what’s happened and will leave,’ ” Mr. Queisser said. “And he was right. Ten or 12 weeks later, it was like the lights went out.”
Mr. Queisser wound up with a few thousand dollars’ worth of shrimp, fillets and cod for fish and chips in his freezer. “I’m not going to say they were the demise of us,” he said. “They did a good job redecorating. They gave us a badly needed shot of P.R. But they kind of left us in the lurch.” [emphasis mine]
Back to Rhee:
One of the more striking line items on the operating side is for private grant funds. They averaged about $21 million between 2010 and 2012, as the Broad, Arnold, Walton and Robertson foundations supported the labor contract negotiated by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, one that eliminated seniority preferences and established big performance bonuses under IMPACT.
But the Rhee Effect is there in bold relief on Page D-2. With Rhee gone and the three-year foundation commitment up, private largess is considerably more scarce. Grant funds are projected at just $3.8 million for FY 2013, an 82 percent drop. Officials have announced that the cost of the IMPACT bonuses has been passed on to the individual schools. [emphasis mine]
Seems like they both parachute in, lap up the applause, and then bolt, leaving those in their wake with the task of figuring out how to continue. And it seems like they have something else in common: resume padding. Here's Irvine:
As the leader and taskmaster of each mission, Mr. Irvine is three parts drill sergeant and one part epicure, with a physique and résumé to match. His culinary training began with the Royal Navy, and he later cooked in the White House and at several high-profile casinos. What he did not do is work for three presidents and the royal family, as he once claimed, a bit of résumé-enhancement that came to light in 2008 and briefly cost him his role on a previous Food Network show. 
And Rhee?
Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, known for her crusade to use standardized test scores to help evaluate teachers, is facing renewed scrutiny over her depiction of progress that her students made years ago when she was a schoolteacher.
A former D.C. math teacher, Guy Brandenburg, posted on his blog a study that includes test scores from the Baltimore school where Rhee taught from 1992 to 1995. The post, dated Jan. 31, generated intense discussion in education circles this week. In it, Brandenburg contended that the data show Rhee "lied repeatedly" in an effort to make gains in her class look more impressive than they were. [emphasis mine]
And so the worlds of food and reforminess collide: charismatic personalities come into a "failing" situation, empowered by their own egos and exaggerated accomplishments. They scream and yell, make a few changes, declare victory... and leave, never to return. All glory; no accountability.

America in the 21st Century, ladies and gentlemen.

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