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

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

School "Turnaround": A Fool's Errand

Bob Braun tells us the Newark Public Schools are plowing ahead with their school "turnaround" plans as part of One Newark, all evidence to the contrary be damned:
The latest round of state-mandated school “reforms” imposed on the children, parents, and employees in the Newark public schools has created a bizarre situation in which virtually the entire staffs of so-called “turnaround” schools will be new and unknown to both neighborhood residents and to each other, many of these new teachers already have signaled their opposition to the changes mandated by the reform, and  faculty will be working two different schedules in the same schools.
That could hardly be a recipe for success. So, maybe it is a deliberate plan for failure.
The absurd set of circumstances was created when then state-imposed superintendent Cami Anderson announced that nine more schools would be added to the list of so-called “turnaround” schools that would–theoretically–operate on an extended day schedule with a staff of committed volunteers who had bought into the reform.
But it hasn’t turned out that way. Teachers had the right to opt out of the reform although they were warned they would be transferred to other schools, no matter how long they had worked at their home school. Many–if not most–teachers refused and they were transferred.
But here’s the kicker: Many were transferred from their home “turnaround” school to a different “turnaround” school, thereby defeating the whole point of the turnaround.
“Think about it. A teacher gets punished for refusing to sign a waiver agreeing to work extended hours in her current school because it will become a turnaround school. That punishment is transfer to another school that has been designated a turnaround school because there haven’t been enough teachers willing to volunteer.”
Turnaround schools are, in effect, swapping teachers–something that might almost be considered funny except for the devastating impact on the children and parents in neighborhood schools.
Read the whole thing if you can stomach it, then ask yourself this: what educator would ever sign off on such a transparently idiotic scheme? The answer, of course, is that no experienced educator ever would -- which is why the plan has been OK'd by State Superintendent Chris Cerf, who has never run a school building in his life, let alone a public school district.

As in Chicago, the district, populated at its top ranks by bunches of non-educators, wants Newark's teachers to accept a host of reforms that have no evidence to back them up: school "renewals," test-based merit pay, large-scale charter school expansion, "choice," and so on. The district also, like Chicago, wants its teachers to work longer hours for small increases in pay.

Newark's teachers have dared to point out that they are professionals and should be paid more at a professional wage if they are expected to take on additional work. For their troubles, many who have refused to go along with this have been placed into an "educators without placement" pool. The media has swallowed whole the idea that many of these teachers are ineffective, but I've seen no evidence that this is the case.

This constant disruption -- which is occurring at all levels of the district -- is premised on the idea that schools can be improved by bringing in the right "talent." This is the argument I hear from the charter sector of the city: they recruit the "best" teachers, which leads to the "best" results (of course, there's never any acknowledgement they somehow manage to wind up with the "best" students as well, or that they have different levels of resources available).

The problem with this argument is that it doesn't acknowledge the importance of building schools as social organizations that allow everyone to achieve good results, regardless of their "talent." Obviously, churning and burning staff is not the way to create these sorts of schools.

I'm not saying talent and experience don't matter -- they do. I'm also, once again, not saying poorly performing teachers don't exist -- they do. And I'm not saying those poor performers shouldn't be identified and given help or even removed from their schools -- they should be.

But there's no point in recruiting good people and holding them accountable if the system in which they work is fundamentally flawed. Which is why merely shuffling teachers around in a school reconstitution scheme does not work, particularly in the absence of any examination of whether schools have adequate resources.

My own work on Newark's school "renewal" efforts confirms this:

Growth measures cratered in the year after "renewal." The only they bounced back is undoubtedly because SGPs measure schools against peers with similar academic records; the "renew" schools were now being compared to a lower-growing group of schools.

Len Pugliese found similar evidence when he looked at proficiency rates:

To make matters worse, it looks like the "renewals" disproportionately affected teachers of color:

Does Cerf know this? Do his lieutenants in NPS? If they don't, they should. If they do, why are they going ahead with this madness? What is the point?

Can you tell I'm getting more than a little frustrated here? How much longer do I and others have to keep beating the drum before someone in charge finally listens to what we're saying? How much more evidence do we need to present before the decision makers (and their allies in the media) acknowledge that One Newark is not working? How much longer will these people value their ideological predilections over the best interests of the children and families of Newark?

School "turnaround" in Newark, as everywhere, is a fool's errand. If we're ever going to improve our schools, let's at least start by acknowledging this basic truth.

Accountability begins at home.

ADDING: Happy anniversary.

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