Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mike Petrilli Interprets Reform Backlash (Part 1)

This week Mike Petrilli took a stab at interpreting some of the pushback on reformster programs in what we can hope is a step in his journey to a more enlightened opinion. The column is actually an excerpt from a speech that he delivered to the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, which is interesting in that Chambers have not generally have not been open to a message of "Hey, we might have gotten a few things wrong on this ed reform thing."

More than a marketing miscalculation

Petrilli, to his credit, is not here to explain why those who are pushing back are deluded and wrong. Instead, he's asking reformsters to take a look in the mirror.

If we’re going to succeed over the long haul, we need to take a hard look not just at how we’re selling, but also at what we’re selling. We need to look at our reform agenda and ask ourselves: Is it working? Do the pieces fit well together? Does it diagnose the problem correctly and offer the right cures?

This is where we’ve made our biggest mistakes: getting the diagnosis wrong. Specifically, we have diagnosed all of our schools as having the same disease, and prescribed the same medicine for all of them.

Petrilli's first piece of analysis is that reformsters over-stated their case, suggesting that the US landscape was peppered with failing schools and a national system that needed to be creatively disrupted into oblivion and beyond. But Petrilli knows that his own kids go to a decent public school, and he suspects that most well-to-do parents feel the same. So when reformsters started to threaten to blow up those schools and build oppressive testing factories on top of the rubble, parents became cranky. (This is not a new insight for Petrilli-- check out Fordham's House of Cards parody in which Petrilli dupes a clueless Secretary of Education into shooting himself in the foot with a "white suburban moms" gaffe). No word on why low income parents also became cranky.

Mediocrity on the march

Petrilli's larger move in this piece is to downgrade the State of our Schools threat level from Defcon 2 to Defcon 4. It's not that all US public ed is a massive pile of disaster circling a great inexorable suck. No, US public ed is just mostly mediocre. There are very few great schools. That's our new Big Problem in Education.

How can we make sure that every professional in our building is excellent, always improving, and giving 110 percent?

I agree that "always improving" is a goal to shoot for. But Petrilli should know better than the 110% line, which is the pep talk equivalent of an amp that goes up to 11. No human being will ever "give 110%"

Most of us are now teaching under an evaluation system in which we are routinely cautioned that we won't live in "outstanding," but will only visit it occasionally, like a really expensive time-share that actually belongs to a rich uncle. We will live, we're repeatedly told, in "just pretty okay enough."

And Petrilli does dance around some of the definition and explanation of the alleged mediocrity. He suggests, for instance, that his son's elementary school has been neglecting history and science because they are complacent. I know plenty of schools that have cut back on science and history, and it has a lot less to do with complacency than with Not-on-the-test-itis.

The issue of challenging students is also a tricky one-- plenty of students will choose a comfortable A over a challenging B, and without any push from home, it's pretty hard to change that. I teach the most challenging class for juniors in my department, and every year, plenty of students choose not to be challenged. Not sure that's an indicator of school mediocrity.

Petrilli still believes that CCSS and "rigorous, aligned tests" are a solution. I remain convinced they are now part of the problem. But we do agree on this, with one exception:

What’s not a good fit for these middle class schools are policies that take power away from local school boards and local educators, such as a mandatory state curriculum or a formulaic system to evaluate teachers using a template created by a far-away state bureaucrat, and one that encourages teaching to the test.

Note that Petrilli says this is bad policy for middle class schools. I think it's bad policy in any school.

A two tiered system

On the one hand, Petrilli now makes a point that is rather huge coming from a reformster. He moves on to talking about high-poverty schools, and he says this:

From my experience, and from my examination of the data, most of even these schools are not “failing.” ... But on the whole, high poverty schools tend to be no better and no worse than the average school in the affluent suburbs. Their teachers work just as hard, the curriculum and methods they use are much the same.

So, high-poverty schools are not the victims of substandard staff and terrible teaching. Good to hear it.

But this takes us to the heart of Petrilli's point, and it's a dangerous and difficult point to address. Basically, here's how the argument breaks down. US public schools are mediocre. Middle-and-higher class students will be okay anyway, because they have access to resources that will get them where they want to go. But students from high-poverty schools can't settle for mediocre, because poverty puts them at too much of a disadvantage-- a disadvantage that schools have to make up for.

There are two ways (at least) to read this argument. The exceptionally bold one would be to read it as an argument that we should be focusing resources on high-poverty districts to ensure that those students have the best schools in the country. That would be awesome, but hard to sell, because there's no way to get around the reality that such a refocusing means collecting tax dollars from the well-to-do and pumping them into poverty-stricken schools.

The not-so-bold way to read this argument is that only poor students should have to suffer through all the reformster crap. Middle and upper class kids can have the school system their parents want for them, and poor kids can get the school system that bureaucrats and reformsters decide they should have in order to make up for their many failings.

So, which door will we choose

If you're wondering which reading Petrilli is advocating, take a look at this close-to-the-conclusion graf:

The most excellent urban schools in the country tend to be high performing No-Excuses charter schools that have the freedom and drive to obsess about excellence every day, to ensure that every adult in the building is top-notch and giving his or her all, to uphold high standards for student behavior and effort, and to create a culture of success. I’m doubtful that big bureaucratic districts can replicate that kind of school, and for that reason I think most big cities are going, ten or twenty years from now, to have systems dominated by charter schools, instead of school systems as we know them today. And if we can get the policies right and the accountability piece right, our kids will be better off for it.

So, charters. There are a few problems with Petrilli's solution.

First, the "success" of charters (whether they allow excuses or not) has been repeatedly shown to be illusory. Any public, private or charter school can make great numbers as long as they have the power to rid themselves of every under-achieving student.

Second, I agree that big bureaucratic districts are at a distinct disadvantage. But it's becoming rapidly clear that the typical charter of tomorrow (and probably today) is, in fact, part of a big corporate bureaucracy larger than any single school district. K12 is just one example of how the real money in charters is in massive scalability. Charters are going to be just about as nimble and responsive as the phone company.

Waiting for Part 2

So Petrilli has some new insights and ideas, and some of them are admirable and welcome, but they seem to be leading him to an old conclusion, a vision of districts where charters run most of the schooling, but public schools are still kept around because all those students who are run out of No Excuses charters have to be stuck somewhere (thereby keeping public schools in a perpetual state of failure).

I welcome Petrilli's evolution, and his willingness to consider the reformster need to look, not at their marketing, but at their product. I'm just hoping that step #2 in this journey of a thousand miles is forthcoming.

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