Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute spoke today in front of the New York Council of School Superintendents, a speaking engagement that was enough to stir up general commotion before he ever even opened his mouth. I'm not a NYS superintendent, but the text of the speech is on line, so let's see what he had to say.
Petrilli starts by re-casting his topic. The speech was billed as "How To End the Education Wars," but he modifies that to how to survive them. And he then launches his three ideas:
Be the voice of the sane and sensible center
Petrilli uses the new fave talking point for reformsters in which he characterizes the pro-public-education folks (and name checks Diane Ravitch) as those who have given up, think that education is hopeless in the face of poverty, believe that schools cannot do any better. This is the new improved straw man version of dismissing reform critics because they "use poverty as an excuse." It's a snappy rhetorical point, but it's a lie, a deliberate misreading of what folks in the pro-public-ed camp are saying.
It's a particularly galling point coming from the man who has explained on more than one platform that the proper role of charters is to rescue those students who are deserving, snatching them from the midst of the undeserving mob. It's galling from charter fans in general, as their whole point is that public schools are hopeless and we should not waste another cent trying to help them do better.
But it's also insulting to the millions of teachers who are in the classroom day after day, doing the best they can with the resources they have. Hey, teachers-- if you're not succeeding with all of your students, it has nothing to do with obstacles and challenges in your path. You just don't believe enough.
The Petrilli pivots to criticize reformers, mostly for creating unrealistic definitions of success and failure. All students will not be ready to go to college, and not all schools labeled failing are, in fact, failing.
He suggests that superintendents advocate for growth measures in evaluating schools. He calls on them to call out schools that are failing, because it will increase their credibility. He does not take any time explaining what standards the individual student growth should be measured against, nor why.
He also throws in a plug for vocational education, and on this I'm in complete agreement with him.
But in this section Petrilli has mapped out a "sensible center" that I do not recognize. On the one side, an extreme straw-man version of reform opponents, and on the other, a tiny concession that assumes the fundamentals of reform are sound. Petrilli's sensible middle has nothing to say about the destructiveness of test-driven accountability, the warping of the system that comes from making schools accountable to the federal government, or the lack of full funding and support. On the one hand he dismisses anyone who wants to talk about the effects of poverty on education, but on the other, he acknowledges the unfairness of comparing schools where students arrive already behind on their first day. Petrilli's sensible middle is a bit of a muddle.
Ask for the ball-- then run with it.
This is also a hot new reformster talking point (also on view in Rick Hess's cage-busting teacher) in which people who are getting ground down by the system are responsible for boot-strapping themselves into a better place.
Petrilli gives it to both sides with superintendents and teacher evaluations. He chides the superintendents-- we reformers never would have had to come after you on this if you hadn't been doing such a crappy job (and we skip, again, the question of why the ed system is responsible for coming up with a system that reformsters approve of. I don't like the way some think tanks are run-- should they have to come up with a new system that makes me happy?) On the one hand, he feels their pain because of course it's "damn near impossible" to fire a teacher, and again, Petrilli is too smart to actually believe that's true. Unless he and I have radically different definitions of "damn near impossible."
At the same time, Petrilli characterizes Andrew Cuomo's teacher evaluation proposal as "insane," noting that the trend is to use test scores less, not more. But he tells them they can do a better job with evaluating and canning probationary pre-tenure teachers. Not sure I disagree with this, but he cites Joel Klein's work with this system in New York City, but the last I read, New York's Teacher Tenure Twilight didn't yield any useful results.
Petrilli also scolds the superintendents for doing a lousy job on leader development and recruitment, simply waiting for teachers to self-select for administration roles.
So actually, the balls that Petrilli thinks superintendents could grab are relatively small and not terribly significant ones. But of course, they're among the few balls that are still left to superintendents in New York.
On charters: don't fight 'em, join 'em
Petrilli acknowledges that his charter love might be why eyebrows have been raised to ceiling height for his appearance at the supers' gathering, but he says New York is charter territory because Albany leads the nation in production of education red tape. The awesome thing about charters is that they get to run without all that tapiness, and the superintendents should agitate for the same tapeless freedom. And if they can't get it, they should get in on the charter fun.
This third point is brief, perhaps because there are no details to add to this. How does one elaborate on these points. Ask Albany for freedom that they won't grant you in a zillion years? Join the charter game by finding millionaires to back you? Stop being so resentful that politicians, with the backing and encouragement of outfits like the Fordham Foundation, have been steadily stacking the deck against public schools and in favor of charteristas? Yes, it's probably just as well that Petrilli didn't dwell too long on this point.