Wednesday, March 13, 2019

NY: Rochester, Mayoral Control, Vultures, and the Problems of Democracy.

It has been almost a decade since a mayoral school coup was a hot topic in Rochester. Mayor Robert Duffy wanted to implement NYC style mayoral control. There seemed to be support for the move; the superintendent even had a nifty portfolio plan whipped up and ready to go. But Andrew Cuomo tagged Duffy as his running mate for governor, and Duffy was out of Rochester politics about a year after he'd proposed the takeover. The Senate was moving on it, opponents were ready o file lawsuits, but the whole business just sort of languished.

Well, there's your problem.
Fast forward to last year. In August, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Alia sent a consultant to Rochester to talk to folks, assess the situation, and make recommendations. Jaime Aquino, Distinguished Educator (seriously, that's his title), had held leadership positions in NY, Denver, and Los Angeles before he arrived in Rochester to talk to many people and wsw`determine that-- well, the full report, issued in November 2018, was a brutal sixty pages. It's not pretty:

“That lack of stability in leadership really has an impact on the work that happens in school," Dr. Aquino said of the district having five superintendents in the past decade. "There is also, in the district, lack of a laser-like focus on student achievement. There’s not a lot of attention being paid to teaching and learning, and a lack of accountability in the system in terms of monitoring what goes on in the school and in the progress the kids are doing.”

The picture that emerges from the report is of fully-dysfunctional top-down leadership, starting with a dysfunctional board that is both splintered and prone to micro-management, and on to a central office with no vision, bouncing from "flavor of the month" to the "crisis du jour." The frequent turnover extends down through most leadership positions. The report also notes problems rooted in a "deep history of institutional racism" and that district is "crippled by a culture of fear and intimidation." Their only positives-- a good pre-K program and stakeholders who were brutally honest but had not given up hope. Aquino's report included a plan to move forward, and many school and community leaders had responses; notably, none of these argued that Aquino got it wrong.

Some folks had already been prepared to jump the gun; Governor Cuomo voiced support for mayoral control weeks before the report was even issued. In Rochester, it took about a couple of weeks after the report for the question of mayoral control to reappear, introduced, apparently, by a local tv station. At that point, Mayor Lovely Warren said, "Eh, we'll see."

That was last November. Just last month, the issue heated up again. Assemblyman David Gannt proposed two bills-- one to give the superintendent more power, and one for mayoral control. The teachers union president and the school board president argued against the idea. Mayor Warren hedged her bets, but said something has to happen. That was about a month ago.

On March 4, Warren said of the school woes, "Today it stops." She pointed out the obvious-- if the pre-K is turning out great results, what happens to them? Nobody knows. Warren doesn't think mayoral control is the way to go, and the civic leaders seem to agree with the commissioner that the district's plan lacks vision-- but nobody else seems to be articulating a vision, either. In the last week, the commissioner has signaled that she is unimpressed with Rochester schools' plan. An Action network petition went up opposing a takeover-- it has 91 signatures.

There is so much bad written about Rochester schools. It's not just the Aquino report. Or rather, the report is backed up by horrible statistics. Extreme segregation. Extreme poverty. Dysfunctional leadership. Terrible graduation rates (just barely over 50%). Over a dozen schools failing by the state measure.

The city has sifted through many possible governance solutions, though it seems that any solution that includes the white suburbs or directly addressing segregation is off the table. Forced closings of some schools didn't accomplish anything. The Democrat & Chronicle declared the schools the worst in America, and launched their own school rescue program called Time To Educate (motto: Something. Must. Change.)

And there's another player on the field. Meet ROC the Future.

ROC the Future is a "collaborative community-wide initiative" that wants "to promote alignment and focus community resources to improve the academic achievement of children in the City of Rochester." It's a collection of local leaders and organizations that are out to set the district straight. Their lack of faith is evident; RTF has recently reached out to the NY Commissioner, going over the school district's head. "Engage us in your decisions," say the Mayor and RTF.

If this model of local movers and shakers stepping in to put themselves in charge of local education seems familiar (see also "Mind Trust"), that's because RTF isn't an entirely local operation. RTF is part of the StriveTogether network. StriveTogether is all about the cradle to career pipeline, data driven decisions, and a host of highly prescriptive education ideas. It is yet another organization headed up by folks who have no education background; StriveTogether CEO Jennifer Blatz was an admissions officer before she went to work at KnowledgeWorks-- and yes, StriveTogether is part of the KnowledgeWorks universe. KnowledgeWorks has been around for two decades, riding the Gates ed reform gravy train to wherever it was running; currently KnowledgeWorks is all about personalized learning (a preferred path to privatization these days).

This is not particularly surprising. Where you find a school system in trouble and vulnerable, you find reformsters hoping to cash in.

And make no mistake-- Rochester's schools are definitely struggling. The question here is not if there is a problem, but what the solution might be.

Rochester likes to speculate about mayoral control, but when proponents of mayoral control want to make their case, their arguments invariably focus on what is wrong with the district, and not what mayoral control could do to fix it. The school board is too mired in politics? How does subordinating them to another political office fix that?

Rochester, at least from out here in the cheap seats, seems to encompass almost all the issues of education. An institution with long baked-in systemic racism. A lack of functional leadership that pumps toxicity into the system, leading to more leadership problems (like the inability to hang onto a superintendent for more than a year or two). A host of backseat drivers trying to grab the wheel on this careening bus. And I am not even going to start into the stresses on the system by charter schools in Rochester.

And, it has to be acknowledged, a system that stands as a rebuke to those of us who champion local democratic control, because (again, from the cheap seats) it certainly seems that local democratic control is not working. It is a reminder (as if we needed any more reminder than the orange-skinned grifter in the White House) that democracy is not magical.

What could help? Well, not mayoral control, which remains a really lousy idea. There isn't a reason in the world to believe that the mayor of the city knows enough about education to run a school system, and nothing in the history of mayoral takeovers to suggest that it's an idea that can work well. State takeovers are predicated on the notion that somebody in the state capital knows more about how to run a school well than professional educators. And both of these solutions require a whole community to be stripped of their voting rights, which ought to be cause for alarm-- particularly when the people being stripped of their vote are brown and black and poor. Building up the charter sector under current law just strips the public school of the resources they need to shape up. And while all this rages on, the vultures circle, smelling an opportunity to profit by a community's crisis.

The root problem is the same problem that plagues business and politics-- how do you fix an institution when people hold key positions who are not fit, by reason of either temperament, ability, or morality, to hold those positions? It would be nice to be able to appeal some higher authority, but everywhere we look, all we see are other human beings. The real solution is for the board to stop being horrible, or for the electorate to stop electing horrible board members. The solution is for a non-horrible board to hire a qualified superintendent and back her up, empower her, and let her do her job- and for the concerned movers and shakers of the city to do the same. Or, if the state decides they want to solve the issue with charter schools, then the solution is for the state to pump in the kind of extra money needed to effectively operate multiple school systems, and not make them fight over the money that isn't even enough to operate one system well. The state could also help by releasing schools from the tyranny of high stakes testing, so that Rochester can focus on the educational issues that matter instead of wasting too much time and effort chasing test scores.

It's easy when a system is this far in the weeds to amble up, point at the bus parked on its side amongst the corn stalks and observe, "Well, see. There's your problem. Your bus should be on its wheels, over on the pavement." But the painful specifics of getting there are difficult and challenging and not always obvious in their solutions. When it comes to education, amateurs always think they know the answer, and the worse the problems, the more plentiful and certain the amateurs become. But educational amateurs and politicians and reformster groups with binders full of prescriptive programs are not going to save Rochester City Schools.

We should all watch to see what happens next.

1 comment:

  1. I'm out walking my dog less than a mile from the Rochester city border.

    We have the most extreme income inequality in the Western Hemisphere.

    The WSJ recently identified Rochester as the worst urban economy in the US.

    Until Rochester families have jobs, nothing will change.