Decision Point

Last night, Education Reform Now hosted a presentation and panel discussion at Central Library. The main speakers were a representative from the New Orleans system and David Harris, CEO of the Mind Trust; they were joined by two (very impressive) teachers currently working for IPS–one from Howe, a “traditional” school that has just been taken over by the state, the other from Herron High School, a high-achieving public charter school.

Often, when people from elsewhere (isn’t that the definition of an expert?) come to lecture about education, they deliver bromides, based upon their own pet theories and unacknowledged values/prejudices. The New Orleans representative (name escapes me) was very different. He didn’t come to throw bombs or accusations; he was very clear that the failure of urban systems is a systemic failure, not a result of teacher’s unions, or bad teachers or even poverty. New Orleans recognized that what had to change was the top-down system itself–that even the most well-meaning, hard-working people could not achieve results until the system changed.

He was also very candid that the New Orleans schools–despite impressive gains–still has a long way to go.

They key to the improvements in New Orleans was relinquishment–recasting the central office as an administrative support unit, not a command center. As he pointed out, you cannot micromanage what happens in the classroom if you want to hold schools accountable for results. (There’s an analogy to what architects call “performance specifications”–unlike detailed drawings, performance specifications set out the required results, and let the architect or engineer figure out how to achieve those results.)

The systemic changes in New Orleans sounded a lot like the proposals recently made by the Mind Trust, as both presentations made clear.

During the panel discussion, moderated by Amos Brown, the two teachers on the panel explained why they endorsed the Mind Trust’s approach, and shared their own experiences and frustrations.

All in all, the program was the best analysis I’ve heard of the challenges urban school systems face, and the best explanation of the Mind Trust’s proposals for change. That change won’t be easy; the representative from New Orleans downplayed the role of the hurricane in that city, but that disaster clearly created–along with so much tragedy–an opening and mandate for the reinvention of that city’s schools. The tragedy we face is much less obvious–a steady stream of children we are failing. They aren’t being swept away by tidal waters, but they are drowning in a dysfunctional system.

There are no panaceas, and no one on the panel suggested they had all the answers. But the program made a compelling case for change–not just the typical handwringing “we have to do something,” but a well-researched, carefully constructed plan to help us improve the school system and the lives of the children that system is currently failing.

The question is, do we have the will to make the changes we need? Or will we continue to bicker and tinker at the edges of a broken system?


Education Reform Basics

Democrats for Education Reform is an important organization in our state. It’s composed of people–mostly, but not exclusively, Democrats–who want to approach education issues from the standpoint of what is best for children, and without the usual political constraints. (“Political constraints” in this context means automatic obeisance to the teachers’ unions. The organization is not anti-Union, but neither do its members feel obliged to agree with the union on every issue, as Democrats have traditionally done.)

Last night, my husband and I attended an event sponsored by DFER. There were at least a hundred people in attendance, and it was an interesting and diverse crowd: teachers from both traditional public schools and charters, business people, legislators and ordinary citizens concerned with the problems of public education. The speaker was was Stephen Brill, and he was “interviewed” by Matt Tully, the Star columnist who has written movingly about Manual High School and the issues facing educators in our poorer precincts.

Brill has recently written a book (who hasn’t??) about what’s wrong with public education. He is not an educator; he describes himself as a reporter. He made a lot of money establishing Court TV and several magazines; he was self-possessed to the point of smugness, and he made sure the audience knew he teaches a seminar at Yale.

Brill made a number of points that most observers would agree with, and he showed real skill in evading questions for which he clearly had no answers. (Case in point: he forcefully defended testing students as a method of evaluating teacher effectiveness. When I asked him how that should work in inner-city classrooms that experience student turnover in excess of 100% during the school year–classrooms in which the students being tested at the end of the year are not the same children who were tested at the beginning of the school year–he didn’t answer the question; instead, he launched into an extended and mostly irrelevant defense of “doing something” even if that something wasn’t perfect.)

The format was question and answer, and there was a lot of earnest discussion about the importance of good teachers (duh!), the pros and cons of charter schools, and the role of teachers’ unions. But the truly important question was asked at the very end of the program. It was a simple enough inquiry by a woman who identified herself as a longtime proponent of education reform: “how do you define a good education?”

It caught Brill flat-footed. And therein lies the real problem.

Pretty much everyone agrees that the education system is broken. (To his credit, Brill agreed that most suburban schools are no better than the schools serving urban areas–students simply tend to come from homes that have prepared them better.) Pretty much everyone wants to improve public education–I don’t know anyone who’s celebrating the status quo. But all the arguments about how to improve schools, all the fancy talk about measurement and testing and excellence, tends to ignore the central question: what do we mean by education? What should students know when they graduate? What skills should they have? Why? How does education differ from job training? How does education for citizenship differ from education as a consumer good?

The Chamber of Commerce wants schools to produce an “educated workforce.” Parents want schools to provide “marketable skills.” Policy wonks talk about global competitiveness. Our Governor seems fixated on credentialing–turning out students who’ve earned a piece of paper in the least possible amount of time. Some old fogies (me, for example) believe an education requires acquainting students with great literature, with science, with history, with at least a minimal understanding of their government, and–above all–the ability to think logically and critically.

It’s an unresolved–and largely unasked–question, and it’s the elephant in the room. Because if we don’t agree about what an education is, how on earth will we know whether we are providing it?