“Because I’m the Mayor, That’s Why!”

One of the billion-dollar questions in education improvement these days is whether change is better served through mayoral control or strong superintendents.  To many, traditional superintendent/school board structures are merely the last line of defense for the status quo, with supes looking to protect the same old structures and programs, because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

Mayors, on the other hand, have a bully pulpit unlike any superintendent.  They can force through real change, rallying key stakeholders (like the business community and philanthropy) that may otherwise back away from the same-old, same-old.  They can push through the new, even if it may face resistance from those defenders of the status quo.  They can put new leadership in place, layer in the necessary oversight, and do what is needed.
So it seems obvious that, at least for struggling urban school districts, mayoral takeover is the way to go.  But as Eduflack wrote last month, such moves aren’t necessarily slam dunks.  For every New York City success (and I realize that there are many who doubt the NYC DOE miracle), there is a Detroit.  Even recent research out of the Brown Center found no real school improvement impact coming from mayoral takeovers.
Apparently, the Wall Street Journal sees things a little differently.  Late last week, under the banner headline, “For More Mayors, School Takeovers Are a No-Brainer,” reporters John Hechinger and Suzanne Sataline describe how “more U.S. cities are considering scrapping a longstanding tradition in American education, the elected school board, and opting to let mayors rule over the classroom.”
For its case studies, WSJ offers up for mayors and their education successes.  In Boston, where Mayor Tom Menino took over the schools in 1992, they credit the takeover with major achievement gains in national math tests and the opening of charter schools.  In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley took over in 1995 and is credited with improvements on state test scores.  NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2002 takeover is credited with raising high school graduation rates by 11 percentage points.  And in DC, the new kid on the block, Mayor Adrian Fenty’s 2007 takeover is also credited with raising graduation rates in a majority of high schools.
I learned long ago, courtesy of my friends up at Gotham Schools, to be careful when defending the improvements in NYC.  For the record, I believe that Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have done a great deal when it comes to improving NYC schools.  We’ve seen the data and heard it retold by folks like the Broad Foundation.  Student achievement gains may not be exploding, but they are moving forward.  And such progress is a significant achievement in a system as large and entrenched as NYC.  Yes, I recognize that some teachers and parents have taken issue with the approaches Bloomberg and Klein have taken.  But at the end of the day, I continue to appreciate Klein’s unapologetic approach, particularly when he says there is nothing wrong with teachers teaching to a test if such a test is a fair measure of student performance.
Eduflack is really scratching his head, though, when it comes to branding DC as a successful mayoral takeover model.  If anything, Fenty and DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee have earned significant incompletes at this point.  Yes, Fenty has given Rhee the power.  But she still is fighting to implement a new staffing structure and is now preparing for what could be a bloody showdown with Randi Weingarten and the American Federation of Teachers over tenure and teacher incentives.  And while Rhee declared victory over the summer for first-year student achievement gains, the real win only comes when such gains are demonstrated year-on-year-on-year over the next three years or not.
But how can DC claim victory when it comes to raising high school graduation rates?  Most education researchers will tell you that student dropouts occur primarily between eighth and ninth and ninth and 10th grades.  The common belief is if you can get a student into the 11th grade, you probably can get them to stick around.  So how, exactly, does Fenty take credit for raising high school graduation rates in a majority of high schools when he only has one year of data (2007-08) to look at?  If more kids graduated during the first year of his mayoral control, is that due to mayoral leadership or to efforts put in place by the former superintendent and current high school teachers three or four years ago?  Most would say 2008 graduation rates are due to 2005 activities, those interventions taken years before Fenty took over.
I recognize we want to see Washington, DC’s schools succeed.  Even though DCPS is the smallest of the four school districts spotlighted, it carries a cache that Boston and even Chicago does not.  It is our nation’s capital, and a school district long seen as a disaster that simply cannot be fixed.  We embraced Rhee’s year one student achievement gains last summer as proof of success, even through we knew, in our heart of hearts, that a lion’s share of the success probably belonged to Cliff Janey and the previous regime.  We want and need DC to succeed, so we grab onto whatever we can.  We cannot afford for DC to become another Detroit, at least when it comes to mayoral control and school success.
WSJ does the field a disservice, though, by declaring such victory in Washington, DC.  Yes, we can look at places like Boston, Chicago, and NYC and look at five or more years of progress and results.  Any ed researcher worth her salt will tell you we need that much data to truly know whether a reform has been successful or not.  A year’s worth of data is meaningless.  We need some year-on-year information, a longitudinal view, to truly measure.
I’m the first to stand up and say we need to do whatever it takes to improve opportunity and success in public schools in our urban centers.  We have too much at stake, and too far to go, to pussyfoot around or nibble around the edges when it comes to real reforms and measurable improvements.  If it takes a mayor to take those steps, all the better.  It provides us a strong leader who can be held accountable for such efforts.  Let’s model best practices where there is evidence of real success.  If that comes as a result mayoral control, terrific.  
But we have to remember that for every mayoral success, we have equal parts failure or lack of impact.  Now is certainly not the time to declare premature victory or to misrepresent data that is, or is not, even there.  Although year’s worth of information is interesting, it is a far cry from a school improvement victory.  DC still has many miles to go before it is ready to even think about declaring a major win as a result of mayoral takeover of the schools.

Mini Me, Version DCPS

Educators are very big on the concept of modeling.  We find what is effective in a similar situation (with a school, a class, or a student just like mine) and put it into practice in our own situation.  Makes sense — if it is works for someone else, it just may work for me.

But sometimes we can take modeling a little too far, giving the impression we are just mimicking or copying those that others like.  Case in point, DC Public Schools.  For a school district that is supposedly all about innovation and improvement, they seem to be an awful lot like the new student trying to dress, talk, and act like the “cool kid” on the playground.
We saw it last year when DC Mayor Fenty decided he would channel NYC Mayor Bloomberg, appointing a schools chancellor (instead of a superintendent) and choosing a non-traditional choice (former Justice Department official Joel Klein in NYC and New Teacher Project founder Michelle Rhee in DC).  Since, we’ve seen it in Rhee’s dealings issues such as school closings and dealings with the unions and even parental engagement.
Yesterday, though, Rhee officially became Klein’s mini-me.  She announced a new pilot project to “pay” middle school students for showing up for school and doing their work.  If successful, Rhee intends to take the pilot project across all middle schools in DC, offering up crisp Benjamins for students who do their jobs as students.
Let’s forget that there are still unanswered questions about the effectiveness of NYC’s own pilot effort.  What message does it send when we offer middle school students pay for play?
Supporters of such efforts would argue it is simply an equity issue.  Upper-class families have been paying their kids for good grades for years, the line goes, why can’t we give at-risk students the financial incentive to come to class, pay attention, and do their homework.  After all, fair is fair.
Unfortunately, such thinking completely misses the larger picture.  Pay for play is necessary when there is no larger reason for the action.  In recent years, though, we’ve been telling students and their families that a good education is necessary for a good job.  We need more rigorous classes.  We need kids with high school diplomas and postsecondary educations.  We need students with the academic and social skills to succeed.
Step one to getting there is actually showing up for school.  Step two is paying attention.  Step three is doing the work.  Step four is measuring proficiency.  Repeat.  
The reward should be the proficiency and the skill acquisition.  A crisp $100 bill shouldn’t be the incentive for student performance.  If it is, getting middle school students to show up is the least of our problems.
If DCPS wants to borrow from the NYC DOE playbook, it should be focusing on increasing student achievement and closing the achievement gap.  Gimmicks such as pay to play may look good in the local papers, but they simply aren’t going to solve the larger issues facing DCPS and other urban districts.


The future of urban education?  On this evening’s CBS News, Katie Couric and company threw the spotlight on Washington, DC Public Schools and DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee.  The relative puff piece credited Rhee with shaking things up, getting rid of the dead wood, and taking the steps necessary to change the culture and performance of an urban school system that has been in perpetual decline.

Yes, many would — and have — questioned some of Rhee’s actions.  The local AFT affiliate has had their issues, particularly with the notion of “firing” teachers.  Parents have been frustrated by being cut out of the loop, particularly when it comes to school closings and the elimination of principals they love.  But meaningful reform does not come without criticism.  If everyone agreed with Rhee, then she was likely avoiding hard decisions and just rearranging the educational furniture.

But there was one thing about the CBS segment that bothers Eduflack.  Rhee is shown teaching in an elementary school classroom.  For those of us in the greater DC area, we read about Rhee and DCPS almost daily.  (I personally think the Washington Post goes out of its way to find bad photos of the Chancellor.)  But I have never read or heard anything about her teaching in the classroom.  If she’s doing it, she needs a PR team to better promote it.  If not, the footage just contributes to the larger criticism that many actions are just for “show.”

The larger issue was the classroom Rhee was teaching.  Maybe it was the camera angle, but it appeared she was teaching to an virtually all white elementary class.  Nothing wrong with that, no, but if Rhee is taking a serious stand talking about the change needed to improve DCPS’ performance, she should be showing it in the classrooms that are most affected.  She should be in SE DC, and not Upper NW.

At the end of the day, though, we know this is all just the dress rehearsal.  How much longer will friends and foes alike give Rhee (and Mayor Fenty) until they ask to see the test scores and demand to see improvements in achievement?  Ultimately, it is all about the numbers.

Jumpstarting a Dialogue?

We often hear about action for action’s sake, but how often do we act for the benefit of rhetoric?  Apparently, that’s what LA Mayor Villariagosa is saying regarding his attempt to take over LAUSD.  In today’s Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/news/education/la-me-lausd19may19,1,3072284.story?coll=la-news-learning&ctrack=3&cset=true) the LA Mayor talks about dropping his bid for takeover, rewriting history by saying his intent was to “provide a framework for dialogue.”

I’ll be the first to say that dialogue is good.  But I am a firm believer that you use rhetoric to advance action.  Pick the right words, the right spokespeople, and understand the right audiences, and you can drive the right action.  Nowhere is that more true than in education reform.  Our goal should not be talk.  Our goal should be to change public behavior (and improve student achievement) through effective communication.

I respect Villariagosa’s attempt to save face in what was a difficult situation.  But when we see the effectiveness of Bloomberg in NYC, or Fenty’s undeterred effort to take over DCPS, do we honestly think either the NYC or DC Mayors would be happy knowing that they had simply provided a “framework for dialogue?”  Of course not.

In the end of the day, Villariagosa forgot an important key to reform communications — build a strong cadre of supporters and advocates.  At times, it appeared he was fighting a one-man fight.  Fighting the school board.  Fighting the union.  Fighting just about anyone who stood for the status quo.  And at the end of the day, he paid the price.  A loss in court, a loss of stakeholder support, and ultimately a loss of public trust.

Lost in the discussion is the fact that LAUSD has some strong reforms they can boast of, particularly the recent successes of Green Dot Schools.  There, they have a reform focused on students and teachers, focused on academic success, and focused on strong communications and ally building in the community.  And its successes have helped it weather public rhetorical opposition from the unions and other sources.

The aborted takeover of LAUSD was a defeat for Villariagosa, no matter how he tries to publicly spin it.  But it teaches an important lesson to many of today’s education reformers.  Reform can’t be personal.  This isn’t about what a particular mayor, a particular superintendent, a particular corporate leader, or a particular researcher want.  As we have seen from LAUSD and from the Reading First and NCLB hearings, personalities can be torn down.  Individual personalities are easy targets.  Find a hole in their rhetoric, their background, or their public persona, and you can turn back their ideas. 

For such reforms to be truly successful, they need to focus on those who are being helped, those who are ultimately benefiting.  Instead of hearing what Villariagosa would do if he won and how he would change the school board and who he would hire, we should have been hearing about that child in Southcentral LA who would finally have that chance to succeed under a streamlined system.  Let’s hear how reform would impact the teachers and the students, not how it would bolster the power of the mayor.

Yes, LA can teach many of our urban districts a great deal.  Hopefully, Mayor Fenty is listening as he prepares to wage a public battle to get his school takeover plan through Congress.  Let’s hear how it will benefit DC schoolchildren and educators, and not how it will enhance the Mayor’s legacybuilding efforts.  In districts like DCPS and LAUSD, simply initiating a dialogue is not enough.  Communication without reform is simply talking to maintain the status quo.  Should that really be a goal … or an achievement to celebrate?

It Takes More Than a Village …

I’m the first to admit it.  Eduflack is results-focused.  When it comes to communications, does it really matter what you say or how you say it if it doesn’t contribute to meeting your overall strategic goals?  And when it comes to education reform, do the best of ideas matter if they don’t improve student achievement?  Good intentions only get you so far.  We measure results, effectiveness, and success.

But sometimes, we do need to take a step back.  And Rick Hess reminded us of that earlier this week in his commentary piece in The Washington Post.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/11/AR2007091101927.html.  For those who missed it, Hess looked at the early days of the Michelle Rhee administration at DC Public Schools, giving her strong marks for both intent and results.

Hess really grabs the issue of education reform by the throat with his opening paragraph:

One bit of the conventional wisdom hampering school reformers is the belief that if superintendents taking over troubled districts just concentrate on curriculum, instruction and “best practices,” everything else will sort itself out. This myth has been promoted by education professors and others who think large-scale reform entails simply figuring out what a good classroom looks like and then replicating it as necessary.  

I’m a suscriber to such conventional wisdom, at least as it relates to students.  Give a teacher a research-proven curriculum and an understanding and appreciation of best practices, and you can get students to achieve.  Apply what we know works — what we know is effective in classrooms like ours — and virtually every student in the class has the opportunity to succeed.

Of course, there are classrooms and then there are central offices.  Hess reminds us of that.  Before a superintendent can even think about how to get the evidence-based curriculum, the effective teachers, and the best practices into the classroom, he or she must deal with those management components we often forget about.  Personnel and textbook distribution and bureaucracy and broken systems and a faculty that has lost faith in any missive or idea coming from the central office.

School districts like DCPS — those districts that are in real need of reform and improvement — are not just one step away from the promised land.  One can’t just drop in a new SBRR curriculum or an effective teacher provision and assume that AYP will be met by all from that point forward.  These schools are in trouble, and are in need of wholesale improvement and comprehensive reform.  That’s why the keys are being turned over to a reformer in the first place.

At the end of the day, Hess is saying that the achievement we seek can’t be truly gained until we undergo a culture change.  And nothing could be more true.  Some may chide Rhee or Mayor Fenty for what are seen as PR stunts.  And, yes, some of them are.  But what Rhee and her team seem to realize is that they need to change the way DCPS thinks and acts if they are to deliver the student achievement gains we all seek and expect.

Yes, Rhee’s success is going to be based on how well DC’s students achieve.  Yes, we expect test scores to increase in short order.  But we also can’t expect all of DC’s teachers and parents to follow Rhee into battle if they don’t have textbooks, don’t get paychecks on time, and have lost confidence in the administration.  Effective reform requires more than just the village.  Both Rhee and Hess recognize that.


Closing the Doors?

The latest educational brouhaha in our nation’s capitol is all about the schoolhouse doors.  Or in this case, about closing some of them.  As part of her effort to overall DCPS, Chancellor Michelle Rhee is advocating the closure of 23 schools in Washington, DC.  The reason — underutilization and enrollment decline.  The full story can be found at the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/14/AR2008011401232.html

As to be expected, more than 60 people spoke at a marathon public hearing on the subject.  Community leaders protested outside.  Young students urged the city not to close their school.  Strong rhetoric on both sides.  It was an advocacy communications dream scenario, regardless of which side you are rooting for.

So who won in the first of what will be several educational cage matches?  Those individuals fighting under the Save Our Schools banner deserve some plaudits.  They managed to take an issue like budgetary savings and make it personal.  This was not about the $23 million savings that come from closing the schools (although some dispute that number).  This was about the kids who are to be affected.  The crayon-drawn signs.  The young students making very personal pleas (in English and Spanish, no less).  This isn’t about Excel spreadsheets, this is about the average fourth-grader in the district. 

Eduflack will overlook the issue of these young kids being taken out of school to be used as a rhetorical device.  And we overlook it because it was effective.  We are used to seeing Willy Wilson and Marion Barry fight the fight.  This is about the new generation.  Save Our Schools gave voice to the students by letting the students be the voice.  It was effective yesterday, and it can remain effective if they focus on such outcomes, and not on the process.

Which takes us to Chancellor Rhee.  She rode tall in the saddle, listening to 59 other people before she finally got her say.  Much of what she said focused on the process — utilization measures, dollar savings, and budgets.  All of that is important to holding the support of the Mayor and the City Council, absolutely.  But it is a non-starter with those audiences that will be affected.  Parents and community leaders don’t care about enrollment declines.  They want to protect their school.  As we’ve said before, no matter how poorly DCPS may be doing, most will believe that their neighborhood school is still doing an effective job?

If not the process, what should Rhee be focusing on?  That’s simple.  Let’s talk about the future.  She did some of that, giving voice to a student whose “wish list” include Spanish teachers, music teachers, and a librarian.  That’s her ace card.  She needs to speak for all her students.  This isn’t about closing a school, this is about ensuring DCPS’ other schools have the resources to provide the curriculum, the technology, and the “coolness” that we need to keep kids in school, engaged, and on the right track.  This is about what we get, not what we are giving up.  This is about outcomes, not inputs.

No, it’s not an easy sell.  The opposition is always poised to defend and protect their schools and their teachers.  Rhee’s job is to build a strong school district with good teachers and achieving students.  At some point, what your teaching and who is doing the teaching should rise above where you are teaching.

The chancellor and the mayor have a lot invested in these reforms.  Once they get through this, they’ll have to battle the union over firing rights, and that may well be an even tougher battle.  Now is the time for Rhee to demonstrate she has heard everything spoken to her during her honeymoon period, and that she understands the needs, desires, hopes, and dreams of DC parents and neighborhoods. 

Finding Models of Reform Excellence

If we’ve learned anything from the education investments of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is that one of the keys to effective education reform is replicability.  We all seek to improve our schools.  But when it comes to enacting reform, we want some guarantees.  We’d like to know its worked somewhere.  It makes it easier to sell the reform to key constituencies, and it makes it easier to anticipate the improvement you seek.  We want to learn from those who have succeeded.  That’s how we replicate.

Yesterday, we heard Mayor Bloomberg at the National Urban League calling on other cities to emulate the education reforms enacted in New York City.  Under the tenure of Gotham’s Mayor and Chancellor Klein, NYC has a lot to be proud of.  Reform has generated results.  And the kids in NYC’s public schools are benefiting, at least according to the latest round of student assessments.

Bloomberg deserves credit for marketing NYC’s education reforms as the model to emulate.  With most reforms, educators are quick to say that results take time, we need to be patient, and we don’t fully know the extend or the long-term implications.  We caveat the reforms, lower expectations, and generally de-emphasize the results out of fear that the improvement won’t hold.  But not Bloomberg.  His bold declaration was the sort we expect from a business mogul or a seasoned politician.  Bloomberg must be both.  He’s now got the NUL thinking, and he already has mayors like DC Mayor Fenty signing up to adopt the Bloomberg education model.

For those who aren’t willing to invest in the Bloomberg model, the Baltimore Sun offers a second education reform marketing effort, and an unlikely one at that — The Baltimore Schools.  http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/education/k12/bal-te.md.scores22jul22%2C0%2C546385.story

IDing how schools of all shapes, sizes, and such can succeed, Baltimore this week is offering up its formula for success.  The components are simple.  Experienced, veteran teachers.  Extra-curricular activities.  Involved parents.  And a focus on student achievement.  Sounds good to me.  Now we just need to move such lessons beyond the walls of George Washington Elementary.


Bloomberg and Baltimore provide us two sides to the same coin.  And they tell us a clear story.  There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to education reform.  But there are lessons to be learned in all corners of public education.  Cobble together enough of those lessons, and you may just have a comprehensive education reform model that will make a meaningful, long-term difference when it comes to student achievement.

As we are learning these lessons, though, we need to look for opportunities to teach.  Those schools that have reformed and improved.  Those who have implemented NCLB and succeeded.  Those who have IDed a problem and taken a bold step to solve it.  Now is the time for you to step forward.  Now is the time to promote your reforms and talk up your improvements.  The future of our schools depends on it.