While it has taken a back seat to Race to the Top talk (and is shouldn’t since it is worth far more to the winning school districts than any RttT or i3 innovation), folks are still waiting to see who the Gates Foundation will award their Deep Dive teacher improvement grants to. Earlier this fall, the pool was narrowed down to five — Pittsburgh, Memphis, Hillsborough County (FL), Oklahoma City, and a consortium of charter schools in Los Angeles. The talk has long been the four winners will split the $500 million Gates is committing to the project.
Can one make lasting improvement working solely within the confines of the status quo? That seems to be the question the US Department of Education, particularly EdSec Arne Duncan, is asking as additional details on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and our federal education policy come into crisper focus.
For the past few weeks, the crystal ball gazers waiting to see who is tapped for EdSec have been all a twitter about how the choice will serve as the white smoke as to whether the Obama Administration is the status quo or a reformer when it comes to education. Will reformers (whether they be Democrats for Education Reform or advocates for new ideas such as Teach for America or New Leaders for New Schools) be given the keys to Maryland Avenue? Or will the old guard (be it the teachers unions or old-school researchers and academics) be given the power to lead?
With both presidential candidates discussing school choice as a plank in their educational platforms, it is only natural to start thinking about the role of charter schools in the coming years. It is no secret that charters were vigorously fought by the educational establishment for many years, seen as a vehicle for taking money from the old-school publics and “diluting” the school district’s mission. As years have gone by, we’ve seen many charters do extremely well (and some still very poorly), as the model has moved into the mainstream and status quoers’ ire has instead been directed at vouchers and similar programs.
Thanks in large part to the funding and attention provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, much of the past five years in education reform has focused on improving high schools. We’ve seen programs large and small looking for ways to improve rigor and relevance of high school instruction. We’ve looked at small schools. We’ve tried to tackle the high school dropout rate and the issue of dropout factories. We’ve even looked at career education and career academies. Lots of great ideas that have worked in a lot of well-meaning communities. But much of it steps along the path of finding a high school improvement model that can truly be implemented at scale.
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?