The Evolution of a Reformer and the Demise of Public Education As We Know It.

You’re a senior in college and you begin to worry: a few months before graduation and I don’t know what I want to do with my life. The courses about how we’re destroying the biosphere were more politics than science, Should I go to law school and become an environmental attorney? Or, an MBA, earn a fortune quickly and spend my time fighting the environmental marauders? Law firms are laying off lawyers not hiring lawyers, the same for Wall Street, and, my college loan debt is already staggering.

I apply for Teacher for America (TFA) and find myself in an inner city school, it’s by far the most stimulating and difficult thing I have ever tried. I have always succeeded in school – I “aced” every course, my SATs were impressive and now I worry every day whether I can make it. I stay late every day voluntarily tutoring kids, meeting with the other TFAers, planning lessons, my job is my life. I love it, I hate it. One day I want to quit, the next I can’t wait to get back to my kids.

The principal always seems overwhelmed, tragedies are the commonplace, the kids talk about shootings and gang gossip, and I become an enormous rap fan.

The TFAers stick together, a few senior teachers offer advice, others are cynical, a few downright unpleasant.

My school isn’t working – I want to change the face of education.

My two year TFA commitment is up and I get accepted to an elite grad school for a Masters in Public Policy. We read Paolo Frere “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Jonathon Kozol and Andy Smerick become my heroes.

I wanted our community to know that our activities don’t have to be dictated by decisions made a hundred years ago, especially when those decisions have led to consistently heartbreaking results…. the solution is right in front of us—it’s at work every single day, in cities from coast to coast. We just need to take it from its limited application and scale it…. it will allow us to do what should have been ages ago: bring an end to the failed urban district ….In the simplest terms; chartering should replace the urban district.

Every school, including district-run schools, must have a performance contract with an authorizer. An operator can run its schools as it chooses but a separate entity assesses the performance of its schools.

Smarick sees support from two urban superintendents,

“When Arlene Ackerman recently left as superintendent of Philadelphia’s district, she wrote the following: “I’ve come to a sad realization. Real reform will never come from within the system because too many powers that be (the teachers’ union, politicians, consultants, vendors, etc.) have a vested interested in maintaining the status quo that is failing our children. Meaningful education reform must be forced upon the system from outside by giving parents of all income levels real choices about where their children go to school.”

Late last year, when Jean-Claude Brizard left as CEO of Chicago Public Schools he wrote, “Transformational change will require a radical redefinition of the district…The fact is the public school district is an outdated model.”

You get an education analyst internship at Education Pioneers and a job with a foundation or a think tank or a political policy consulting firm or an elected official. A few years later you’re work for an urban department of education or a state commissioner of education determining school policy.

From the US Department of Education to the office of Governors to State Commissioners of Education the reform mantra is “if it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist.” Test it, measure it, evaluate it, from teachers to schools to school districts, if it’s working close it down. Curriculum and teaching practice are left to the folks in schools – you really don’t care how they get there as long as they do.

In New York State an enormously complex principal/teacher evaluation plan nears approval in all districts in the state. On February 22nd the Governor, as he does each year, will submit a pro forma midyear adjustment bill that will include third party binding arbitration for districts that have not negotiated plans, i. e., New York City.

The Governor’s staff insisted that if a teacher receives an ineffective grade on the 20% based on student tests and the 20% “locally negotiated” they must receive an overall ineffective grade regardless of the grade on the 60% which is primarily principal observations.

As the results of teacher evaluation plans are rolled out, low and behold, the results are strikingly the same as previous principal observation-based systems.

Education Week proffers,

In Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or better under new teacher-evaluation systems recently put in place. In Florida, 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or better.

Principals in Tennessee judged 98 percent of teachers to be “at expectations” or better last school year, while evaluators in Georgia gave good reviews to 94 percent of teachers taking part in a pilot evaluation program….

The early results offer several possible interpretations. As scholars have pointed out, there is no consensus about the percentage of teachers who should be identified as underperforming or superior in any given year.

“I do think we are still in a space of trying to do the research … as these systems are being implemented, making sure that we are following up on things like alignment between the different measures,” said Laura Goe, a research scientist in the Learning and Teacher Research Center of the N.J.-based Educational Testing Service.

“We just don’t have enough large-scale research studies yet to say that this is the right way to do it at the school level, the district level, or the state level,” she said.

Countless millions of dollars later the primary cog in Rubik Cube of teacher evaluation doesn’t seem to fit.

I have a radical suggestion – find highly experienced successful teachers, principals, school district leaders and state department of education staff and rely on their judgments – and, yes, admit that while poverty is not destiny it’s a hell of an obstacle.

6 responses to “The Evolution of a Reformer and the Demise of Public Education As We Know It.

  1. Peter,

    We’ve met a handful of times, but you may not remember me. I say that because I want you to know that what I’m about to say comes from the heart and is only meant to help you.

    This blog post, like many of yours that I read, starts off with so much promise and then doesn’t go anywhere. You start by writing to (or about) someone who has inadvertently fallen into education. He/she becomes passionate about the issue of equality and enters the policy world.

    So far, so good. In fact, it mirrors my own journey in some way. I went from teaching to policy.

    Then, right when I think you’re going to comment on what he/she can do to make a difference or something along those lines, you give some quotes and end abruptly.

    Your ending paragraph was puzzling.

    “I have a radical suggestion – find highly experienced successful teachers, principals, school district leaders and state department of education staff and rely on their judgments – and, yes, admit that while poverty is not destiny it’s a hell of an obstacle.”

    So you’re saying that the reformer you described in the beginning should just stop doing what he/she is doing because he/she isn’t experienced enough? Only people with decades of experience should be listened to?

    Does an idea have inherent value or does the messenger matter as well?

    That, to me, is an interesting quetion. I thought it was where you might have been headed.

    To make it more focused, limit the scope of your blog posts and go deeper. Give more detail on what you think should be happening.

    You have some experience in the education reform arena. Tell some stories about what you have experienced personally that inform your opinion on the topic.

    Again, I write this with love. I encourage you to keep going. I appreciate your perspective.


  2. To reduce students and teachers to a number is scary. Remember “1984”. The only truly reliable and valid evaluation is when a Holistic instrument is produced that measures not only what information a student learns- after all information in today”s electronic age is only a click away- but the ultimate impact a teacher has on the on the behavior of her/his students as well as the student’s knowledge.


  3. Brizard was a bad joke in Rochester, where he made a mess. They were happy to see him go. I would have let his career die in peace, not repeating anything he ever said, except to mock it.


  4. Did you fail to print some lines?  This is the most discombobulated posting I’ve seen from you. Alternatively, perhaps my gray matter is dissolving or hardening. I can hardly wait for the new pacemakers for the brain.  Maybe they’ll adapt them for students as well as our geriatric set. If all brains are wired they may be able to monitor the waves to get a true reading on which they could rate teachers/students/et al.

    In solidarity,




  5. Peter;
    While I’m sure Omar’s comments are grounded in good will and are also well taken, in my opinion he is missing the mark that is most important to me. Your open-endedness gives me an opportunity to think and to construct my own perspectives. In brief, your piece brought home to me the chaotic and sorry state of reform affairs. I understand that you are citing a fact, not offering your personal perspective, when you note that a substantial number of TFA members leave the teaching ranks after a few years to pursue other professions or to set educational policy after their short stints in the classroom. The program is designed for this – after all, isn’t that option part of the TFA compact?
    Then, according to Andy Smerick’s blog, there are the former superintendents who decry that change to education must come from outside; perhaps because they themselves were unable to enact some of the most essential and fundamental changes from within. Your comments pertaining to the reform mantra, “treasure the measure”, or something along those lines, is not a secret you have been keeping. ‘Tis no secret that the very measures that some applaud and use to justify school closings are rife with error, inaccuracy and sub-standard criteria and design. And let’s not forget that many districts have given up on curriculum and instruction because it’s just too damn difficult. Plus, since the curriculum is part of the accountability cycle, relieving districts from the work of curriculum design also relieves them of any accountability or responsibility – pretty cool! You state so accurately that, “Curriculum and teaching practices are left to the folks in schools – they (outside of school entities) really don’t care how they get there as long as they do”. A wise sage once said, it’s hard to help teachers construct a good aim, but easy indeed to assign them the blame- perhaps that could be the next reform mantra – at least it’s honest and cuts to the chase. Yes, I am often concerned and disheartened when the most prominent ideas around reforming our schools almost exclusively embrace governance by carrots and sticks as the means of improving educational practice and outcomes; these ideas are tired, old, and have not proved effective, yet they continue to be upheld by reformists, perhaps for their friendliness to sound bites.
    Your presentation of key insights from Education Week on the initial results of the new teacher evaluations across a few states is enlightening; there was an insignificant difference in the percent of adverse ratings using the teaching frameworks and associated observation systems. While the current outcomes may cause the systems’ creators, innovators and profiteers some temporary alarm, according to Laura Goe, a research scientist, there may be no cause for long term concern. She comments that, “I do think we are still in a space of trying to do the research….as these systems are being implemented, making sure that we are following up on things like alignment between the different measures”. Interesting, but I thought the research had been done by the likes of the Gates Foundation, think tanks, etc. Does this mean that our teachers are being rated on systems that have not been thoroughly researched and proven? Before all seems lost, it is clear where Laura Goe is going with this – once the research scientists align the observation process and outcomes with the tests that are abound at each grade level, the powers that be will be able to give guidance on how to ensure that classroom observations are just as reliable as their companion assessments. And, by the way, what’s the point of multiple measures once the “researchers” get done with their alignment – you can correlate anything, regardless of its absurdity!
    Finally, I am not at all that sure about your radical suggestion that we could probably do better by finding experienced and successful practitioners to pass wiser judgment on educational evaluation. After all, the track record of the reform movement, as noted in your blogs and as experienced by frontline educators, will be difficult to top. Omar, I appreciate that you keep the fresh ideas coming. I place high value on ideas from all quarters that are constructive and that refuse to ignore the most important and pressing issues that should guide our evolution as educational practitioners. And Peter, thank you for raising provocative and informative issues that give us an opportunity to formulate our own ideas and opinions.
    L H Block


  6. The only person that matters when it comes to a child’s education is the teacher.
    If you follow what the teacher wants; the teacher will want what you want.
    Following this line of reasoning, there is yet to be any organization/individual/politician willing to take the leap and try the logical.
    So, here we are, having spent money and energy that could have provided every child in America with a high quality education doing everything we can to ignore the teacher and because of that our system is a failure.


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