We live in a generation of “big data,” as Ian Ayres shows us in “Super Crunchers: Why Thinking by the Numbers is the New Way to Be Smart” (2007) virtually every industry parses numbers to determine important organizational decisions. For decades education, for better or for worse, was run by the educational hierarchy, and can be characterized as more interested in maintaining the bureaucracy than in changing the bureaucracy.
The last decade has seen a tidal wave of change, the new breed of educational leadership now agrees, data drives decision-making, and, economists, sociologists and management gurus own the data. Robert Gordon, an economist, designed the current weighted students funding (called Fair Student Funding in NYC) formula change that moved from “average teacher salary” to “actual teacher salary” in determining school budgets, a change that critics charge disadvantages senior teachers by encouraging principals to staff schools with new, low salaried teachers: principals must decide, “should I hire a senior teacher or two new teachers?” William Ouchi, a management professor at UCLA published the “bible” of school management, “Making Schools Work” (2003), a book that revolutionized the structure of urban school systems, Ouchi argues that principals must be given wide discretion in running their own schools, and, be held accountable for results.
The Ouchi mantra drove the Bloomberg-Klein school system,
1. Every principal is an entrepreneur
2. Every school controls its own budget
3. Everyone is accountable for student performance and for budgets
4. Everyone delegates authority to those below
5. There is a burning focus on school achievement
6. Every school is a community of learners
7. Families have real choices among a variety of unique schools.
The former inhabitants of Tweed measured every aspect of school performance and reduced the metrics to letter “A” to “F” grades. The “everyone is accountable” and “everyone delegates authority to those below” meant that the folks at the bottom, the teachers, were on the “firing” line. In classrooms the focus moved away from instruction to managing test scores, credit accumulation and school grades.
The data focus drove policy decisions in New York City, in Chicago and in Los Angeles, in virtually every urban school system.
The focus on data also drives policy at the state level. At the February 9th NYS Regents Meeting Education Resources Strategies, a consulting entity, will present recommendations based on a paper, “Spinning Straw into Gold: How State Education Agencies Can Transform Their Data to Improve School Critical School Resources Decisions” (December, 2014). On the next to the last page, almost as an afterthought, the paper avers, “…stakeholder engagement is critical …from unions to parents diverse stakeholders have raised questions … [about] misuse of state-collected data … often stem from a misunderstandings about how the data will be used.” In New York State the parent-driven opt-out movement is blossoming all over the state, there will be over 1000,000 parents, maybe manh more, choosing to remove their students from the discredited state testing program; they fully understand the misuse of testing. Teachers and their unions are at war with the governor who wants to base all high-stakes decisions on test results, from hiring to firing, from remuneration to promotion.
What is absent is a discussion about teaching and learning: the role of school leaders and teachers at the point of contact, in classrooms.
Kate Taylor, in the New York Times writes about the changing attitude in the new leadership of the Department of Education. The appointment of Carmen Farina, a 71-year old with over forty years of experience in the school system is an anomaly. The primary source of high level leadership has been the Broad Academy, funded by the Eli Broad Foundation, a leadership preparation program deeply ensconced in world a “big data” who have paved the way for the young and data-driven, oftentimes lacking in actual teaching and school leadership.
Taylor describes an incident,
The new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, walked in, saw a spreadsheet projected on the wall and cut off the official who was presenting the data. “I know a good quality school when I’m in the building,” she said, according to one participant in the meeting. “We’re going to do this,” she added, “based on the schools we know to be good.”
The Bloomberg-Klein crowd closed and created schools, public and private, at a dizzying pace, they “…either shut down or began to phase out 157 schools and opened 656 new, smaller schools” as well as opening 173 charter schools.
Farina has changed the entire vocabulary,
Instead of the previous administration’s technocratic, sometimes corporate language — full of terms like “accountability” and “competition” — her speeches are peppered with a new set of buzzwords, like “collaboration” and “trust.”
Teachers, their unions, advocacy organizations and communities, for the first time in a decade, are viewed as partners, valuable partners, who are engaged in the day-to-day process to improve schools; not without sharp criticisms from the supports of the former administration.
Eric Nadelstern, a visiting professor at Columbia University Teachers College and a former deputy chancellor under Mr. Klein, with whom Ms. Fariña clashed, said that Ms. Fariña was “an outstanding teacher” and “a great principal,” but that as chancellor she was relying on strategies that had proved unsuccessful over decades of efforts to transform urban education.is the systemic approach to thinking about how to move the system from where it is to where it’s never been,” Mr. Nadelstern said. “And part of that really is defining learning outcomes so that the public knows how to hold you accountable.”
He went on: “What exactly are they focused on that you can measure and as a consequence manage by and hold them accountable by? I haven’t heard anything.”
In reality Farina has simply clarified lines of responsibility; the tools to assess schools and principals include a deep dive into school progress, measured by quantifiable numbers and the observations of the reviewer.
The Principal Practice Observation Tool details the expectations of the external review and is the core of the principal’s overall rating, the Principal Performance Review.
Additionally schools are periodically subject to Quality Reviews by either the superintendent or a trained reviewer: see the details of the QR process here.
Farina is bucking the national tide, the reform-y mantra: teachers resist change, do what you have to do to force change in the name of “civil rights” for all children. Teachers view “change” cloaked as “reform” as punishment and push back; the result has been teacher wars in city after city. The reform, actually (de)form emphasis on “accountability” through numbers based on test results has also spawned a rising tide of parent opposition. The opt-out movement, the refusal to allow their children to participate in state tests is massive.
By the end of the Bloomberg administration parents believed teachers more than the mayor in regard to educational decision-making. The claims of “progress,” coming from the (de)formers is questionable at best.
Farina invited the union to work as a partner, standing together; working to refurbish and revive struggling schools, as a partner she also criticized the lunacy of our governor.
She is a risk taker; however, there are no guarantees: will a real partnership between the union and the chancellor actually begin to budge the behemoth, the New York City School System, forward? Or, as Eric Nadelsten warns, Farina is actually recloaking failed strategies?
Farina, the Mayor and the union are bucking a rising tide, the tide of charter schools, eliminating tenure and data-based firings, the tide of “big data” driving decisions, decisions made by the wonks, not the grizzled educators who have fought the wars for decades.
Then again, the sports data-wonks churn out the numbers, numbers which can’t guarantee winners; frequently it’s the teamwork, the passions, the dedication to one’s craft, a leader who uplifts rather than tears down, Farina could just end up turning around the direction of our national education system.