Tag Archives: Ravitch

Pity the Poor Principals, Really: School Leaders are Humiliated and Ignored by a Mindless Bureaucracy

Middle management carries the message from the corporate aeries to the troops in the trenches. How do you “transmit the message” to the 1600 franchises, the sixteen hundred schools, diverse by neighborhood, by size, by age of students and by academic achievement of student bodies? Who decides upon the message? Washington? Albany? the Mayor? What is the role of the public in crafting the message?

In a nation that prided itself on education policy crafted in the fifteen thousand school boards the new so-called education reform has an awkward feel to it – crafted in backrooms by anonymous bureaucrats – the whiff of totalitarianism.

The school leaders, the messengers, range from veterans who worked their way up the ranks from teacher to assistant principal to principal to newbie leadership program graduates. While teachers tend to trash the leadership program principals in my experience there are grizzled veterans who run schools by threat and intimidation and new leadership program principals who work in collaboration with teachers – and the reverse – the common characteristic is the level of frustration.

Each day your e-mailbox is filled with messages, everyone, from Tweed to networks to superintendents, all have the ability to ask for information or send orders – the “principal as CEO” mantra is a canard.

The network, your support system, carries the message and the superintendent, your rating officer, is the reviewer of accountability metrics. How successful are you in carrying out the ukases?

Principals are both, in theory, managers and instructional leaders; one principal described the job: “I’m a juggler – and they keep adding balls.”

Management theorists suggest granting as much authority as possible to the managers closest to the customers. I was shopping in PC Richards, in my “discussion” with the sales person we reached an impasse, I suggested, “Why don’t we speak with your manager?” I added, “I’m a really good longtime customer.” A tapping on the computer – a smile, “We can work something out.”

Large, successful organizations train, train, train and grant wide authority to managers, collect and assess data (stores sales, by month, by year, by individual sales rep, by product) and assess sales reps and store managers.

William Ouchi, “Schools That Work (2003)” is a management professor at UCLA and is generally considered the leading driver of school management policy.

Ouchi’s central recommendations are expressed in seven “keys to success” that, if followed, will make any school successful. They are:

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.

While Joel Klein was fond of quoting Ouchi, especially the supposed wide discretion of principals in the world of New York City schools, in reality, principals have limited authority, very limited authority.

The imposition of Race to the Top requirements (i. e., a teacher evaluation system and a data warehouse) and the Common Core (higher standards measured by rigorous exams) are imposed, schools are held accountable with, of course, zero input.

An excellent op ed in the New York Times, “Who’s Minding the Store” questions the implementation of the Common Core,

In sum, the Common Core takes as its model schools from which most students go on to selective colleges. Is this really a level playing field? Or has the game been so prearranged that many, if not most, of the players will fail?

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, supports the plan, which she calls “revolutionary.” That said she has called for a moratorium on judging teachers and schools by the first round of assessments, which she fears are sometimes being implemented hastily and without needed support.

For Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and former assistant education secretary, the program is predicated on “the idea that you can’t trust teachers.” If we want our children taught from standardized scripts, she told us, let’s say so and accept the consequences.

For our part, we’re tired of seeing teachers cast as scapegoats, of all the carping over unions and tenure. It is time teachers are as revered in society as doctors or scientists, and allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.

Let me repeat, “…allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.”

Principals and teachers are bound by endless complex rules, Ouchi’s # 1 rule; “Every principal an entrepreneur” is thwarted by the footnote, “Within Tweed rules and mandates.”

Under the new teacher evaluation plan both sides, the city and the union supported two observations a year, State Commissioner King required at least four observations a year. Is there a scintilla of evidence that the number of observations improves instruction? Substantive two-way dialogues create conversations that impact the teaching/learning process – the Commissioner and Department appear only interested in a compliance checklist.

“I drop into every classroom almost every day – I constantly discuss instruction with the staff – I observe my superb teachers once a year, others more depending on the need – 40 teachers x 4 observations = 160 observations a year – what is this going to prove? Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) look like a mechanical exercise to satisfy the Commissioner … when will I have time to talk to kids and teachers and actually lead the school?” moans a principal.

One of the frustrated principals complained to me, “Student Learning Objectives are a worthwhile idea – I would like to sit down with teachers – perhaps at a summer institute and work on student learning objectives – maybe a combination of student projects, essays, research papers culminating in a portfolio, and emphasizing daily checks on student understandings – forget it – we’ll receive a slick packet from Tweed wrapped in a classy PowerPoint and we’ll all try to figure out how to game the system.”

Some principals figure out a “creative non-compliance” strategy: how to both report the data the “system” requires and create a community of learners that empower the best in teachers, others stumble along and eventually quit and a hardcore will mindlessly crush staffs into compliance, as so eloquently expressed by Hannah Arendt, are evil,

People who do evil are not necessarily monsters; sometimes they’re just bureaucrats …. Evil, Arendt suggests, can be extraordinary acts committed by otherwise unremarkable people.

[Arendt] insisted that only good had any depth. Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet — and this is its horror! — it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.

The Common Core: The Beat Goes On: Tony Bennett, David Steiner and the Hirsch Crowd Muse About the Common Core and the Future of Public Education

As the Common Core snowball gathers speed the three million teachers are increasingly ill at ease,

Even as the Common Core State Standards are being put into practice across most of the country, nearly half of teachers feel unprepared to teach them, especially to disadvantaged students, according to a new survey.

Education Week reports,

More than two-thirds said they were not well enough prepared to teach the standards to English-language learners or students with disabilities. More than half said they were not yet ready to teach them to low-income students or those considered at risk of academic failure.

Prepared or not the forty-five states that are part of the two consortia – Smarter Balance and PARCC are in high gear preparing the assessments for the 2014-15 school year.

The pushback is gaining steam.

Diane Ravitch has been maintaining for months that she is “agnostic” about the Common Core is now opposing the Core.

I have come to the conclusion that the Common Core standards effort is fundamentally flawed by the process with which they have been foisted upon the nation.

David Coleman and the Sanhedrin that created the Common Core should have spent a little time reading the 1995 classic “Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform.” David Tyack and Larry Cuban peruse the landscape – the last hundred years of school reforms and conclude,

Reforms have rarely replaced what is there; more commonly they have added complexity … Failure to enlist the support of the community was especially harmful … it was difficult to retain resources and enthusiasm that sustained change … changing basic organizational patterns created overload for teachers…

What does the historical experience suggest about attempts today to refashion the grammar of schooling? …We suggest that actual changes in schools will be more gradual and piecemeal …Gaining the freedom to experiment demands political and organizational savvy and collective action.

Innovators outside the schools who want to reinvent were often skilled at publicity and the politics of promising …they rarely factored into their plans a sophisticated understanding of the schools as an institution or insight into the culture of teachers.

On Thursday morning at the Harvard Club the Manhattan Institute hosted a panel, “Curriculum Counts: Fulfilling the Promise of the Common Core State Standards.” A fascinating hour listening to, and engaging with some really smart, thoughtful people – if you have an hour click here and watch,

Sol Stern framed the discussion, “Within the school-reform community, the standards have set off a virtual civil war. It pits those who believe that America desperately needs national standards to catch up to its international competitors against those who think that the administration, by imposing standards on states, is guilty of an unwise, or even illegal power grab.” (Read Stern’s City Journal essay, “The Curriculum Reformation: New national standards prod schools to return to content-based education”). Stern emphasized, quoting both ED Hirsch and Diane Ravitch, the missing essential element, a content-rich curriculum.

Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the NYS Board of Regents cast doubt on the increasing high school graduation rates when viewed against the appalling college readiness metrics (grades of 75 on the English Regent and 80 on the Math Regents exams). 75% of students entering community college in CUNY require remediation and six years later only a quarter graduate. While Tisch fully supports the Common Core she worries whether the PARCC consortia can deliver appropriate tests on time: Plan B is phasing in Common Core items on the current tests Tisch has not fully committed to PARCC assessments. Tisch was proud that the state website, Engage NY provided a host of resources for parents, schools and teachers that are free, and took a swipe at Pearson, which she called a “monopoly.”

Tony Bennett, the recently defeated Commissioner of Indiana (defeated by the voters) and just appointed Commissioner of Florida is an education reform “jihadist.”

* transform the way children learn
* transform the way teachers teach
* transform the way we assess students.

Although he limited his remarks to the Common Core Bennett supports vouchers and charter schools – the full range of choice options. He admitted there was a communications gap, “we need to communicate better with parents and teachers.” Somewhat surprisingly, at least to me, he lauded local control, and placed the burden of professional development on the local districts. To Bennett, the key was assessment, to use his words, “shine the bright light” of data -driven assessment which will lead change in classrooms. The Common Core was the spear with assessments as the tip of the spear – driving change – with a “take no prisoners” attitude.

Linda Bevilacqua, the President of the Core Knowledge Foundation, was insightful and focused. The NYC Department of Education, as well as the NYS Education Department have both selected Core Knowledge as the prime content provider in grades K-2. E. D. Hirsch has an article in the current issue of City Journal, “A Wealth of Words, the key to increasing upward mobility is expanding vocabulary,” read here. Linda worries that measuring skills (standards acquisition) in the absence of content is a fruitless path. She worries that the race to “find the main idea” types of assessments will narrow the curriculum instead of building content-rich grade-by-grade curricula.

In the afternoon, at the newly renovated Roosevelt House, David Steiner and Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein discussed, “The ELA Common Core Standards: The path to a better educated America?” Bauerlein, the author of “The Dumbest Generation” (Read review here. The format: a discussion with a skilled facilitator was an invigorating hour. The Common Core, actually what are called the “anchor standards” must be tied to a “rich content-based curricula.” Bauerlein was pessimistic, students entering an elite college year after year less prepared, less well-read, with little interest in becoming well-read. In his closing comments he mused whether college freshman English classes should be divided into two separate classes, a literature class taught by the “college professor,” and a skills class, taught by whomever. He sounded just like most secondary school teachers I meet!

Steiner worried about the mechanical aspects of the standards, he worried that great literature is great because of the beauty of the prose, and parsing every phrase takes away from the timeless nature of the prose or poem.

An erudite thoughtful discussion with David Steiner and the Talibanic certitude of Tony Bennett, an interesting day.

At the end of the morning event I noticed a teacher I knew – she had brought along two high school seniors from her school. I asked one, “If you were on the panel, what would you have said?” He smiled, and spewed forth … I followed up with a few questions, He replied, “I hadn’t thought about that.” The Danielson domains, components and elements popped up on a box on the inside of my glasses, I scrolled down to Domain 3: Instruction, to Component 3b: Using Questions and Discussion Techniques, and checked off the Level 4: “Distinguished” boxes,

* The teacher builds on and uses student responses to question in order to deepen student understandings,
* Student(s) extend(s) the discussion, enriching the lesson.

I fear Tony Bennett would have shoved a bubble sheet and a number 2 pencil over to the kid, “Quick, bubble in your answers, I have to decide whether to promote or fire your teacher.” Too harsh, however, increasingly the public views the Common Core as a testing regimen – test the kid, and test the kid again, use the results to promote or hold back the kid, to close the school, to fire the teacher, and, give me a few more hundreds of millions so that I can keep this up.

Those hundreds of millions should be spent recruiting, educating, supporting and retaining the most effective teachers. Spend the dollars to create spaces in which teachers can discuss and plan and collaborate and be open to criticism and offer ideas and criticism to colleagues. Clone principals who can thrive in and enrich the mix, stir the pot, add the seasonings, become the great chef.

Yes, weed out the ineffective teachers in a fair and humane fashion.

I may have quibbles with some aspects of the Common Core; I would hope that I have been following the path through the years, for example,

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
• CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.7 Integrate quantitative or technical analysis (e.g., charts, research data) with qualitative analysis in print or digital text.
• CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.8 Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claims.
• CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

Sounds perfectly reasonable.

The elements of the Core (see above) must be entwined in a rich curriculum: what are we teaching? do we simply follow the chronological path of history, or, carve out the crucial themes for an in-depth analysis? Is nationalism a 19th or 20th century concept or does it impact the tribalism in Afghanistan or Syria today?

In too many classrooms educrats are proudly sitting with their I-Pads, electronic check lists, and flailing the teacher for only using 50, not 60% informational texts. The twisted paths of the educational reform movement are littered with discarded reforms. George Santayana is right, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” Unless teachers, parents and the wider public buy into a reform – unless the reform is “Sticky” (“Six Principles of sticky ideas”), teachers will close their doors and do what they have always done, parents will reject what they see as punitive ideas and the public as a waste of tax dollars.

Useful ideas, the seeds of change, must be nurtured, fed and watered regularly, not blared from the minarets of officialdom.

If it makes us feel better we can blame Bloomberg, or Joel Klein, or disinterested parents, they all make our job more difficult, ultimately it is the skill of the teacher in the classroom that closes achievement gaps.