Thursday, April 26, 2007

Phillips out at PPS: one step ahead of the posse

When I heard that Vicki Phillips is leaving Portland, I decided to look back at the BrainstormNW column I wrote about her when she got here.

I've pasted it below.

Schooltalk Column, BrainstormNW Magazine, September, 2004

Portland School District’s new superintendent, Vicki Phillips, started last month, taking the reigns of the state’s largest, and most troubled school district. Can she succeed?

We’ve seen this movie before. It plays in school districts throughout the country every few years, and the story line goes something like this:

School district fraught with severe problems, some not of its making. Low minority achievement, lack of discipline in schools, out of control costs, chronic budget crises, arrogant, unaccountable bureaucracy, and a teachers union more concerned about preserving pay and benefits than teaching the kids.

Incumbent superintendent (hired amid great fanfare after national search and glowing media reports) skulks away after a few short years of missteps, political bungling and special interest infighting. No discernible improvements to schools.

After nationwide search, new leader is identified and hired (amid great fanfare and glowing media accounts. Repeat from above.

The movie is shown so often it’s almost a cinematic classic, not just in Portland but in urban districts all around the country. The average tenure of large district superintendents is under three years.

Three years to realize that the new superintendent can’t do the job that the last superintendent couldn’t do. Three years for changes the new superintendent makes to create enough enemies to erode his support. Three years for high hopes to follow the inevitable path to disappointment, frustration, and eventually, disgust.

The irony is that every time the movie starts, the establishment audience sits on the edge of their chairs as if the ending is in doubt.

“We have high hopes…” said the Oregonian of Portland’s new chief. The city, they say “is ready for Phillips to lift the schools up.” Sounds much like what they said about Ben Canada, and Jack Bierworth before him. Both failures.

Has it occurred to anyone that maybe the model is wrong?

School districts are like horse drawn carriages. Perfectly functional for a 19th century society. Pretty much anybody could be trained to steer one. They moved slowly, but the roads weren’t good enough for high speed anyway.

But just as a horse drawn carriage is the wrong model of a vehicle for a 21st century road system, so are school districts the wrong model for a 21st century education system.

If you put a horse drawn carriage on the interstate, would it go 70 miles an hour? Of course not. The model is wrong. It is structurally incapable of such speed. So why do we expect school districts, a 19th century model, to meet the needs of today’s children?

Indulge me in taking the analogy a step further.

When the horse drawn carriage doesn’t go 70 miles an hour, what should we do? Should we fire the driver and find a better, more inspirational one? That, in essence, is what we do in our holy grail quest for a superintendent who can solve the problems of large school districts.

The simple fact is it doesn’t much matter who is “driving” the school district. A school district, as a model for how we deliver education services, can no more fulfill the demands of a 21st century society than can a horse drawn carriage go 70 MPH on the freeway. It is structurally incapable. It is the wrong “model.”

What’s wrong about it? For starters, the “model” depends on an utter disdain for the needs and choices of the customer – the parents and the kids. Don’t believe me? Go tell your superintendent that you want your child to attend a public school in a neighboring school district. See what answer you get. Bureaucrats have veto power over parents’ choices.

Second, the “model” uses a political process (majority vote, winner take all) to make decisions that should never be made in a political arena. For instance – curriculum. School boards use a political process to choose which math curriculum to use, and the decision usually applies to each and every school in the district on a one-size-fits-all basis.

Political science 101: over time, political processes become dominated by concentrated interests at the expense of diffuse interests. In the micro political arena of school districts, teachers unions and ideological advocates (such as Planned Parenthood, gay rights groups, etc) find it easy to prevail. This means critically important policies are decided for reasons that have little to do with the academic interests of the children.

The result is a school system that is run for the benefit of adults rather than children. This is an inevitable by-product of our school district “model.”

That’s why I’m always amused when I see the movie start all over again, as it is in Portland. Don’t get me wrong – I wish Vicki Phillips well. I’m sure she’s a remarkable person, a good leader, an accomplished educator.

I’m equally certain that none of this matters. She can’t make the buggy go 70 MPH. The model is wrong.


OregonGuy said...

I was a fan of Mary Rieke's and her common sense work for school consolidation. I wish someone would look at the financial and educational advantages that would occur if the several small high school districts in Clatsop County looked seriously at school consolidation.

As I recall, in the early '70's the district was divided into three regions in an attempt at overcoming the inertia of the district wide bureacracy. Perhaps a movement away from PPS as known today into a Westside/Eastside/South/North disintegration would give parents more power over their local schools, grade/middle/high. From what I've seen of Portland in the last ten years argues favorably for such a proposal.

Are Clackamas county school districts suffering the woes of PPS?

I think you're right about the model not fitting. But I regret the state not having a single leader, ala Mary Rieke, willing to stand up and point out that the emporer has no clothes.

Anonymous said...

I believe that large unionized urban public school districts have become impossible to manage. Proof is better performing suburban and rural districts.

Steve Buckstein said...

Of course public school district buggies can’t go 70 MPH, but the billions of dollars Vicki Phillips will now control through the Gates Foundation can help them creak along for a few more miles – until the wheels fall off.

It would be wonderful if reformers like Gates understood that the district model is outdated. They could then help truly improve education in America by promoting a more market driven model.

OregonGuy said...

My first thought was of a "market driven model". The problem is there are enough federal intrusions into the constituency of school districts that you're going to run into problems pretty much right off the bat. And not all of them are legislative. The big ones are federal ukases from the bench.

If we had a state and federal school voucher system, this might be avoided. But as long as the primary determinant of attendence is proximity to the publicly provided edifice market solutions won't be offered, probably can't be offered.

Anonymous said...

Unions, particularly in urban districts, are fighting to msintain their monopoly contracts to deliver education services. The unions, their political allies and affluent parents whose children attend mostly excellent community and neighborhood public schools (Reagan's "Iron Triangle of Public Services Supporters) are devoted to the benefits they derive from the status quo in public education.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the system of public schools as we know them in Portland will continue indefinitely. Meanwhile, those who can will continue to vote with their feet, and district enrollment will continue to stagnate or decline. In a generation, Portland will be what Detroit is today, and I wish them all the best, but won't be participating in the bailout.

Anonymous said...

" (I) won't be participating in the bailout. "

The PPS "bailout" ran from 1984 to 1991" when newly hired Matthew Prophet and PPS activists inspired a property tax increase to make PPS a model urban district. The increased funding was squandered on consultants, fluff such as The Baseline Essays, employee training fads and labor contracts enacted between Deputy Superintendent McElroy and the unions with no oversight. Ballot Measure 5 ended the overspending (that showed no improvement in student achievement) and, thus far, has seen little effort in PPS to make the necessary spending reductions.

Anonymous said...

Life is funny... the same people who bash unions on this blog ENJOY their Saturdays and Sundays off... for sure... because it was the... UNIONS... who invented the weekend.

Y'all really think it was Henry Ford's idea?

Nah, we union boys and gals invented the weekend, 'bout 100 years ago, and we are very happy y'all are enjoying the time off from your job so you can post on this blog!

p.s. Y'all can teach too, if you like... two college degrees, highest Praxis test scores in the nation, sharp mind, iron stomach and you too could teach.

Really. And, if it's so easy, why do half of all new teachers quit in their first five years?

Because it is ten times harder than the job you do right now.

Try it. We dare you!

Anonymous said...

Hey anon...

Thanks for the weekends. Of course, as a teacher, you get weekends plus three months.

Pretty good deal, I'd say.

Not to mention your PERS.

Rob Kremer said...

Hey Anon-
I work on weekends all the time.

PS: Who argued that teaching was easy? And actually, I have taught both high school and grad school.

That said, the system is designed such that it drives initiative, innovation and quality right out of the teacher corps. It is really a shame.

Thanks to your beloved union, a teacher who just does the minimum gets the same raises as the extraordinary teacher who constantly goes the extra mile.

Gee, that doesn't have any long term effect on morale, does it?