Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Race to the Status Quo

There's one area of policy that I think President Obama is handling quite well, at least in the sense of using a federal executive branch apparatus to actually bring about positive change: education.

Back when he chose Arne Duncan as his education secretary, I wrote a column in BrainstormNW Magazine praising the selection and detailing Duncan's reform efforts as superintendent of Chicago Public Schools.

I watched the man closely over the years, and talked to him several times at various school reform conferences. His commitment to real, structural school reform is real, even though the implementation of his programs in Chicago were somewhat blunted through opposition and political compromise.

Duncan has maintained his committment to reform during his first year at the helm of the U.S. Dep't of Education. His #1 policy initiative is called the "Race to the Top." The program involves a $4 billion fund that he is allowing states to compete for, but they must first prove they are committed to a number of reform ideas such as merit pay and charter schools.

Probably only about ten states will be selected as Race to the Top (RttT) funds recipients. The stakes are high, because the awards will be in the range of $3-400 million per state. Oregon, of course, wants in.

An article in today's Oregonian by Betsy Hammond tells of the efforts Oregon is making to gin up a winning RttT proposal. The article has links to the five different committees that have been appointed to hammer out the policy statements and other confetti they think will convince Arne Duncan that Oregon is a serious reform state.

It's not going to work. Who can argue with a straight face that Oregon's political establishment is serious about school reform? Arne Duncan isn't going to buy it.

A look at the committees reveals a slew of folks who share one common bond: a steadfast commitment to the status quo. Look at their document titled "Core Values and Beliefs," reveals all the same drivel that the State Department of Education has yammered on and on about for years. Nothing innovative about it at all.

Of course it is authored by the President of the OEA and one of the longest serving school bureaucrats in Oregon history. Why would anyone expect anything different?

So the question really becomes one of this being almost a defining moment - not for Oregon, but for Arne Duncan and Barack Obama. If they are fooled by this pabulum, they aren't the reformers they pretend to be.

I'm betting they are. Oregon won't come close to qualifying for RttT funds.

More, 6:40 pm

I did a careful reading of the "Core Values"document linked above. It is really quite revealing.

It has always been a core philosophy of mine that if you want to solve a problem, don't look to the people who were running the show when the problem arose to provide the solution. After all - if they knew how to solve the problem that arose on their watch, it wouldn't have become a problem in the first place!

The problem in our school system is a shameful achievement gap, a shockingly high dropout rate, and an unacceptably low overall general rate of reading and math proficiency. That these are the problems is pretty much uncontroversial.

It's the solutions that separate the reformers from the pretenders. True reform doesn't mean doing the something slightly different using the same basic structures. It means changing the structure of the system.

Read the "Core Beliefs" document, and it is clear: there is nothing whatsoever in the way of structural change contemplated in this document. It is all about trying to improve what teachers do, the content they deliver, the data they analyze, the training they receive, etc.

My question: aren't these people who are on these committees and writing these documents, telling us how they will use the RttT funds to get better outcomes the same folks who are CURRENTLY running the show? Aren't they the same folks who designed the current curricula, teacher training programs, assessments, data analysis systems, etc?

So what was stopping them from improving the schools before now?

The truth is, they are proposing the very same stuff they proposed at every other juncture when there was money to be chased or political pressure on them to improve their product. All the same college-of-education jargon. All the same basic solutions. It has been intellectually bankrupt for decades.

Their solutions didn't work before, because they doesn't solve the root of the problem: The structure of the system.

Reform has to mean structural change. Everything else is just a song and dance that ends up simply further empowering the very same folks under whose watch the problems arose. We need to DISEMPOWER these folks, not give them hundreds of millions of dollars to err again!


Tim said...

Hard to argue that one

Anonymous said...

I always learn something when I come here. Thanks.

Me said...

I don't know how our Oregon public school system could be as you describe it with people like Steve Novick looking out for it for so long.

Of course it's his frineds who have been running it for decades.

Could it be he's more interested in maintaining that status quo than any school improvement?

One of the staples Novick and company have used over the years to preserve that control is to cast all things challenging or contrary as some scheme to destroy the public school system.

Anonymous said...

Is Arne Duncan the guy who visited some Oregon charter schools in 2008-09? Whichever DC big-wig it was, I know he got an earful about Oregon's bureaucratic education systems from the creators of the charters he visited.

In the words of Disney/Jack Sparrow; Oregon "loves opportunities, it loves to smile and wave at them as they pass by..."

Anonymous said...

Job one should be to identify the few districts in which Achievement Gaps exist. They are large districts with inflexible collective bargaining agreements.

For example, PPS has Achievement Gaps between affluent and low-income clusters. The collective bargaining agreement in PPS protects senior teachers from being transferred to a low-income cluster.

Small districts such as Riverdale and Corbett do not heve similar problems to PPS as all their students are taught in the same K-8 or High School building. What do you know-- Common Schools in Oregon's districts with small student populations.