Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Scritch, scritch, scritch...

Shut it down; move out administrators, faculty, students and curricula; allow an accomplished new leadership team to come in, free from contract provisions and able to accept or reject district services; and make the school serve the students and families who want to be there. Success will require new schools to seek and sift talent, bend routines to the strengths of the faculty and the needs of the kids, exploit technology and new tools in smarter ways, and create cultures that will transform the attitudes of new staff and students.” ~ Frederick Hess, Shut Down, Don't Turn Around

I readily recall the days when we listened to record albums. If you were born after 1970 this might not make sense to you. We couldn't afford one of those multi-album stereos where the needle arm would lift automatically when the album finished, move out of the way, wait for a new album to drop, and then position itself at the start of the first recording. I was always amazed when I saw one of these, but was resigned to our single record player in which I would have to manually change an album.

If I didn't catch the end of the album, it would continue to revolve on the platter with the needle “grinding” against the end of the recording. An ugly, repeating static accompanied it. Perhaps you have heard it on an old movie. Over and over and over until finally the needle arm was lifted and set on its perch. Scritch, scritch, scritch.... It was so annoying, you had to stop it.

That's kind of the way I feel about much of the vocal criticism regarding educational reform as with Rick Hess's latest diatribe from which the above excerpt is taken. They scratch out their repetitive critiques and calls for change but offer very little in terms of real solutions that will make a difference for every child.

Take Rick's recommendations, above, and look at them point by point:

Shut it down...”

When? The plane is airborne, students are on board, the flight trajectory is established, and there is no opportunity to shut it down. How do you take an entire school and simply shut it down? Where do the kids go? Do they simply get an extended summer break for however long it takes to re-staff and re-build the curriculum? If school have that flexibility to simply shut down until repairs are made, why don't we just do that now? Send the kids home for six months, a year, or for however long it takes. After all, what's the rush? They could use some quality, extended bonding time with their parents. Neat idea (if you're a kid)! Scritch, scritch, scritch...

...allow an accomplished new leadership team to come in...”

Ok, so where do we find all these accomplished new teams? Is there some kind of store out there where accomplished teams are sitting on the shelf waiting to serve? Wouldn't the fact that they are accomplished imply that they are already in use, somewhere else? So, if I move one accomplished team from one building to another, don't I need to start looking for another accomplished team to replace it? What if there are not accomplished leadership teams available? What if the accomplished leadership team is fresh out right now? Does that mean the kids get a little bit more of that shut it down extended vacation time? Scritch, scritch, scritch...

...free from contract provisions and able to accept or reject district services...”

We hear a lot about union contracts prohibiting reform but we see very little real effort to either reform or end collective bargaining in public education. Instead, a few hundred charter schools are created and allowed to operate in some states without collective bargaining. Instead of fighting the real fight, Rick Hess and his reformers would rather duck and cover. Don't stand in and do the difficult work. Scrap it and start over, which by the way does nothing to guarantee that the new schools created won't be part of a collective bargaining effort down the road. Scritch, scritch, scritch...

and make the school serve the students and families who want to be there.”

If the reformers think they can simply make the school serve by commanding it, as Rick Hess does, then why not make the existing schools serve? And what happens to the students (and families) who don't want to be there? In fact, maybe the students don't want to be anywhere, in any school. Where do they go? If the only schools that exist in Rick Hess's new world are those where students want to be there, we're going to have an awful lot of kids roaming the streets during the day. I hate to tell you this, Rick, but not every kid wants to be in school – even the best school. And what do we do with the leftover kids when the newly reconstituted schools are full? You know, the one's who don't win the lottery? What's your plan for them? Scritch, scritch, scritch...

Success will require new schools to seek and sift talent, bend routines to the strengths of the faculty and the needs of the kids, exploit technology and new tools in smarter ways, and create cultures that will transform the attitudes of new staff and students.”

None of these actions require that we shut down schools, replace leadership teams and teachers, or cater only to students and parents who want to be there. And anyway, if the staff and students are new, why do we need to transform them? Just how would you exploit technology and new tools in smarter ways than is already being done in thousands of districts across the country? And what specifically are the new tools you refer to? This is an incredibly weak conclusion to your paragraph, Rick, because there's nothing in this that can't already be done in existing schools. It defeats your very argument and it sounds a lot like scritch, scritch, scritch.

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Frederick Hess is Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Initiatives at the American Enterprise Institute and executive editor of Education Next. He recently authored The same thing over and over: How school reformers get stuck in yesterday's ideas published by Harvard University Press. Despite my differences with Rick's methods for advocating reform, I enjoy reading his material.