Some Political Musings

Opinions here are my own and not those of the NYC Department of Education, where I serve as Deputy Chancellor.

How in the world did we get into the fix we are in today in urban public education? When the average African American and Latino 12th grader reads at a level equivalent to the average white 8th grader, when we find ourselves rejoicing when graduation rates rise to a mere 60 percent, and when we know that these aren’t bloodless statistics but remarkably good predictors of life outcomes, including staggering unemployment and incarceration rates and depressed earnings potential, it is high time that we confront the question as forthrightly as possible. Sure, we are making some progress as a nation, especially in the early grades, and here in NYC every important trend line has a steep upward gradient, whether measured by graduation rates, math scores, literacy performance or the number of economically disadvantaged children now taking AP courses and college readiness tests like the PSAT. But, the hole urban school systems collectively dug for themselves over the last several decades is mighty deep, the human cost beyond unacceptable. Forward progress is better than the alternative. But the moral measure that counts is the absolute number of young lives that we are failing to launch into adulthood prepared to participate in the American dream. By any measure that number is orders of magnitude too high.

So how did this happen? Both the left and the right offer easy explanations, both of which, as it turns out, are unpersuasive. The former, while often dressed up in the lofty prose of academia, comes down to this: “It’s not the schools, it’s the kids.” Even notable scholar (and seemingly full-time critic of our efforts in NYC), Diane Ravitch stunned us all by espousing this perspective a few weeks ago. Aside from the shudder the argument should inspire, it suffers from a fatal circularity. Success must be measured by how well children learn, not how hard educators try or how well they teach. The second we accept the opposite view is the second we flat out give up. And the minute we are resigned to children’s failure, you can pretty much guarantee that the expectation becomes self-fulfilling. No one is naïve enough to suggest that considerations extrinsic to the six or so hours children spend in school each day are irrelevant to the hard work educators are asked to do. And, contrary to Dr. Ravitch’s suggestion, this has nothing to do with assigning “blame.” But, our charge is not to teach, but to make sure children learn. End of story. Moreover, if the insurmountable barrier to success is the tough circumstances of students’ lives, why are so many schools serving “these kids” succeeding?

The explanation from the right is more sinister: Either by their nature or through the happenstance of now irreversible historical forces, urban school systems have become a Gordian knot of corruption, self interest and bureaucratic incompetence, where the needs of children are rarely the primary lens through which decision-makers act. (The “sword” most often advanced to cleave the knot it is a voucher system.) At best, this is an overstatement. Like most caricatures, there are significant kernels of truth, but hardly enough to support the generalization. I’ve spent the last 12 years in senior positions in public education, both inside and outside the system. While I often disagree vehemently with opponents, only rarely have I thought they were motivated by anything but good intentions. Perhaps more relevantly, while I can’t speak for anywhere else, I deeply believe that New York City is on a path where truly breakthrough change is underway. Importantly, this is change generated “from within,” albeit within the context of mayoral control. (Notably, the strategy also embraces charters as part of the reform strategy.) To be sure, there is no shortage of naysayers or organized efforts to derail the work, voices that at times seem motivated by an almost primitive allegiance to the status quo ante and a deep suspicion of anything that smacks of non-incremental change. Whatever constellation of motives may lie behind the Greek chorus of resistance that provides an inevitable backdrop to virtually all serious reform efforts, the fact is that in NYC the reforms are moving forward with notable success—and that they are internally derived.

If the above are unpersuasive explanations, how then did we get into this fix? While hardly exhaustive, several mutually reinforcing causes stand out for particular mention.

First, the people most hurt by a failed urban education system are the least powerful politically. Imagine a world in which the shameful achievement gap were reversed—with African American and Latino children systematically surpassing their white counterparts. Does anyone seriously doubt that political forces would have been arrayed to generate a Manhattan-Project-level effort to correct the imbalance?

Second, you don’t need to be a disciple of Adam Smith to know in your bones that competition and accountability for results drive innovation and quality. For the most part, however, both are anathema to public education. When they are embraced at all, it is usually after fierce resistance and in watered down form. Witness the fight-to-the-death opposition to charter schools, the hostility to merit-based compensation, the opposition to using evidence of student learning to evaluate teacher performance and even (incredibly) the concern that NCLB is problematic precisely because it focuses too much attention on which schools are succeeding and which are failing. It is simply too facile an explanation to suggest, as many do, that this resistance is the inevitable reaction of any monopolist that wants to keep the good times rolling. I am convinced that the antipathy to competition and accountability has deep cultural roots that go well beyond narrow self interest.

Third, the politics of school reform pretty much guarantee inaction, or at best incrementalism. I am especially distressed by the failure of courage in my party, the Democratic party, even to engage in a serious debate about the kind of structural reforms that might really make a difference. As Robert Gordon recounted, John Kerry’s hasty retreat from a strong opening salvo in the 2004 election is sadly typical. The party that prides itself on social justice consistently avoids pushing the envelope on serious reform, resorting instead to comfortable sloganeering like “more money,” “fewer tests,” and “lower class size.” The worst part? In private, the better candidates totally “get it,” but tell you that now is not the time to rock the boat. While Republicans are more likely to “call it like it is,” they have succeeded in marginalizing their voice in the debate through excessive reliance on market-based solutions, overheated union bashing, and an often suspect track record on other civil rights issues. The result of this left/right dynamic is political inaction. And as bad as this is at the national level, the more local you get, the worse it becomes.

Fourth, real reform takes time to sink roots, at least five years and often more. Continuity of leadership is absolutely critical to organizational change, yet urban school systems often turn over their leadership with almost comic frequency. As a result, school districts are like archeological digs: scrape down a layer and find the favorite initiative of a long departed superintendent, go a layer deeper, and find the preferred fad of yet another, and on and on. Before Mayor Bloomberg had the political courage to ask for control of—and accountability for— the school system, NYC had 10 Chancellors in 20 years. Since his arrival in 2002, there has been one.

Fifth, the overheated flights of rhetoric that regularly emanate from teachers unions and management alike too often obscure the one truth that should guide both parties: The single most important determinant of positive student outcomes is the quality of the teachers in every classroom. Our collective failure to forge a positive collaboration around this shared ideal represents a missed opportunity of significant proportions and a real barrier to progress. In NYC, for example, the centrality of teacher quality represents a fundamental tenet of the Bloomberg/Klein administration. But it is no less so for the United Federation of Teachers. This is fertile terrain for important work—finding, training, developing, and retaining the best in the business, and ensuring that only those who are succeeding with students remain in our classrooms. Shame on us if we can’t find a way to tackle it together.

The only value of a diagnosis is to facilitate the design of the right cure. I have some thoughts on that as well. Having already exceeded Andy’s space restrictions, however, I will need to await his next invitation as guestblogger to develop them. In the mean while, thanks to Andy as well as to my colleague, Joel Rose, whose assistance has been indispensable this past week.

–Guestblogger Chris Cerf

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