Let’s Do The Time Warp Again!

Turning around low performing articles…

I woke up today and thought it was 2004, when this blog first launched.  There in The New York Times was a Michael Winerip story that, well, left a few things out. Read the story but the basic take is that federal turnaround policy is forcing a great principal out of a good school.

Russo grabs three pieces of low-hanging fruit: Is a really excellent principal representative of the overall landscape of persistently under-performing schools?  The last line of the story indicates the principal isn’t actually being fired but is rather taking over the district’s school improvement work. Seems fishy?  But most obvious: Federal law doesn’t hold schools accountable for the performance of students they haven’t had a least a year to teach. This is no small thing, the article states otherwise conflating taking a test with the scores being used for accountability.

But there is more than that.   As the article mentions,  the district did not have to even apply for this money, it was a competitive grant opportunity*.  But what readers are not told is that there are other school improvement funds and other funds overall that can be purposed for school improvement and do not require personnel changes.  Why not use those?  But if the leaders of the district truly believe the requirements to be adverse then it’s essentially malpractice to take the funds.  They fired a great principal for money?  Really?

In addition, readers might want to know that test scores at the school are actually moving the wrong way and although Winerip focuses on the immigrant students mentioning overall rates only in passing, scores are no great shakes for white regular education students or really for any students in the school at all.** One in five students at grade level in reading (less in math) and low pass rates across the board.   That all complicates the idea put forward in the article that just changing the student body will be the solution.   There is also a discrepancy between Winerip’s claim that half of the students are foreign-born and the actual data on the school’s population that is especially hard to square with the idea that it is becoming more integrated.

If I sound suspicious about the article’s fact base, it’s from experience.  Unfortunately, this is the tried and true Winerip method, especially the part about focusing on special education or minority students in schools that overall aren’t doing very well (see for instance previous coverage of New York City or his NCLB coverage).   Plus more here.  Punchline:  These stories that seem too neat and tidy usually are.  This is a messy business.

What’s frustrating is that there is a real issue here demanding attention. The trade-off between flexibility and prescriptiveness in federal school turnaround policy is a complicated one without a lot of good answers.  Too much flexibility and districts and states take the easy way out and do nothing meaningful for students stuck in lousy schools. Too prescriptive and you get meaningless box-checking (as we may be seeing overall with the current dollop of school improvement funds), perverse consequences, or you stifle innovative approaches that might work if educators could try them.  That’s a two-decade long story now and given all the attention to turnarounds now one that ought to be told in richer analytic depth.   One day it will be, but today is not that day.

*See here and here for slide decks about this program.

**For the school to be in this situation in the first place the problems have to be longstanding, another reason the blame the new immigrants/change the kids but not the teaching bit falls short.

12 Replies to “Let’s Do The Time Warp Again!”

  1. The important part of this story is the fact that the press is beginning to wake up. Hopefully journalists are realizing that the true reformers (and heroes) are the men and women who teach in our schools and colleges for modest salaries. These are the people who go home each day to spend more hours thinking about ways to make their lessons more meaningful for their students. These are the teachers and principals who spend more money than the federal government so their students can have the best possible books and materials. Fortunately the parents (voters) usually know who these educators are. They might stand by idly while a principal or teacher at a distant school is yanked, but they’ll speak up when it happens at their own school.

    I can tell by your recent entries that you sense that things are beginning to go against “reform.” I couldn’t agree more.

    The absolute worst thing we can do for education is to demean the people who provide it.

  2. That is a matter of opinion. Some of the most dedicated teachers choose to work with disabled students. As the saying goes, there is a place in heaven for these people. They are heroes to me. If we honor these people, perhaps we’ll be able to lure more of “the best and the brightest” into our most challenging schools. The more we bash them, the less likely talented people will elect to teach in these schools.

    The very best thing we can do to improve education is to honor the people who provide it.

  3. How to fund Race To The Top

    We were told we have to offset every damn dime of [new teacher spending]. Well, it ain’t easy to find offsets, and with all due respect to the administration their first suggestion for offsets was to cut food stamps. Now they were careful not to make an official budget request, because they didn’t want to take the political heat for it, but that was the first trial balloon they sent down here. … Their line of argument was, well, the cost of food relative to what we thought it would be has come down, so people on food stamps are getting a pretty good deal in comparison to what we thought they were going to get. Well isn’t that nice. Some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change

    David Obey: I Leave More Discontented Than I Started

  4. If the first sentence of an article doubles as an appeal to popularity and as a hasty generalization, it should trigger the bullshit-ometer of any critical reader to promptly kick in. The rest of the article is equally dishonest, as already noted.

    My question is: Why do some think it is reasonable to say that someone is doing “a great job” without any real operational definition of what “great” means to them? “Working tirelessly” is a plus, but is it the effort that constitutes a “great” educator, or is it the results that ensue from their efforts? Even if “great” were defined solely by effort, on what scale do we measure the effort of this principal compared to other principals in other schools?

  5. Wow. You spent all this time ripping apart a story you hate, but you never included the Houston Chronicle where the Texas Governor, Sec Duncan, and HISD Super Terry Grier celebrated a turnaround school that “turned” around only because they excluded black kids from the accountability system and used a very shaky projection measure to upgrade one accountability level. In fact, the black kids that made the school low-performing were low-performing again. But Sec Duncan was soooo desperate to find a turnaround school that he couldn’t resist this Enron-style smoke-and-mirrors turnaround school.

    Sounds like the same terrible “evaluation” done of the UVA turnaround school project.

    I think your hypocritical slanting of evidence on a daily basis is far more dangerous to the education of our children than any “failing” teachers.

    Perhaps when you are old and gray you will wise up like Diane Ravitch and see the errors of your ways.

  6. ^ Given the “well yeah, but…” reply above, should we infer that you have no specific objections to the arguments raised by Andy in this blog post that you’re commenting on?

  7. Bigger picture –

    Seems like both Times and WaPo (Strauss) have recently added the Ravitch perspective:

    1. Question ed reform (good)

    2. Twist everything to fit that narrative (bad)

    3. Omit all stories on the overwhelmingly common reality in urban schools (traditional and charter): sleepy classroom, kids who are way behind any reasonable definition of grade level, not particularly effective teacher (bad).

    So instead of reform versus status quo, it’s reform versus idealized alternate version of change, or more commonly reform versus idealized version of recent past.

    It’s like a marriage columnist with one note: “Look at the divorce rate, I’m going to chronicle every failed marriage I can….I wish it were 1950s again! The Golden Age. Zero divorce rate. I’m going to forget about women unable to pursue careers or escape violent husbands.”

  8. What you don’t seem to get is that this story is the tip of the iceberg. The so-called “reform” movement has been profoundly destructive of the public common school movement, which is, of course, exactly what the right wing neoliberal movement has wanted for thirty years – the destabilization of the last virgin piece of public social real estate, K-12 education. By trying to apply market discipline (and hasn’t that worked well in the rest of the world) to a fundamentally non-market social space, the so-called “reformers” (and, gods, how I wish we had not let the bad guys co-opt that word!) have taken American education to the brink of the abyss.

    Back off. Or wish you had.

  9. I don’t understand why refugee kids are mainstreamed right away. Shouldn’t they need smaller classes with more intense work to learn English, etc. before they’re plunged into the regular curriculum?

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