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Wave of Creative Destruction Swamping U.S. Schools

Ohanian Comment: Increasingly, people are on to Duncan and what he passes off as reform. If we wait long enough, maybe even the progressives will speak up. At present, they seem to be waiting to see if they'll get Race to the Top money.

Go to the url below to read this article with all the hotlinks (which are worth going to).

Reader Comment: With this mindset, who cares what happens to the kids? Shutting down public education is itself the "success."

by jeffbinnc

Last month, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claimed that the "best thing that ever happened" to public schools in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. (To be fair, here's the quote in context.) Although two days later Duncan apologized for his remarks, what he said - when he was thinking in his self-described "really honest" mode rather than perhaps a less than honest mode - actually reveals an essential aspect of the destructive school reform policies being carried out by the Obama administration.

Across the country, literally, from Rhode Island to California, Minnesota to Louisiana, federal policies are being used as leverage to shutter hundreds of public schools, eliminate teachers, disrupt the lives of families who are least able to cope with upheaval, and relegate many kids to gangs and street violence. When public schools deemed to be "under-performing" based on federally mandated standardized tests are not closed outright, they are being put on the auction block for take-over by the highest corporate bidders. The wave of closings and privatization washing over American schools is being labeled as a "turnaround" approach to reshape public education into something that will better serve children and youth.

According to Duncan, the intent is to turnaround approximately 5,000 schools, which is about 5 percent of US public schools. But the narrow scope of the turnaround approach has catastrophic effects on the schools that get targeted. Of the three turnaround models proposed by Duncan, only the third and final option doesn't include firing the school faculty or leadership. Because at least half of the targeted schools are in big cities, and many others are in suburbs and medium-sized towns, where schools have higher than average student populations, the numbers of students and families affected by these policies are potentially in the many tens even hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, kids only get one shot at an education. And any approach that puts their schoolyears at risk will have lifelong negative effects.

With all that's potentially at stake, you would think that a school reform strategy that is as far-reaching as Duncan's turnaround approach would be backed up with some solid research and a track record of success. Alas, such is not the case.

What's really at the core of Duncan's school improvement philosophy is a radical agenda calling for overhauling school systems by using scorched-earth tactics espoused by conservatives and business leaders. Among the most-favored of these tactics is a belief in the power of "creative destruction" as a chief means to improving schools. Touted as a "built-in feature of ongoing renewal and revival", school closings are being hailed by the rightwing as a sure-fire way to "provide focus" to educators through the fear of losing their jobs.

Although unstated in policy documents and discussions, the principle of creative destruction is reflected in the many exhortations of Arne Duncan and other supposed school reformers. For instance, during a Duncan-endorsed school turnaround effort in New York City, superintendent and Duncan acolyte Joe Klein brought business leaders, such as former General Electric CEO Jack Welch to lecture school officials on the merits of creative destruction. In an article in Business Week, a school official helping to lead the turnaround effort, Carmen Farina, describes how strongly she was influenced by the ideas being espoused by Welch and others. "One thing that really struck me," she commented, "you can't allow an organization to grow complacent. When you find those kinds of organizations, you have to tear them apart and create chaos. That chaos creates a sense of urgency, and that sense of urgency will ultimately bring about improvement." Farina was subsequently given a job higher up the ranks of school leadership in the district.

The idea that schools need to be run like businesses and occasionally "torn apart" in the cauldron of competition, is not new nor is it peculiar to Duncan and his cohorts. But Duncan has made the principle of creative destruction through school closings his "signature move". So it's important to understand why this is such a disastrous policy.

To begin with, as education historian Diane Ravitch has repeatedly pointed out in her blog posts at Education Week, "there is no research basis" for most of what Duncan is proposing. "What is extraordinary about these regulations," she writes, "is that they have no credible basis in research. They just happen to be the programs and approaches favored by the people in power."

Ravitch, no paragon of liberalism herself, points to the work of education researcher Paul Barton who contends that school closings "may be doing more harm that good." First, "given the way failing schools are identified, there is no reason to believe that they are doing worse than some schools that are passing the test." Also, there isn't a strong correlation between school performance and test scores. And measures of change aren't consistent across schools because some schools may be on the top in one measure and may be at the bottom on another. Ravitch also points to the work of economist Helen Ladd who urges that self-anointed school reformers "move beyond this misplaced emphasis on test scores" in evaluating school performance.

Not only is there no research evidence that the strategy of closing schools based on test scores actually improves academic achievement, the actual cases of where school closures were used as a means to achieve reform don't provide a very positive track record for this approach.

It's no coincidence that the devastation of post-Katrina New Orleans that Duncan opined about last month was also the point of inception for using widespread school closings as an essential approach to school reform. After all, Paul Vallas, the superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans, was Duncan's former boss in the Chicago school system. But whether school closings actually led to school improvement is impossible to determine because comparing the school performance before the storm to today "isn't possible". Schools have been so massively reconfigured and there are fewer students. Instead, a far better case study of what school closing actually produces is in Duncan's hometown of Chicago.

Previous to becoming Secretary of Education, Duncan was head of public schools in Chicago where he closed 75 schools. And throughout his first year of service in the Obama administration he has championed his Chicago strategy nationwide. But research following up the effects of school closings in Chicago has found that Duncan's strategy "had no significant impact on performance for most students". The vast majority of the students affected by school closings were sent to schools that were low performing, just like those they left behind. Forty percent of the students were enrolled in schools that were on academic probation, 42 percent were enrolled in schools with test scores in the lowest quartile in the city, and just 6 percent ended up in schools that out-performed the schools where the students came from.

In addition to having dismal academic results, Duncan's school closings led to considerable social and economic problems for the families affected. Working-class families, many living in poverty, were thrown into disruption. Closings "led to a surge in violence" as reassignments sent students across gang lines and heightened long running disputes between neighborhood teens. And as students found themselves in chaotic, alienating surroundings the number of school expulsions soared to unprecedented heights.

Despite the dismal results of the Chicago school closings, the creative destruction of schools is now rolling out across the entire nation. In New York, just prior to Duncan's Katrina remark, "the New York City Department of Education pushed through a decision to close 19 high schools." At the prospect of winning the competitive grants being promoted by Duncan's Race to the Top funds, school and civic leaders are decreeing disruptive school turnarounds in districts around the country. "Minnesota expects to remake 34 schools by the time students return next fall. Philadelphia plans on transforming dozens in the coming years, and New Haven, Conn., has targeted some of its schools as well." Teacher unions are being coerced to accept these changes or face mass firings as they were in Rhode Island.

In Los Angeles, the creative destruction of public schools took another form. Last month, city leadership, instead of closing schools, enacted a "new school choice policy, which will open up the management of dozens of the district's existing and yet-to-open campuses to outside operators, as well as district insiders." Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines posted the list of "prospective bidders" for the first 36 schools shortly after the decision.

What's also extraordinary about the creative destruction of our nation's public schools is that it is taking place with virtually no input from the public. As Diana Ravitch writes, "Under normal circumstances, the Department of Education would need congressional hearings and authorization to launch a program so sweeping and so sharply defined. Instead, they are using the 'stimulus' money to impose their preferences, with no hearings and no congressional authorization." In both New Orleans and Chicago, the sweeping edicts that closed schools and made teachers jobless were enacted without participation of the communities affected. And reforms carried out in New York and Los Angeles were overwhelmingly top-down driven decisions.

There are signs that teachers unions are fighting back, at least in Los Angeles and Rhode Island. But what's most disturbing is the lack of questioning and scrutiny that characterizes the media's coverage of the creative destruction of our schools. The dubiousness of this policy seems apparent on its face. As educator Deborah Lynch points out "do we close police stations in high-crime areas and fire the police officers? No, we provide the best support and resources possible -- and that is what should have been provided to our struggling schools."

Furthermore, there is a total lack of recognition of the alternatives to creative destruction that could actually have research-based evidence that they help struggling schools. In Duncan's own city of Chicago, a recent report provided "a counter-narrative" to business driven school reform with "a new book based on 15 years of data on public elementary schools." The study indentifies "five tried-and-true ingredients that work, in combination with one another, to spur success in urban:"

"1. Strong leadership, in the sense that principals are "strategic, focused on instruction, and inclusive of others in their work";
2. A welcoming attitude toward parents, and formation of connections with the community;
3. Development of professional capacity, which refers to the quality of the teaching staff, teachers' belief that schools can change, and participation in good professional development and collaborative work;
4. A learning climate that is safe, welcoming, stimulating, and nurturing to all students; and
5. Strong instructional guidance and materials."

It's past time for the progressive-minded community to speak out more vociferously about this travesty. The stakes are enormous. Perhaps a huge portion of an entire generation of children will experience lifelong negative effects of being denied the optimum education. And America's public schools - a cornerstone of our democracy - stands on the brink of falling into the hands of rapacious profiteers who care only about getting their greedy hands on the 5.6%, and generally recession-proof, of GDFP that the school market represents. Outspoken education bloggers -- Diane Ravitch, Susan Ohanian, and others - are doing all they can to get the word out about the growing calamity. But their profile is minimal and confined mostly to the "choir" or educators who are already aware and informed of what is transpiring. Just as progressives have helped shape the debate on health care reform and climate change, we have to engage in the pushback with a counter narrative that opposes this administration's dangerous policies and calls for a more compassionate and reasoned approach to school reform.

— jeffbinnc
Open Left





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