Friday, May 15, 2009

The Cliff

Charles Payne, a University of Chicago professor and author of “So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools,” recently participated in a panel discussion at a national seminar sponsored by the Education Writers Association where he said some very important things.

One observer wrote:

“Payne said in schools with low academic achievement, building high levels of trust makes academic improvement three times as likely than in schools with low levels of trust among educators and students. He cited a ten percent improvement in graduation rate in schools where students say they know and trust their teachers.”

Payne’s observations are correct, meaning the current mode of attacking schools, and the people who work in them, is exactly the wrong way to go. This is an anti-motivational strategy for human beings which can only produce a tremendous amount of discomfort, tension, and shame.

Q: So how will student/teacher trust be enhanced by Duncan’s upcoming five-year plan to close 5,000 struggling schools and fire thousands and thousands of teachers?

A: It won't.

Payne also had something to say about a similar approach Arne Duncan's used on Chicago Public Schools:

“The way schools are being closed in Chicago has eroded an enormous amount of social capital by not including parents in the process. These parents care about their kids and schools, and have been marginalized by people doing things for their children, without including them in the process.”

If you keep up-to-date about education issues, then you know it is rare to read or hear about the importance of maintaining and building that important feature called social capital. This entire concept is continually ignored by our U.S. Secretary of Education and his “reformer” friends, who strike me as education-fix-technicians trying to manipulate struggling urban school systems, and the people in them, without becoming too intimate. Lacking in their approach is a fundamental awareness of what the hearts of the families in these schools actually need more long-term, healthy, and caring human connections.

The “worst” schools, often labeled as “dysfunctional,” are in very weak, fragmented communities and are attended by large numbers of kids from weak, fragmented families. No, they are not doing well in comparison to the schools in strong, cohesive communities which are attended by large numbers of kids from strong, cohesive families. But constant criticism coupled with a set of unrealistic expectations will never "turn them around."

Struggling school communities are in desperate need of a boost to their morale. If that could begin, barriers will be relaxed and the people in the schools could start to experience more positive feelings and pride, along with some hope for the future. At that point everyone will naturally feel more receptive to working together to implement new ideas.

In a chapter of his book, Payne wisely observes:

… So we continue forcing underdeveloped reforms on already over-burdened teachers and then blaming those teachers when reforms fail to produce the promised miracles. Just as teachers are too quick to conclude that nothing’s going to work with these children, reformers come to think that the reforms they advocate are right, they will work, just not here, not in this school, not with this particular group of hard-headed teachers and untalented administrators. Just as teachers are always saying they could teach if someone gave them better students, reformers are always thinking they could implement their programs if someone would just give them better people to work with. The reform community, partly because of its sheer arrogance, its ideological rigidity, its inability to enter into genuine partnerships with school people has squandered much of the moral capital, much of the strategic positioning, that it held at the beginning of the 1990s.

As a community victim of outsider-instigated “reform,” I have watched how my city’s public schools have been constantly labeled and threatened, and how this erodes away confidence and makes everyone feel on-edge and sad. Kids are both sick of being tested and then reminded of their failings. Teachers and administrators are worn out from the constant pressures and a too-often joyless experience at schools. Parents are frustrated by being stuck in an experimental reform-attacked school district which is sinking under the pressures of NCLB.

And still no gap is being closed.

From my vantage point, I can see that this current approach for educational reform is just not working, and it never will. Our society has big problems we refuse to address.

After feeling hope with Obama's presidency, it's depressing to realize that we are now going to be forced to follow a misguided plan which is intent on terminating thousands of neighborhood schools in communities which are unable to defend them. I am worried my daughters' schools will be among them.

In five years, when my kids come home to visit, will they be able to drive by, and look at, their former middle and high schools, or will those schools have been permanently shuttered? It's sad to think that, for me as well as thousands and thousands of other local families years of community history, school spirit and pride are in danger of being flushed down the toilet, all because of an unproven ed-reform strategy being pushed by Arne Duncan. Arne doesn't see it yet, but his grand plan has no chance of being the magic "fix."

We're on a path and heading toward a cliff.


ed notes online said...

I'm sure Payne is being ignored by the ed deformers and their politician supporters from both parties. We may have to go over the cliff and crash and burn before they are totally discredited.

Ted said...

Trust is a crucial concept, and the lack of trust between admin, teachers, parents, students can tear apart a school.
Elementary school kids probably can't see it, but it is pretty obvious to high school students that the education establishment does not trust or support the teachers. The students will follow the behavior of the grownups.

The Perimeter Primate said...

John Thompson offers more about Payne's insights here:

and here:

The first entry:

Hopefully, Arne Duncan will listen closely to John Easton, Charles Payne, and others who have studied reform efforts in Chicago (and elsewhere). Payne calls for "Standards of Implementation" or guidelines for minimum prerequisites required for reforms to be successful. Just as teachers tend to be isolated from each other, "reformers are isolated - by ideology, attitude, ... and tribalisms." Just as teachers need learning "Standards," reformers need Standards or a guide as to whether a minimum amount of professional development, follow-up support, on-going assessment, and capacity for addressing disengagement are available. To borrow Payne's analysis of a previous systemic reform, "one need not spend a decade and $130 million dollars to find out that one doesn't have a theory of action connected to the real world."

In 1971, Seymour Sarason explained the failure of reformers to understand schools as social organizations and their cultures. For another 15 years, he kept a file of letters from people who led failed reform efforts and learned "that reformers ‘had vastly underestimated the force of existing power relationships and had vastly overestimated the willingness of school personnel to confront the implication of those relationships.’"

And above all, "when people who have led a reform effort are asked what they would do differently," writes Payne, "perhaps the single most common answer is 'take more time.'"

This definitely didn't happen in Oakland, and is the exact opposite philosophy held by the current reformers who firmly believe that applying a rapid, disruptive force is the way to go.