Firings no answer for schools
Our latest plan to improve public schools is: Off with their heads! I'm talking about the federal government's latest strategy for "disruptive...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Our latest plan to improve public schools is: Off with their heads!
I'm talking about the federal government's latest strategy for "disruptive change" in our worst-performing public schools. If a district wants federal grant money for a struggling school — $50,000 to $2 million a year for three years — then the feds say you have to get rid of the principal.
In some cases, you have to push out half the staff. Apparently whether it makes any sense or not.
In Tacoma this means they are replacing the principals and at least half the teachers at two middle schools (the teachers most likely will be reassigned.) In Marysville they plan to pink-slip a principal in a high-poverty middle school who has been on the job only two years.
In Sunnyside, near Yakima, out will be a well-regarded principal who many parents and school-board members say ought to be kept where he is. He's so valued they're not firing him. They're moving him out of overseeing the struggling high school so they can snag the federal grant.
"It feels so terribly unfair," the Marysville superintendent, Larry Nyland, said to KING-TV. But he's going along with the firings against his will, he said, to qualify for hundreds of thousands in federal money.
Is this really what national school-reform efforts have come to? Your money or your teachers. Take your pick.
It reached a peak in Rhode Island last week (let's hope it was the peak). One district there decided to fire all 93 teachers and staff at a low-performing high school.
Seventy-four classroom teachers, plus reading specialists, guidance counselors, the principal, even the school nurse — all got the ax. They didn't want to work a longer school day without being paid for it.
This move was hailed as "courageous" by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. And praised Monday by President Obama himself.
People thought Bush could be simple-minded. Helping a struggling school by sacking everyone who works there is like responding to rising crime by firing all the police.
I didn't come up with that analogy. Diane Ravitch did. What's interesting about her is that she's a New York University education professor with ties to both Bush administrations. She was long a vocal booster of market-minded school reforms such as vouchers, high-stakes testing and teacher merit pay.
She was wrong about all of it, she now argues in a confessional new book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education." None of that stuff works, she says. Not well enough, anyway, to go whole hog into privatizing and corporatizing the public schools.
This latest idea of firing because of schoolwide test scores is madness, she said in an e-mail. It's part of a false mania of No Child Left Behind, now amplified by the Obama administration, that schools will get better if somehow all those "lazy teachers and lazy principals" can be shamed or bullied into action.
"Might as well fire the students and fire their parents, then fire the TV programs, movies and Web sites that distract kids from their studies," she says.
Of course there are some bad teachers and principals. Ravitch argues to cull those by using "human judgment and peer review." Not federal grant formulas.
She also notes how curious it is that the business mania for accountability is directed at teachers in high-poverty schools. Not at, say, Wall Street.
Ravitch's book comes at a key time in the education debate. Business-style school reforms, with standardized-test results as their lifeblood, are soaring in popularity. Even as reams of new data suggest they don't work or are at best a mixed bag.
I asked what she would do instead.
Stop scapegoating teachers and principals, she said. Go back to neighborhood schools so they again are a center of civic life. Stop teaching to multiple-choice tests. Put in a content-rich curriculum that includes the arts, science, history, geography, civics, foreign languages, literature and physical education. Tell parents to step up and stop blaming the system.
Sounds ... hard. Wouldn't it be easier to fire somebody?
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
email@example.com | 206-464-2086
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