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Reform school confidential; what we can learn for three of America's boldest school reforms.

When A Nation at Risk toppled American educational complacency back in 1983, I was just out of high school, working as a typist for the federal government. Beside me was another just-graduated clerk named Peggy, who had gone to D.C.'s Coolidge High School. Peggy was pleasant and industrious, with a reverence for horror movies. Before long, I realized that she was also functionally illiterate. She had learned to type, slowly but cannily, by matching letters on the page to letters on the keyboard. When he needed to know what something actually said, she asked her coworkers to read for her.

One heard a lot of stories like Peggy's back then, as it began to dawn on America how broke the public education system was, especially in the cities and among the poor. There were illiterate honor students, kids who graduated after missing months of school, teachers who couldn't spell competence, let alone demonstrate it. Here in D.C., those stories begat blue-ribbon commissions, tens of millions of dollars in new funding, and perhaps as many new programs as there are schools--from Afrocentric education to early-learning centers to magnet schools. And with each came the expectation that there'd eventually be fewer Peggy stories to tell.

A few weeks back, weary of school officials' talk about how nicely reform efforts were progressing, I started wondering how those reforms had played out at Peggy's alma mater, Coolidge. In 1982, when she graduated, the school's average reading levels were more than two grade levels below the national norm--scores among the worst in a pretty sorry school system. Today, after all the reports and research, refinancing and retooling, Coolidge students' reading scores are exactly the same as they were. And those are the scores of the slim majority of kids who stayed in school--another statistic frozen in place.

Figures like these, I think, help explain why half of Americans now claim to support educational vouchers. It's not really a profound faith that this country's St. Anthonies and Oxford Preps will cure what ails education. The recent results of the Bush administration's own National Assessment of Educational Progress show that kids about to graduate from private school don't do any better than public school kids when you control for family background. Rather, the polls lay bare our lack of faith in the public schools' willingness and ability to transform--a faith strained to breaking by some of America's most celebrated and ambitious reform efforts.

Rochester, New York. Chelsea, Massachusetts. Chicago, Illinois.In those places in the mid-eighties, some of education's most committed reformers seized upon a few bold ideas, drummed up some cash, and embarked on a seeming revolution from within, generating hype and hope in the process. Rochester's goal was to beef up the quality and status of teachers. Chicago sought to give parents control over the way the schools were run. Chelsea focused on leveling the playing field for poor kids. Theirs are still the experiments educators point to when they ask for more time to fix the system. But today, each of them is foundering, leaving communities, students, even the leaders who propelled them disillusioned.

On one level, the stories of these efforts reinforce what many Americans apparently believe: We've tried public school reform. It didn't work. Let's ditch the whole idea. Yet before we start dismantling public education, perhaps we should check out why even these tremendous efforts have failed--explanations rooted, not in money or theory or intention, but in an educational establishment that has managed to thwart the most righteous of reforms.

The greenback attack

In the world according to liberals like Jonathan Kozol, the key to school reform is in the bank: money to hire good teachers, money for innovative programs, money for books, money to relieve students' socioeconomic disadvantages. But it was probably no accident that Kozol, when researching Savage Inequalities, didn't spend much time in Rochester. Five years ago, in a school district of 33,000 students--most of them poor and almost half from single-parent households--Rochester launched one of America's most expansive and expensive efforts to rebuild a system whose test scores and dropout rates consistently ranked it as one of the worst in New York State. Goaded by a "Call to Action" by the Rochester Urban League and funded by hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers and local corporations like Eastman-Kodak and Bausch and Lomb, chilly Rochester in 1987 became, as U.S. News put it, the hottest place on America's education map.

Rochester's throw-money-at-it approach was not without a guiding, and good, idea: freeing the hands of teachers to do what they're supposed to do--butt into the lives of kids and make them learn in whatever way works. What Chris Whittle, in his obsession with uniformity, fails to realize is that good schools leave room for passion, giving people freedom to experiment, adjust, and respond. But in the unreconstructed Rochester schools, as in most others, administrative dicta spewed forth on everything from what days to read Silas Marner to assignments on the weekly cafeteria detail. Correspondingly, teachers worked to the rule, got raises like clockwork, and earned the minimal respect they deserved. Students learned, if they were lucky.

Fortunately, renegade Rochester Teachers Union leader Adam Urbanski and Superintendent Peter McWalters, a former Peace Corps Volunteer and veteran teacher, didn't think that was the wisest way to reach at-risk kids. So they battered out a historic agreement. Teachers would receive a 40 percent pay increase over four years--vets could receive as much as $70,000--but they'd damn well have to earn it. They would go to students' homes, stay late, and tutor individually. They'd mentor weaker teachers, develop curricula, plan special programs and events. So empowered were teachers by the changes that administrators actually sued for being cut out of the supervisory process. There was a tradeoff, of course. Rochester taxpayers now demanded teacher accountability. And Urbanski's union, to collective amazement, agreed to waive some seniority rights, tie pay in part to performance, and give officials a little help in weeding out incompetent teachers.

Today, mention of the district's modest improvements in elementary reading and math scores still pops up from time to time in the education press. But statistics tell a more complicated story. There are still almost as many dropouts as graduates. Only half of Rochester high schoolers passed the state's Regents math and English test, down from more than 60 percent two years ago. The number of black students who averaged a B or better through four years of high school is the lowest in five years. Last year, the Urban League summed it up: These are the same "crisis conditions" as in the bleak days preceding reform.

But why? Rochester respected its teachers. Rochester empowered its teachers. Rochester paid its teachers like accountants. So how good are those teachers? In Rochester, that question is irrelevant, since it's virtually impossible to fire the bad ones.

Thanks to the same state and union requirements that make getting rid of poor instructors arduous and expensive across the country, the head of Rochester school personnel estimates that only about 2 of more than 2,000 tenured teachers have been removed--or "counseled out"--every year since reform began. Meanwhile, the Rochester teacher's union has rejected all pay-for-performance criteria in its contract, essentially reneging on its original agreement. The upshot? Even Urbanski admits that the epic reform hasn't changed the way teachers teach.

"We have teachers who fraternize--I mean, have sex with--teenagers, and they're still teacher," says Marvin Jackson, head of Rochester's District Parent Council and a parent of five. "We had a middle-school teacher hit a kid. Parents freaked, but absolutely nothing happened to that teacher. But mostly, we just have some plain old bad teachers, and nothing ever happens to them."

In fact, at current levels of pay, in five years three quarters of those teachers will make $60,000 just for showing up--a fact that gives Whittle and other acolytes of educational competition real claim to the moral highground, and not just in Rochester.

Of course, with a million bucks of his own money countering the education lobby, Ross Perot did manage to secure merit pay in Texas; Bill Clinton obtained a one-time-only basic literacy test for Arkansas teachers back in 1983. But there, in that corner of the map, you have all the significant state-level reform in teacher training and evaluation since A Nation at Risk. Almost everywhere else, a diploma--earned with a host of questionable pedagogical courses, a few weeks of practice teaching, and virtually no testing of subject knowledge--still equals a license to teach. Once teachers get those licenses, you can only hope that the semi-literate ones also have a predilection for pedophilia; little else will get them dismissed.

Teacher quality is an educational necessity that

V liberals are particularly shoddy at confronting. Teachers obviously deserve protection from unfair job actions, just as they deserve decent pay and working conditions. But as Rochester parents understand viscerally, there is another issue here--one of expectations. While pay can't be tied inextricably to performance until the wonks create the perfect test or the administrators fill classrooms with uniform percentages of good kids and bad, allowing teachers to teach with no real-world standards has predictable consequences. In Rochester, for example, state-level reform recently changed the way students would learn math; the new thing, sensibly, was mastering concepts and critical thinking instead of memorizing formulae. Yet what was good for students was a pain in the neck for their teachers, who would have to revise their ancient lesson plans. With no incentive to change their ways, they balked, clinging to the old memorize-the-Pythagorean methods. Droves of students failed their state math exams.

Even sadder was the fizzling of one of Rochester's most promising ideas. Every high school and middle school teacher had agreed to counsel 20 pupils and get involved with their parents--a plan to ensure that in reformed Rochester no child would slip quietly between the cracks. But some teachers refused to visit their poorer students' homes. They were petrified. Parents across the city quickly organized "diplomatic corps"--local parents who'd escort teachers into the projects. But the teachers wouldn't use them. Now the corps don't exist anymore, the teachers aren't making their visits, and you can almost hear the cracks widening.

Office politics

If Rochester's plan was to shower money and power on teachers, Chicago's plan was to wrest it from administrators and give it to parents. And when you ask Chicago school officials about the success of their dramatic decentralizing plan--one the Tribune called the most radical assault on the administrative power structure in American educational history --you invariably hear the story of Spry Elementary. There is a good lesson there, but not perhaps the one the central office wants to convey.

A few years back, the overcrowded, underfunded Spry was the fief of a Bad Old Principal whom parents routinely complained about to an indifferent central office. Then came reform, which usurped the central office's power and gave local councils composed of parents, who know what's best for their kids, the power to fire principals and set policy for individuals schools. Heady with this new control, the first thing the Spry council did was dump that Bad Old Principal for someone more responsive and aggressive. Today, Spry's classes are smaller and its test scores are inching up. Parents are happy, teachers are happy, students are happy. In fact, everybody seems happy except the students at Clay School across town. That's where the Bad Old Principal now collects his salary.

From Chicago and Cincinnati to Washington and San Diego, decentralization of school administration is the latest banner of the reform crusaders, and its premise is a sound one. By cutting bureaucracy and loosening central office control, principals and teachers can be more responsive to the needs of their particular kids. And without the central office gobbling up funds, they'll have more money to respond with. Yet a peek behind the press releases suggests that this new trick is nothing against one of the oldest; bureaucratic inertia.

When William Bennett called Chicago the "worst school system in the country" back in 1988, he was stepping onto a pretty sturdy limb. Half the students dropped out before graduation, and high school achievement scores ranked in the lowest 1 percent of American schools. The administration, on the other hand, was doing fine. Central office workers were spending twice as much every month to trim and water the plants in their offices as they handed out for school supplies in the city's poorest elementaries. Meanwhile, layers of administrators couldn't even accomplish their most fundamental task: getting teachers into classrooms. Every day, thousands of students arrived at school to find neither a teacher nor a substitute in front of the class. "It's just a fact of life," one administrator reassured the Chicago Tribune at the time. "It's always been like this."

Finally, Chicagoans' frustration erupted. Unprecedented public, business, and press support led to the 1988 reform legislation that set a cap on the size of the administration and reallocated money to the schools. An astounding 17,000 people--mostly parents--ran for 4,300 seats on the newly empowered school councils in 1989, and more than 300,000 people turned out to vote. But by last year, a third of the council members had quit, frustrated; only 3,000 ran for the empty seats. What went wrong? Well, if you think you can't fight City Hall, try the school administration, whose "Club Med mentality." as parent Ron Sistrunk dubs it, has proved as durable as the roaches in the lunchroom.

Consider the number-one decentralization "strategy" issued by the administration: "Disassemble the Central Service Center" at the central office. A perusal of the restructuring plan shows what it really means isn't dismantling, but renaming--as the "Central Resource and Training Center." Another job-preserving technique comes under the heading "eliminat[ing] administrative impediments": not cutting staff or streamlining procedures, but researching and writing a series of procedure manuals that include development of "a master matrix ... of the stakeholder groups."

How do administrators get away with this rearguard action? Easily. School boards come and go; parents get frustrated with inertia and arcana. Thus administrators have been able to wait out "reform" until public interest wanes. And that's apparently what Chicago Superintendent Ted Kimbrough intends to do. In fact, all this harping over administration sort of bores him. Instead, he says, "We need to focus on the classroom."

So let's. When the Consortium on Chicago School Research recently polled thousands of Chicago teachers, 57 percent of them reported that the restructuring has had no effect on what they do in their classrooms. Now come closer and see how reform has changed Farren Elementary, where geography--it's nestled into the world's largest housing project, Robert Taylor Homes--has traditionally been destiny.

Here, the city reports that 100 percent of the student body is low-income, and test scores are among the city's lowest. Has reform come to the rescue? This year, Farren's supply budget was cut 95 percent. To purchase the necessary paper and paper clips, Principal William Auksi had to shift the money from programs for kids with remedial learning problems.

"They had enough money," Auksi shrugs. Not surprisingly, tiny Farren does have enough funds to support two handsomely paid assistant principals.

No comprendo, teach

So even a "reformed" education establishment manages to keep bad teachers on the payroll, strangle creativity, and lavish on itself funds meant for kids. But perhaps the most damaging thing isn't what that establishment inflicts, but what it fails to share --power with the parents who have the most to gain and lose from the quality of their children's schools. In Chicago, that's a side effect. In Chelsea, Massachusetts, it's a disease unto itself. There, the disenfranchising of parent has sabotaged one of the most promising and well-intended reform movements in the country.

When John Silber's Boston University (BU) finally obtained a 10-year contract to run the Chelsea schools over the fierce objections of the teachers union and school administration, it was a little like winning a vacation home in Love Canal. The small district was the poorest and arguably the worst in the state. A third of the mostly hispanic student body couldn't do coursework in English, and its dropout rate, the highest in the state, was just barely higher than the rate at which its teenaged girls had kids. But BU was anything but daunted. "I don't want to be arrogant or grandiose," John Silber said at the time, "but I don't think it's utterly fanciful to say we're testing the future viability of American primary and secondary education."

As expected, the conservative Silber took on the patronage-laced administration with ferocity, and by 1990, with a salary boost as sweetener, he cajoled the teachers union into merit pay. But when it came to the classroom, he had a plan that would warm Hillary Clinton's heart. In Chelsea, teaching kids would begin outside the classroom, with health care, parent literacy programs, early training in English. In short, the Chelsea plan would hand over to teachers kids who were, in the education catchphrase, ready to learn. It was a swell idea--indeed, probably the most important in educating underprivileged, at-risk kids, who currently make up about a third of America's public school population. But Silber's perestroika overlooked one thing. More than half of Chelsea parents couldn't even understand BU's various projects, let alone participate in them.

As the school's new leaders went on cross-country speaking tours to discuss their plans, parents fumed that none of the all-important hearings BU held to air its plans were in Spanish, nor were any of their reports translated. And the university was fairly clumsy with its symbolism. It abolished a longstanding position of bilingual program director, deputizing a nonhispanic teacher to take over the vestigial work.

Silber and company, justly proud of their programmatic accomplishments--elementary school reading and math scores had increased, while Chelsea High SAT scores shop up 14 points in a year--treated the unhappy parents as kevetchers: "the ain't-it-awful crowd," one BU administrator dubbed them. Weren't they giving them good health care, a rich assortment of afterschool programs, and, for once, accountable teachers? Still, the first state study of the takeover, in 1990, sided with the moms and dads, calling the BU contingent "arrogant and devaluing to parents and others who are members of minority groups." A federally funded study a year later echoed the charge. As the state panel observed in fluent educationese, "The university seems to have underestimated the need for continuous socialization of important issues with various constituencies." The community was more direct. When Silber attempted to speak to parents about the schools' financial problems, he was drowned out by jeers.

Failing to translate reports or hire hispanics seems rather forgivable in the context of a huge reform plan. Yet four years after the historic contract was signed, oversights like those have proven pivotal, because Chelsea parents didn't just express their hostility with noise. City leaders, keying into residents' feelings, cut the schools' budget dramatically, crowding classrooms and stymieing many of BU's planned reforms. The results of that underfunding are now being felt acutely: The reading and math scores that leapt up in the first years of reform recently sank beneath pre-takeover levels. "It's just a big monster," charges Juan Vega, member of the Chelsea Commission on Hispanic Affairs, of the reform effort--not seeming to realize that it was all supposed to be done for his kids, not to them.

Chelsea's current crisis is an extreme manifestation of a standard problem in education reform. From Rochester to Chicago to D.C., even well-intentioned reformers tend to act like summer-stock Coriolanuses when it comes to parent involvement. They pay lip service to the notion but work doggedly to keep the masses from messing with their plans. Unfortunately, longitudinal studies suggest that the treacly concept of getting moms and dads engaged is almost certainly the linchpin of students' educational success. That task isn't very difficult when your student body is middle class and raised in families that value learning. The challenge is students who are poor, usually urban, possibly hungry, and brought up a world in which education isn't necessarily a priority. Administrators have to work on and with these parents. And while the payoff for doing so can be astounding, administrators tangled up in the details of running a school tend to find apathetic moms and dads more convenient.

Convenient, that is, in the short run. It may not be tomorrow, or even next year, but, as Chelsea's parents indicate, citizens excised from the reform process can prove far more toxic to change through their votes in elections and on bond issues than by their "meddling" in a third grade class. This fall, hispanic parents actually threatened to keep their kids out of school, while BU muttered about taking a hard look at the practicality of its long-term investment in Chelsea.

"At this point, it would be a blessing if BU just left," says Juan Vega. The university's hand-picked superintendent, Peter Greer, has already taken the hint Earlier this year, he resigned to run a private school in New Jersey.

"F"ing school reform

To be sure, from each of these hope-freighted reforms have sprung some triumphs: Spry Elementary's makeover, the rising elementary scores in Rochester and Chelsea. And in the context of so much bad news about public schools, it's tempting to be grateful about good news, however small. Perhaps the goal is, as Churchill said about democracy, to be, not the best, but the least bad.

But the trouble with toasting Rochester, Chicago, and Chelsea for slender gains is that they had the leadership and the motivation to be a lot more than least bad. They aimed to empower good teachers and get rid of bad ones; to wrest money and control from bureaucracies; and to include families, whatever the class differences and difficulties, in a learning process that precedes and transcends the classroom. In their early days, these three cities held the keys to real reform. And then they lost them.

The dampened hope in Rochester, Chelsea, and Chicago should make liberals not just furious, but determined. If we really believe that funneling public money into private school is wrong, we have a moral obligation to address the politically hazardous sources of public school reform's continued failure--tenured incompetence, administrative protectionism, parental detachment and alienation. Until we do, there's little guarantee that the next Brilliant Ideas for reforming our schools from within won't be more wasted efforts. Only this time around, the casualty list may include, besides all those Peggys unleashed into the economy, the notion of public education itself.

Katherine Boo is an editor of the Washington Monthly.
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Author:Boo, Katherine
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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