School reform: the “off-with-their-heads” approach

An OUSD parent called my attention to the following Education Week blog post by Diane Ravitch, an NYU researcher and former United States Assistant Secretary of Education, about extreme measures to improve public schools in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City. Ravitch talks about new school creation and the wholesale replacement of teachers and principals.

Sound familiar? She writes:

From what I know, and from what I have seen, schools are not shoe stores or hamburger joints, which can be opened and closed at the owner’s whim. They should be durable institutions with deep roots in the local community. If they are low-performing, every effort should be made to help them. And, further, I have seen many terrible new schools created in the past few years, some of them regular public schools, some of them charter schools. Contrary to the new popular wisdom, it is not easy to create a good school from scratch. There is not an army of great principals and teachers who are waiting in the wings, ready for the call to start a new school.

OUSD has taken this approach a step further, by moving to close some of these new schools, created from scratch, that have the same low test scores and high dropout rates as the ones they replaced.

Would you argue that some schools need wholesale change to give students the quality of education they deserve? Or have those changes proved to be a distraction from the underlying challenges facing public education, and created needless instability?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nextset

    The questions here seem to presuppose that the student’s performance is due to something the school is doing right or wrong. Try it this way, the students success or failure is mainly because of the quality of the STUDENT not the school.

    Reshuffling bad students to different schools changes nothing. They are still bad students and they will fail because that’s what bad students always do.

    Private schools know this well and unless they are set up to work with disturbed students, private schools don’t welcome or cater to losers. They have entrance standards and screen out those who can’t meet them. And by that I don’t mean that the candidate has to be 130 IQ. Depending on the school there are reasonable standards such as not being sexually promiscuous, habitual truant, habitual user of substances such as tobacco, MJ, Meth, etc, bad tempered, etc.. and be able to read and count at grade level.

    Our public schools refuse to set up such standards for placement in “normal” schools. So they get the lowest common denominator of student. Don’t blame the teachers. The public schools couldn’t do any differently without segregating/sorting the students into different campuses. That was done by neighborhoods once (it still is – Piedmont USD vs OUSD).

    All the efforts to punish the teaching staff for the poor quality of their students will accomplish nothing.

    And I believe it’s not supposed to. The government, and it’s elites know better than we do how statistics work. Government knows that NCLB is a fraud. There are no accidents.

  • TheTruthHurts

    Would you argue that some schools need wholesale change to give students the quality of education they deserve? Or have those changes proved to be a distraction from the underlying challenges facing public education, and created needless instability?

    I think this is a false choice. Some schools that have failed for decades despite attempts at revitalization likely do need more than tinkering around the edges. However, that doesn’t mean that massive change, in itself, solves anything.

    From the educators I know, it seems pretty simple — provide good teachers with a great leader or great teachers with a good leader. Given the number of teachers we need, we probably stand a better chance of finding enough great leaders.

    However, what little I know about public education says there is SUBSTANTIAL job security for poor teachers and once they’re at your school — good luck. That is not to blame poor teachers for all Oakland’s problems, but it’s hard to believe test scores would suck for so long with great teaching going on everywhere. I also gotta believe we’re dealing with something more systemic than that — challenging working conditions, low parent involvement, scarce resources, etc.

  • TheTruthHurts

    While I seldom agree with Nextset (and I don’t this time), it’s foolish to believe that students come equally equipped by birth or circumstances. I thought schools got some extra money to address some of these challenges. Also, I’ve seen many “bad” students turn into “good” students with teacher/non-profit/parent/mentor involvement. Maybe we need some inside/outside programs.

  • Caroline

    I think this is a perfect desccription, Katy:

    “…those changes proved to be a distraction from the underlying challenges facing public education, and created needless instability…”

    Diane Ravitch used to be in sync with the right-leaning “school reform” public education opponents — she’s still a fellow at the Hoover Institution, the heart of that movement. But she has seen reality bite and is clearly changing her philosophy.

  • Brian

    Katy –

    I am dumbfounded that you published Nextsets opinion in the paper today. We have come to an amazing point in education where we have examples of schools, teachers and administrators that have had success in teaching any type of student from any socioeconomic background. We have proof that it is possible. New schools across the country are targeting these populations and are having tremendous success because they have an belief that every child can learn – it just takes effort by a school, teacher or administrator to spark and encourage the learning abilities of the child. The thinking that it is the students fault if they do not succeed is absurd. The student’s motivation to learn may be a factor, the backround of the student may be a factor, but it is not the reason that the student is not engaging in learning. How can we blame the student when we have proof that there are schools, teachers and administrators that can make any student succeed?
    And if you are wondering what schools these are, please look into the SEED school in Washington DC, the KIPP schools and the Green Dot Schools in LA.

    Furthermore, if you look at the improvement in OUSD from 1999 – 2009, the era that these small/new school reforms have taken place you will see a tremendous growth in the number of schools that are improving. Linda Darling Hammond released a report this fall that stated that the new small schools have had a tremendous positive impact on the communities they serve – better than the schools that they replaced. Initially, some schools are not going to succeed and will have to be closed. Yet, the lessons learned and the understanding of the planning and type of school leader that is necessary for a successful school will better serve Oakland students in the future.

  • Katy Murphy

    I appreciate your feedback, Brian. Had you or someone else responded to Nextset’s argument, that rebuttal would have likely been published as well.

    I’m sure you realize this, but for those who may not: Just because we publish a particular viewpoint doesn’t mean we agree with it.

  • Nextset

    Brian: sad, sad day here.

    This is an education policy blog and you complain to Katy that you find it objectionable that she “published” my opinion here or in print. You should be thanking her profusely.

    The Brave New World I often speak of is coming to a California town near you. We are about to see CA deal with huge cuts in municipal budgets – cuts that will get worse and worse. We can predict this because of the distruction of the CA tax base – which has been long warned of.

    So in an open forum discussing policy you write that Katy and her publisher should shut off debate. I don’t know why I’m surprised anymore – this type of thinking is exactly what the CA left wing has been doing since the 1960’s at least, and the chickens are coming home to roost in a very big way.

    Whatever is to be done to salvage secondary education in this state does not include more of the same liberal nonsense that has gone on here since the ’60s where a relatively well functioning educational system has been run into the ground.

    And as far as Katy and her publisher goes, the wave of economic change hasn’t really hit them yet. The future (as in the end of 2009) of the daily metro newspaper is grim. I hope they can make the transition to internet sales and profitability. Otherwise Katy and all of us on this blog may have no place to go.

    In real life I wouldn’t bother talking to you at all. All my friends and essentially all my relatives had their children, black and otherwise, in private schools. But my generation, myself included, were largely educated in Public High Schools. I worry about what I see is going to happen to the occupational & social prospects of OUSD children. I’d like them to have the opportunities the public school system gave me.

    So you don’t like my Rx for improve the public schools and their products? Good. Propose some of your own. You think you can silence dissent? Not in this Country at this time. Try again in 5 years.