Jailing’s Too Good For ‘Em?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 17th, 2009

Sharlonda Buckman of the Detroit Parent Network says it was “inappropriate” for Fox News anchor Shepard Smith to say he would burn down Detroit’s schools if his kid had to attend them.  “To hear that 69 percent of the kids that took the test scored as if they just guessed on every one…I don’t care.  If my kid were in Detroit I’d try to burn the place down,” Smith said on Fox’s Studio B program. He later explained that he meant the comment figuratively.

“I think that was a very poor, inappropriate comment.  I would say shame on Shepard,” said Buckman, who just a few days ago called for throwing Detroit teachers in jail over those same test scores.  No word on whether she was speaking figuratively.

Race To The Trough

by Robert Pondiscio
December 17th, 2009

I was all set to post something about Checker Finn’s article in National Affairs on “the end of education reform,” when another piece bearing the byline of the head of the Fordham Institute caught my eye.  Writing in The American, Finn and Rick Hess first take pains to present their bona fides as “champions of entrepreneurs, for-profits, outsourcing, competition, deregulation, and kindred efforts to open public education to providers other than government and operators other than bureaucrats.”   Their credentials thus dispensed with, they then blast the “greedheads ” bellying up to the education trough to dine.   ”The whole ‘Race to the Top’ enterprise has become a red light district for lusty charlatans and randy peddlers,” say Finn and Hess.

Devising a competitive plan is thought by state officials to require the careful hanging of many glittery ornaments upon their proposals. Conveniently, the consultants (and states) are aided in this task by platoons of self-promoters who tout themselves as one-stop solutions—whether or not they’ve ever actually done successfully that which they’re now promising. “You need school turnarounds? We got turnarounds.” “You want Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics? Look no further.” Plenty of outfits will promise to build your data system, take care of school leadership, fix teacher quality, or whatever else you may need. They’re often non-profits but they get pretty nearly the same plush salaries and reputation-boosting meetings with state and federal honchos, opportunities to self-importantly Blackberry late into the night, and future security—as new connections set them up for future rounds of philanthropic and taxpayer largesse.

To their credit, Finn and Hess don’t portray schools as unwitting rubes in this dance. 

The burden is on them to demand value in return for the money they’re spending. And in schooling, too often, purchasers have been heedless, ill-informed, bureaucratic, or gullible. It’s the taxpayer’s money they spend, they’re not always sure how to judge quality, they lack measures of effectiveness or efficiency, and it’s tempting to avoid tough decisions or unpleasant conflict. Reformers and would-be watchdogs often allow state chiefs and local superintendents to excuse irresponsible fiscal stewardship with airy talk of closing achievement gaps and the nobility of the education mission—thus ensuring that the greedheads will prosper another day.

The marriage of greedy hucksters and undiscerning buyers is not a pretty picture.  “We continue to believe in education entrepreneurship, Hess and Finn wrap up. “But we’d be a lot happier if the officials charged with safeguarding school dollars would get wise to the greedheads.”

The Low Rhetoric of High Expectations

by Robert Pondiscio
December 17th, 2009

At Public School Insights, Claus Von Zastrow calls out the casual use of the phrase “high expectations.”    It’s de riguer for education reformers to claim high expectations for schools and children.  “But scratch the surface of their rhetoric,” Claus writes, “and you’ll find that some of them have expectations that are really quite low.”   His list:

  • Low Expectations for Assessments. Many state tests are lousy. For some reformers, though, lousy is good enough to determine the fate of teachers and students alike.
  • Low Expectations for Curriculum. Foreign language has all but disappeared from elementary schools. High school research papers have been a rarity for years. But c’mon–What can you expect at a time when we have to boost scores on those lousy math and reading tests?
  • Low Expectations for Policymakers. It’s just way too expensive to level the economic and social playing field for poor children. We can gush over the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), but you just can’t expect policymakers to strengthen poor communities. We might as well expect schools alone to do the job.
  • Low Expectations for Kids. We’d love to help poor students become creative, inventive, sophisticated thinkers, but we have to focus on academic triage because resources are scarce. All that other stuff seems pretty touchy feely, anyway.

The rhetoric of high expectations has long been a sore point for me.  As a practical matter, too many of us are content to set the finish line for other people’s children where we set the starting line for our own.  Here’s my litmus test:  if every child in the U.S. read on grade level and graduated from high school on time, would you call that a success?  Of course you would.   So if your child reads on grade level and graduates on time — nothing more, nothing less — would you count him or her as well-educated?  

“The rhetoric of high expectations will remain,” Von Zastrow concludes.  “It’s far more resilient than the reality.”