If that’s the solution, it must be a MIGHTY peculiar question being asked…

February5

I first heard that line from Bill Raspberry opining on Ross Perot as the answer to our presidential needs, but it seems to fit so many situations. In my prior post I talked about Urban Redevelopment and some of the less desirable consequences that resulted from it. Claus von Zutrow, in a comment on Larry Ferlazzo’s post that got this all rolling, points out that redevelopment schemes did not happen in a vacuum, they reflected a government response to a real problem in his locale. I would still contend that many redevelopment schemes start with if not outright lies, very creative exaggerations of the problem, and just about everybody agrees in redevelopment that the actual outcomes, did not match the goals. How about education? Let’s review the 5 pillars of poorly done redevelopment schemes, and think about how they resemble many of the “nuclear” options being offered by school reformers:

  1. The need for change is predicated on a lie, or exaggeration;
  2. Anything new is better than old;
  3. It’s for their own good;
  4. Resistance is not futile, but won’t change the larger forces against you;
  5. It may get you something new and shiny, but it won’t help the people affected, and it will tear apart the social fabric of a community.

Larry’s post mentioned some school districts being held up as “examples” of how well this works. One was New Orleans, but Oakland, CA came up as well. Since I started my teaching career there, I’m going to share some insider nuggets just to show the Kabuki dance of self-justification and mendacity that goes on before and after a “reform” to paint it as necessary, and successful and show how the same paradigm that was used in redeveloped is being employed in education reform.

Background

After leaving a career in banking, I wanted to explore teaching as a career. I started as a 30-day emergency credentialed substitute for Oakland Unified School District. This was not my first exposure to the district.

It’s for their own good; and the good of my career!

My husband, while he was in law school, had worked for a state assembly member looking at the district as  a platform for running for local office, which he did successfully winning the mayorship of Oakland. In this effort were the two elements of all subsequent reform efforts: political ambition, and the essential truth that the district was really dysfunctional and had problems (lots of disappearing money, items being lifted from the district warehouse by employees for personal use, etc.).

Shortly before this, the Ebonics controversy exploded, securing the school district’s image as not just a local, but a national joke.

Anything new is better than old; and this superintendent is not “new” enough

The next mayor, Jerry Brown, was much more vocal about what he thought the schools (and the district should be doing). By this time, I had left Oakland, but we kept track of what was going as my husband was active in a local political club there. At the time, there was a new “reform” minded Superintendent in place. There was a re-vamp of curriculum, money was flowing into the district, and voters had even approved a parcel tax for education (very difficult at that point as it took a 2/3rds vote). There were good, and bad points, to that administration, but change was in place. At some point, someone at the district had gotten the bright idea of  “volunteering” schools for a new monitoring program called II-USP (Immediate Intervention for Underperforming Schools Program) which the state had rolled out. This was pre-NCLB, but coincided with the new state testing program. Schools in the program would have to meet certain growth goals, or be taken over. Needless to say, some of the schools were reconstituted. The school I finished my teaching career in Oakland at was one of them. The school my husband spent the most time working in as an AmeriCorps volunteer supervisor was another. The staffs were changed. Strangely the principals stayed in place, but since both of them were pretty good it at least showed some sense on the evaluators part.

The need for change is predicated on a lie, or exaggeration; the district is “bankrupt” and needs new leadership.

At this point two events intersected. The district, which had the most Dickensian accounting department I had ever seen, upgraded to a new system. When the new system was put in place, they discovered a structural deficit that likely had been in place for years, if not a decade. It was definitely from a period before the superintendent at that time’s tenure.

Resistance is not futile, but won’t change the larger forces against you; Nobody messes with Don Perata and he will put YOU in the corner.

At the same time, two local politicos, the Mayor Jerry Brown, and the head of the State Senate Don Perata, were engaged in a pissing contest about who was more serious about education reform. The superintendent, who had been favored by Perata when he started his tenure, was thrown out by the state (essentially, Sen. Perata) and the state took over in a bid for control by Perata. The legislature found that the district was “bankrupt” to justify this, but it wasn’t and likely could have gotten out of fiscal trouble if given time. They definitely needed scrutiny, but a full-on take-over was overkill engineered for political ends, and not to help the district.

Reform may get you something new and shiny, but it won’t help the people affected, and it will tear apart the social fabric of a community.

During the state take-over, input from the community (via the locally elected school board) was a non-issue. Decisions were made outside the context of the communities affected.

Now “reform” folks point to Oakland as an example of “what works”, and the benefits of take-overs and reconstitution. Meanwhile the district is still faces many of the same problems that were there in my day, and my old school, deep in Program Improvement, is wondering if they will be reconstituted, AGAIN.

So I ask you, dear reader, to consider, how many time do you reconstitute a school and reform a district before you get it right?

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