Sunday, November 10, 2013

Will a New Generation of DFL Leaders Put Kids First

Minneapolis school reform advocates are celebrating  a victory in Minneapolis, and they should be.   The victory elevated a number of democrats to the city council who seem to favor demanding concessions or cooperation from the labor movement in reforming public education in the the city.   Possibly this victory represents a change in the focus of the DFL, or possibly it simply means that the DFL is willing to tolerate education change agents in the elective council that has no powers to make that change.  But the tone of the dialog among DFL candidates in the Council race suggests that a change is occurring at the core of the urban DFL that's saying, enough is enough, we need to put kids first in the way we run our schools.  And if that happens in Minneapolis, possibly it could infect democrats at the legislature and in the Governor's mansion, and that would be a great step forward.  If these changes  results in change that actually works, then this could be a watershed moment in education here in Minnesota.   But its going to take a whole lot more than just electing the new generation of democrats to the City Council to make a difference for kids in schools.

The danger is that the change that results from all this reform talk will not translate into changes that actually work for the young people whom the change movement is supposed to benefit.  Let me start with the gruesome facts regarding the impact of No Child Left Behind and other reforms that have occurred since 2000.   Contrary to media hype fed by some elements in the reform movement, reading and math scores for whites, blacks and Hispanics have risen modestly since 1970.   That's since 1970, folks, twenty years before the passage of No Child Left Behind.   And, contrary to recent breathless claims among some reform advocates, recent increases in scores have not outpaced the increases that occurred back in the 1970's.  National reforms, the testing, the anti-union movement, attempts at privatization, and all the rest, have not measurably improved the pace of educational improvement any more than what occurred decades ago.

 The introduction of charter schools has not worked on a global scale.   The introduction of futher competition in public schools has not worked on a global scale.   The evidence on the impact of charter schools and school competition is controversial, but the Minnesota's non-partisan study of charter schools conducted by the Office of Legislative Auditor does not support a claim that the system of charter schools is improving education on a global scale.   Traditional publics are doing as well as charters with the target population.  

I'm not suggesting that the evidence tells us that we are doing well enough.  Nor, am I supporting the folks who claim that we can't make quantum leaps in education until we eliminate poverty or drive out all racism.  On the contrary, I'm suggesting that the evidence is telling us that we haven't been bold enough, or persistent enough, because we've been barely scratching the surface in making the changes in teaching and learning that must be made inside schools.   Changing what we do in classrooms is so much harder than changing the ownership of schools.  Its easy (but very expensive) to lower class size, but its very hard to change the instruction that occurs in the class after class size is lowered.  Its relatively easy to create a bonus system to reward teachers who happen to have students who do a bit better than some other students, but that bonus system is unlikely to radically change the teaching that actually occurs in the classroom.  

I've just said that charter schools have not created global improvement in student achivement, but the introduction of charter schools has served a very important function, which is to create examples of what works.   Some charters are doing fabulously well.   I contend that they are doing fabulously well, not because they are charters, per se, but because they are making reforms in the delivery of instruction.   They are requiring that their teaching force use data in different ways.  They are implementing changes based upon the data acquired from test results immediately, instead of waiting until October of the following year to examine their MCA results, when it is far to late to use them.  They are extending the school day and extending the school year.  They are creating a culture that respects learning, and they are adjusting their teaching methods based on what is working with their students -- all of them.  They are trying new things, not because they are fads propagated by consultants with systems bearing their names.  They are trying new things because they make sense, and if they don't work, they are pitching them.   And, of course, when these ideas make sense, the union cannot stand in the way and block them.

Most of these highly successful charters are led by instructional leaders who are focused on making sure that every student's needs are addressed.   They are asking their teachers to use direct instruction, if it works for their students.  And, if it isn't working, then they are going to get rid of it, because they are running their schools based on results, not on preserving the status quo. If the emerging leadership of the DFL wants to learn from charters, it will insist that public schools take bold action to implement changes in instruction, in teaching approaches, in use of data, in collaboration among all professional staff, and by responding with agility to the needs of their students.    Unions need to clear the way for these changes; policy makers need to insist on them, because the lesson of this election is that the DFL is moving in a new direction.     That means that school leadership should identify any aspects of the labor agreement which stands in the way of implementing that bold action.  Not because unions needed to be busted to create reform.  There is just no evidence that kids are learning more effectively where unions are dismantled.   The goal is not busting unions:  the goal is to give management the ability and responsibility to implement bold changes in instruction, and to make the necessary changes in delivery of instruction, that the evidence tells us is required.