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Friday Guest Column: Not Left v. Right, But “Clued in” v. “Clueless”

April 18, 2008 5 min read

John Thompson is a Teacher in Centennial High School, Oklahoma City Public Schools

I have a friend who wrote for the Heritage Foundation who argues, “In education there is no Left or Right, just ‘clued in’ and ‘clueless.’” Set to the tune of a Charles Wesley hymn, his words could be the rallying cry for true collaborative reform. During a bipartisan effort to raise taxes and reform our urban school system, our union leadership worked closely with some of the most conservative businessmen in one of America’s most conservative states, but we were not even sidetracked by a bitter election over the so-called “Right to Work.” Given a choice between the practical judgments of teachers, as opposed to the theories of policy analysts, the businessmen invariably trusted the professional judgments of veterans of the urban classroom.The businessmen and women were our best allies against the narrowing of the curriculum and opposing a destructive “testing culture.” After all, they sought well-rounded employees who could show up on time for work, cooperate, and take initiative. Since their children attended elite schools that respected their children as whole human beings, business people were skeptical of the “quick fixes” that accompanied NCLB. When the central office proclaimed that we “have no time for dinosaurs,” meaning that we had to abandon the goal of deep and enriching study of topics enjoyed by teachers and students, these conservatives were appalled. Counter-intuitively, it was the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation who made the best case for site based management and collaboration. His franchise had sought a common brand, but top down mandates just hardened resistance. With respectful collaboration, though, franchisees voluntarily complied with the common theme that the corporation sought to project.

I do not believe our business/labor coalition was atypical. Richard Rothstein recently explained how today’s business leaders, after recognizing the myriad ways of gaming the systems, are moving away from the most primitive quantitative outcomes-focused accountability. Countering Eli Broad’s merit-pay approach, Rothstein showed how the private sector is moving toward “multiple measures” of accountability, and pay for performance approaches that value cooperation. Rothstein cited a Harvard Business Review conclusion that typical merit-pay plans “are inherently a zero-sum process,” and the manager of such a plan who reported, “I was spending 95% of my time on conflict resolution instead of how to serve our customers.” Many business leaders have been inspired by Edward Deming who insisted, “management by numerical goal is an attempt to manage without knowledge of what to do, and in fact is usually management by fear.”

Above all, business people can be invaluable in addressing the “third rail” of educational politics - discipline and attendance. Typically, urban teachers want disciplinary backing, but the theorists and administrators rarely want to address that issue. Under the best circumstances, the issue of chronically disruptive, dangerous, and truant students is painfully complex. My old principal used to say of those students, “they have the right to be somewhere, and might as well be in your classrooms.” As was demonstrated by an excellent series in the Philadelphia Inquirer after a teacher had his neck broken by a student who should have been in an alternative schools, central offices face an array of institutional pressures that result in dangerous and disruptive students being repeatedly returned to class. Our bipartisan coalition concluded that “truancy must be seen as an early warning,” that “no child should perpetually disrupt class simply because the alternative schools are full,” and that we should expand a range of high-quality alternative settings. These alternative slots should be of “Rolls Royce quality” to offset the potential stigma and to defuse tensions between administrators and the parents of at-risk students. (If such common-sense policies would become the norm, it would create a potential market for the school improvement industry.)

Then came NCLB. The law stimulated a cottage industry of consultants with Power Point presentations proclaiming simple “best practices.” If teachers just “raise expectations” then behavioral problems would recede. Make instruction more compelling and the effects of generational poverty, such as truancy, could be managed with after-school “safety nets.” The central office sought to limit the size of alternative education, arguing that teachers would just kick their challenging students out of school. It was a bizarro version of the “Field of Dreams,” don’t build a capacity for treating the most challenged students because if you build it, the students will come. We invested millions of dollars in new money, producing few gains in student performance, and our district lost 1/6th of our White and Black students to charters and the suburbs in just five years. We thus conformed to the national pattern, explained in The Turnaround Challenge, where “instruction-driven reforms” produce minimal gains in “the complex eco-system” of high-poverty schools. Our district reached the logical absurdity of top down curriculum-driven reforms when we hired a new superintendent from the Broad School. He tried to mandate “vertical alignment” along with a regime of data-driven accountability, to cut alternative schools in order to send the most challenged students back to their regular schools, and even more testing.

After seven bitter months, the new superintendent and his theories are gone, and we are rebuilding our collaborative coalition. The union has renewed its offer to discuss virtually anything, ranging from performance pay to a tougher and much more efficient evaluation and accountability regime for teachers. Last week I felt “deja vu all over again.” as we began planning a series of community meetings to restart the collaborative conversation and an institutionalized system of peer review to rebuild trust. In fact, the leader will be a “clued in” young man who just returned to his hometown from Wall Street. Maybe this time we will have a theme song, “In education we have no Left or Right, there is no ‘them’ or ‘us’ ...”

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