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Education Letter to the Editor

‘Pilot’ Schools Validate Skills Commission Report

February 13, 2007 2 min read
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To the Editor:

Diane Ravitch’s strongly worded criticism of “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” the report released in December by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, doesn’t leave much room for debate (“‘Tough Choices’: Radical Ideas, Misguided Assumptions,” Commentary, Jan. 17, 2007). But since the report is based on extensive research on how other countries are educating their children and reflects thoughtful business practice, it should be viewed as a useful starting point for a dialogue, which is the commission’s intent.

In business, we recognize that viable companies depend on employee learning, knowledge-sharing, and engagement with the mission of the enterprise. Learning comes from small teams operating in radically decentralized organizational environments, sharing ideas, networked through information technology, and accountable for results.

The commission is trying to bring this kind of organizational advantage to education. It hopes that the third parties it proposes to run schools under contract to school boards will be groups of teachers organized as partnerships. While Ms. Ravitch indicates there is no evidence to demonstrate that independent contractors are better able to operate schools than local school districts, there is an important initiative, Massachusetts’ “pilot schools,” that provides the evidence she seeks. Principals and teachers in these schools are free to establish the curriculum, manage the budget, and hire and fire as they see fit. It works well.

Moreover, New York City’s mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, and its schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein (a commission member), are engaged in a similar effort. The Boston and New York approaches may be what the commission had in mind in suggesting “contract” schools. Recognizing the challenges of teacher partnerships’ running schools, the commission recommends that “helping organizations,” such as universities or local nongovernmental organizations licensed by the state, work in partnership with teachers and principal-led schools.

Ms. Ravitch writes, regarding the commission’s call for an overhaul of our testing industry, that she is unaware of any tests that measure creativity, motivation, teamwork, and self-discipline. But portfolios, exhibitions, and performances in music, dance, theater, and the visual arts measure these qualities—in certain instances rigorously, such as in the International Baccalaureate exam. The approach can be adopted by other academic disciplines as well.

By vesting teachers with both responsibility and authority through its restructuring proposal, the commission balances its proposed salary increases with the opportunity for meaningful professional work. In suggesting that the median income of commission members be used as the top of the teacher-salary scale, Ms. Ravitch neglects an important part of the equation: Evidence suggests that meaningful work is more important than salary for most employees.

I hope leading educators like Ms. Ravitch will engage in a thoughtful dialogue with parents and other stakeholders on these important issues. The “Tough Choices“ report offers a framework for discussion, not a blueprint. Let’s use it as such.

Eric Oddleifson

Cohasset, Mass.

The writer is the treasurer of the National Arts & Learning Collaborative at Walnut Hill, in Natick, Mass., and the managing member of Delta Alpha LLC, an investment-research firm located in Boston.

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Pilot’ Schools Validate Skills Commission Report


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