Education Opinion

What is the Spin on School Turnarounds?

By Anthony Cody — August 26, 2010 8 min read
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The latest PDK poll shows that the majority of Americans reject the Department of Education’s preferred solutions for struggling schools, and now the Senate is demanding that funding be directed towards practices with strong evidence of success. The evidence from a recent turnaround effort in Los Angeles does not seem to support the “fire half the staff” model praised by Secretary Duncan in Rhode Island. We have been reading reports from high school teacher Chuck Olynyk since last January. Today we get the latest update, with some grim details.

Chuck will be one of the panelists at the Teachers’ Letters to Obama Roundtable: TurnAround This Policy, scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 31, from 5:30 to 7 pm Pacific time, 8:30 to 10 pm Eastern time. Register here.

Today is Thursday, August 26, 2010 and Day 62 PF (post Fremont). I wanted to go play at practice yesterday, but there’s too much stuff coming out on education and “value added assessment” and where our Secretary of Education stands--like you had any doubt.

Couple that with teachers at the Mont who reapplied, (both successfully and unsuccessfully) complaining about what’s going on in Mont-Town, friends of mine at PDs because they start next week and you begin to see my situation. To quote “Babylon 5":

Jeffrey Sinclair: “I’m still waiting for an explanation, gentlemen.”
Londo Mollari: “Yes. And I’m prepared to give you one, Commander, as soon as the room stops spinning.”
Sinclair: “This station creates gravity by rotation. It never stops spinning.”
Londo: “Well, you begin to see my problem.”

This situation never gets quiet. We never stop spinning.

And some never stop spin doctoring.

“Value added assessment” continues to send ripples across the educational community. I’m sure that those who were rated highly feel that the methodology is fair. Why would there be a problem. Can’t we just see the wisdom of the numbers?

That’s an easy out. It reminds me of principals who abused their authority when they abused certain staff members and coddled others, giving them preferential treatment at the expense of the rest of the school: troublesome students removed from some SLCs (Small Learning Communities) and dumped into the “less successful” (read “not liked by the principal”) ones, assignment of AP classes, who got help, who didn’t. And then there’s the Assistant Principal who has become a Mini-Me to the Principal, who put down teachers in front of me, and who, when he asked yet again for me to reapply, said, “Everyone’s too political.”

That phrase came up every time someone objected to something that was being done. It never was about what was right. To object was to be “political.” I guess I was raised differently. “Circumstances are beyond the control of man, but his conduct is in his own power."--Benjamin Disraeli

Yes, I can object, and do, quite frequently.
It was easy to object to Mr. Balderas, the appointed principal at Fremont, who could change his colors at the drop of a hat. Half the time, he acted like Captain Kirk losing it on the bridge: “I’m... in command... Spock.” But whenever he was confronted with a tough call--or something he didn’t want to deal with--he retreated behind, “I’m not in charge here.” Gee, at Nuremburg, I believe the quote was, “I was following orders.” Well, Sieg freaking Heil.

My peculiar delight is that Dr. George McKenna III, who spits bile at teachers with impressive regularity, seesawed so much between “I’m in charge” to “Oh, I’m not in charge--that’s Superintendent Cortines’ plan” that with all the waffling, you’d think you were in IHOP.

Can’t we just see the wisdom of the numbers?

Even if they are wrong? As Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone’s longtime antagonist, said, “There’s three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

One set of numbers continues to get ignored: the rising test scores at the Mont (prior to its reconstitution) which made Fremont ineligible for the Race To The Top funds and School Improvement grants anyway. This “turnaround” translates into the upheavals in the lives of the students, and the slandering of the reputations of the teachers -- all for naught.

Another set of numbers being ignored: the current staff shortage at the Mont. While B and C Tracks toiled away short-staffed for the past two months, a matrix for A Track wasn’t even prepared. That means the schedules are not ready. More and more teachers are quitting on a school already bleeding teachers. Experienced educators are fleeing the sinking ship; one could be dashedly clever and comment about rats, but I think we’ve had enough rat stories at the Mont.

For two months, the School Board has ignored what took place at Fremont. This was, after all, supposed to be the jewel in the crown of Superintendent Cortines. This was supposed to be an achievement for Principal Balderas, something to groom him for downtown. Remember, he was supposed to be a hero, no matter what happens at the Mont.

But the Hero of Mont-Town has been unable to conjure teachers out of thin air to plug the gaps. There weren’t enough teachers for these last two months, which is why so many teachers have had to teach extra periods. The School Board has ignored the problem. The union ignored the problem and allowed the injustice to continue. And next week, on August 30th, the A Track chapter of the New Fremont begins.

There won’t be enough teachers.
A former student of mine told me yesterday via Facebook that in one of the classes she was making up via Beyond the Bell lacked a teacher. She and the other students sat for three days without a teacher because their attendance was required to help regain the credits they sought. Who knows if the teacher that took over the class even had the proper credentialing? That in itself ought to point out a huge, glaring flaw: Will Student A. (that’s what I’ll call her) get her credits? Probably. Will the class be considered “made up”? Ditto. Will she have learned?

Let’s expand on that theme. A Track is returning. There’s no matrix prepared. There are not enough teachers. How many teachers on B and C Tracks will be press-ganged (think pirates “recruiting” crew) into filling the slots on A? How many students like A. will sit in classes, waiting for a teacher? How many will cover those classes--notice I did not say teach--because they were either instructed to do so and/or because they’ll be paid? How many students will have to suffer through this disruption of their education? How much longer?

The media seems to have little concern. After all, it has a new toy to play with: “value added assessment.” The situation is sort of like having the observer poke something under study in order to see the reaction to being poked. That makes the Los Angeles Times the news rather than the ones reporting the news. And the numbers are seductive.

Even Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, believed parents have a right to know how well their children’s teachers are rated on employee evaluations. She may object to the Los Angeles Times printing data showing how individual teachers may have influenced the standardized test scores of students, but she still supports the idea of value added assessment. “There’s a right way to do evaluation, and we have to keep everybody’s feet to the fire,” she said. Gives you comfort when a union president talks about keeping everyone’s feet to the fire, eh? Makes you feel like your union leadership isn’t just going along with the parade, or currying favor with Secretary Arne Duncan, who asks, “What is there to hide?” then cops out with “In education, we’ve been scared to talk about success.”

Speaking of currying favor, what about UTLA’s own A.J. Duffy, or as he prefers to be called, “Duffy”? The same man who knew about the turnaround plans of Superintendent Cortines days before the Secretary of Education hit town but failed to even tell the teachers at Fremont? On August 20, he announced to hundreds of people that he was “ready, willing and able” to create a new evaluation system for instructors that is “good for kids and fair for teachers,” according to the L.A. Times. And I guess they would know. After all, they are the experts, publishing their “data” with analysis done by a Rand researcher on a private basis for the Times. In spite of the flaws, Duffy even indicated using student test scores might be the way to fly.

He is wrong. The means are flawed. Things are misconstrued.

Our leadership cast Fremont to the fire, for whatever reason. They have grown faint with indignation at all that Fremont suffered, rather than muster the union’s attorneys or, it would seem, even to confront the L.A. Times, or the Superintendent, or the Secretary of Education. But, as William Gladstone said, “Any man can stand up to his opponents. Give me the man who can stand up to his friends.”

In this case, our friends include UTLA leadership, who have led us to this pass, who have not objected strenuously enough to the assaults on education. Perhaps they are too busy. After all this is an election year. It just strikes me as cursed odd that Duffy would acknowledge (read: embrace) VAA (oooh, has its own initials already, adding to its legitimacy, eh?) that EVEN THOUGH IT IS FLAWED, that it might be even considered as worthy enough to consider having it used to count for as much as 10%-30% of a teacher’s overall review. To use flawed data, skewed data for any aspect of evaluation is wrong.

Yet the Los Angeles Times, which had someone from the Rand think tank think about the numbers, reports it as news, and as now sits back and reports on the news it has made.

And the 4600 students at Fremont?

That was July 6th’s news.

Chuck Olynyk taught history at Fremont High for 16 years, often in period costume, before he was “reconstituted.” He declined to re-apply for his own job, and has been writing about the experience. Join him at the Teachers’ Letters to Obama Roundtable: TurnAround This Policy, scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 31, from 5:30 to 7 pm Pacific time, 8:30 to 10 pm Eastern time. Register here.

image by Chuck Olynyk, used by permission.

What do you think of the latest news from Los Angeles? Can we get past the spin in education policy to see what is really happening here?

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