Schools No More For Scandal
Chester Finn undoes all his good work in his previous column with the following one in Forbes – in which he blindly supports the NYC merit pay initiatives that are linked to unreliable measures, supports “outsourcing “ public education to charter schools, and comes out for more superintendents who are not educators.
Schools No More For Scandal
Chester E. Finn Jr. 10.01.08, 1:22 PM ET
School reform is bloody hard--Admiral Rickover compared it to moving a graveyard--and harder still in big cities. Everybody knows why: kids with lots of problems, high student turnover, stubborn bureaucracies, revolving-door superintendents, ill-trained and semi-dedicated employees, obdurate teacher unions and so on. That's why the most promising education reforms come from outside the public-school system and are imposed by governors, business leaders, parents, big philanthropists, even Uncle Sam.
Once in a while, though, the stars line up, even in big cities with tough unions and scads of low-income, minority pupils, to allow a worthy change in public education to originate within the system itself.
Three such examples surfaced in recent weeks, all of them admittedly too new to have yielded higher test scores or lower dropout rates--and none of them alone capable of overpowering all the aforementioned forces of resistance. Yet each is so obvious, so sensible and so gutsy as to warm this aging reformer's heart and put an optimistic smile on his face.
Grade school performance--and reward success. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and school chancellor Joel Klein assigned A through F grades to that vast system's 1,040 public schools and faced clangorous objections. The grades are based primarily on the achievement gains made by the schools' pupils and then used to confer cash bonuses on the high performers. The teachers' union allows this so long as the money goes to the "school" and not to individual teachers, though the school is free to distribute its dollars to staff members on whatever basis it likes. Principals in super-achieving low-income schools get salary bonuses of their own--up to $25,000 each.
Some 89 elementary and middle schools are sharing in this year's pot of $14 million. No, it's not big money in the city's multi-billion dollar education budget, but its implementation is producing a few weird results. What a good idea, both to grade schools as well as kids--and to reward the educators who bring about the best results.
Judge schools on their performance--and give new freedoms to the best while coming down hard on the worst. Denver also has a new school-grading scheme based on students' academic growth. It uses labels from "distinguished" to "accredited on probation" instead of letter grades. The 10 schools at the top are enjoying cash bonuses up to $24,000 for principals and $12,000 for teachers. Just as important, they gain greater control over their curricula and budgets, and are less subject to the whims of the central bureaucracy. The 35 schools at the bottom must adopt interventions, such as mandatory curriculum, personnel changes and external expertise, or face closure (five of the 35 are already shut).
Turn troubled schools into charters--and put a competent operator in charge. Los Angeles ' 2,600-student Locke High School --named after an African-American writer, not the English philosopher--has a long history of violence, scandalously low achievement, proliferating dropouts and rampant mismanagement. The system seemed incapable of setting it right.
Now, however, after gaining approval from the school's tenured teachers, as required by California 's charter-school law, that system has outsourced the school, turning it over to the "Green Dot" organization and its strong track record running charter schools in the L.A. area. Green Dot's highly regarded leader, Steve Barr, now has enormous freedom to hire and fire principals, redeploy staff, reorganize the school (already turned into seven mini-schools) and handle resources as he sees fit--including a generous infusion of philanthropic dollars.
What do these three innovations have in common, besides being bold and commonsensical? None is the work of a traditional superintendent. New York 's Klein, who works directly for the mayor, was an anti-trust lawyer. Denver 's Michael Bennet, also an attorney, was chief of staff to that city's mayor. Los Angeles ' David Brewer is a retired Navy admiral. Nobody says unconventional supes always make smart decisions. Nobody can yet be sure that this particular trio of reforms will pay off. But these school systems have nowhere to go but up. And the old ways sure weren't working.
Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
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