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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Reports Call for Disruptive Changes to Urban School Systems

Charlie likes oranges. Seeing as how he is the only one in the house that's healthy right now, maybe he is on to something. As for me I like green tea with mint.

I just finished reading two reports that have confirmed my resolve for disruptive change in urban education. Those reports are the Progressive Policy Institute’s (PPI) report Put Learning First and the Designs for Change 15 year study The Big Picture School-Initiated Reforms, Centrally Initiated Reforms, and Elementary School Achievement in Chicago (1999-2005).

PPI was once described as "Bill Clinton's idea mill," and its research and proposals were the source for many of the "New Democrat" themes that figured prominently in national politics during the 1990s. The new report was commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and examines from a macro perspective what is needed to reform school systems throughout the United States.

The crux of the PPI report is that we need flexibility of instruction, funding, setting, and teacher hiring; along with public oversight that can be provided by a variety of organizations—not just the school board.

The reports author Paul T. Hill argues for a portfolio approach to manage schools. Such an approach would include:

  • Public oversight;

  • Public funding;

  • Concentration of resources near the student;

  • Strategic use of community resources;

  • Rewards for high performance;

  • Openness to promising ideas, people, and organizations;

  • Free movement of dollars, students, and educators; and

  • An environment of support for both new and existing schools.

Of course Hill’s proposal is hostile to teachers’ unions and central office bureaucracies. For Hill flexibility in school choice, teacher and administrator training and having per-pupil funding allocations follow students are the crucial components of portfolio management.

Hill praises the initial efforts of the Chicago Public School Renaissance 2010 but argues that they need to downscale central office, change teacher allocation (union contract), and put more money in the hands of individual schools. CPS receives a substantial amount of Gates money, so I wonder how they are going to digest a report that is both complimentary of the systems innovation and critical of its resistance to change at the same time. In my opinion, incremental change like we are seeing in CPS in the form of Ren 10 ultimately impedes the forces of disruptive change by attempting to co-opt those forces.

Since the PPI report was commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation it can be read as an assault on urban school systems by corporations in the name of reform. Nevertheless, the Put Learning First Report should be taken seriously by educators and not dismissed as neoliberalist rhetoric because the status quo is bankrupt and ripe for disruptive change.

Another report that should be read by everyone interested in education reform is the Designs for Change report The Big Picture School-Initiated Reforms, Centrally Initiated Reforms, and Elementary School Achievement in Chicago (1999-2005). Designs for Change identified 5 key components for achieving schools in Chicago and those are:
  1. School Leaderships Focused on Success for All Students

  2. Social Supports for Learning (School Culture)

  3. Family and Community Partnership Support Learning

  4. Adults Collaborate and Learn

  5. Quality Learning Activities with Focus on Literacy
I recommend this report because it offers a clear, quantitative look at what works in urban school systems and what does not. The report was suppressed by the Chicago Board of Education because it offers quantitative proof that 3 high profile central office initiatives failed. Those failing initiatives are: academic probation for schools that underachieve, grade retention, and the Chicago Reading Initiative. These initiatives cost tens of millions of dollars and had no return on investment. This is represents a huge waste of taxpayer money the school system that has the largest operating budget of all public entities in Illinois. With no real results, it begs the question, “where did all the money go?”

The Design for Change report first came to my attention when I heard one of its authors on the February 6th edition of NPR's Eight-Forty-Eight. The board contested the findings with Designs for Change, but other than that they have been silent. It is a must read for everyone involved in education from taxpayers to teachers, from community activists to administrators, from me to you. It supports the PPI report because it argues for local control, flexibility, and community support. Of course, CPS is interested first and formost in protecting its high paying jobs, so I don't expect it to go gentle into that good night.

The reports have a cynergistic effect on the reader. When read together these two reports challenge the very need for central office bureaucracies and offer viable structural alternatives to them on the macro and micro level. Never before have we been armed with proven means and the support of the cognitive elites to effect disruptive change. As the concept of Vishnuic reform makes its way from policy reports to public radio we are fast approaching a tipping point in public education.

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