Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Conflicting Principles: Urgency and Patience

One thread in educational policy debate in general and Whatever It Takes are "conflicting principles." For example:

(The staff at Harlem Children's Zone) tried to follow Geoffrey Canada's two somewhat conflicting principles. The first one held that uninvolved parents couldn't be used as an excuse for a child's failure: the organization needed to have strategies in place to lift every kid to success, no matter how disengaged or unhelpful the child's parents might be. The second principle held that even if a child's involvement wasn't indispensable, it was still invaluable: the more a child's parents participated in his education, the easier it would be to get him on grade level and keep him there.

Another pair of conflicting principles which run through the decisions made by the actors in the book are urgency and patience. The justified sense that students should not have to suffer through an inadequate, unequal education for one day longer, and the reality that education reform, not to mention social progress in general, is a marathon, not a sprint.

Geoffrey Canada seems pretty good at managing that conflict. I find this quote to be rather damning, however:

Canada brought with him a complex proposal that had is group and Klein's Department of Education working hand in hand to administer a few schools in Harlem. "Great idea," Klein said, "But it will never work." It would take forever to get parents, principals to agree to that kind of power-sharing system, Klein explained; by the time they had the details worked out, he would probably be out of office and back in the public sector.

What happened to:

Commit to making every decision about whom we employ, how money is spent, and where resources are deployed with a single-minded focus: what will best serve our students, regardless of how it affects other interests;

There is some justification for basing this policy decision on Joe Klein's life plan, because we all know damn well that the next person to get his job is probably going to arrive with a sense of urgency and a mandate to undo the complacent and misguided initiatives of the Klein administration, just as every savior/turnaround artist does. The wheel of life turns.

In theory, going charter avoids this problem (and, to be fair, it may be a better strategy on its merits), but it brings its own problems. Here's the scene after year one of the Promise Academy middle school:

Stanley Druckenmiller was feeling the pressure, too. As well as committing a fair-sized chunk of his personal fortune, Druckenmiller had raised millions of dollars for the Harlem Children's Zone from financiers and CEOs, his friends and colleagues and competitors and golf partners, and although nobody was yet asking for a refund, Druckenmiller knew that they all expected results, and that they were all disappointed by the 2005 test scores. "If we don't show serious improvement by the end of next year, and success by ninth grade, then I think things could become very challenging," Druckenmiller told me that summer. "If a few years go by and we're not producing what we said we could produce, then the donors have every right to ask questions and, frankly, maybe to divert their funds elsewhere."

SPOILER ALERT: Before the year three test results came back for year three, they nearly gave up on the school, but instead scrapped their plans to expand to high school, leaving their graduating 8th graders to find new schools on short notice, and did not take in a new sixth grade class the following year. This turned out to be completely unnecessary, as the third year test scores were very good.

It seems the school will recover from the gaffe, and that's a good thing -- it seems like a good school! But I'm left wondering about what these statements mean:

Empower parents by giving them a meaningful voice in where their children are educated including public charter schools;

...when parents had little (Tough mentions none) say about the decisions in their children's school. And:

Create accountability for educational success at every level -- at the system and school level, for teachers and principals, and for central office administrators;

Who is the board of millionaire and billionaire philanthropists accountable to? And:

Changing the system so that it better meets the needs of students will require not only a shift in our collective thinking, but also a shift in power. whom is the power shifting?

Philanthropy is great, but it can be fickle. Is this the best basis for funding public education? If only there was some other mechanism... hm...

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