Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Concerning Hope High School

To the Board of Regents and Commissioner Gist,

I am writing in support of the students, teachers and other members of the Hope High School community who spoke at the December 3rd meeting of the Board of Regents. Their concerns speak directly to the credibility and integrity of the Board's ongoing and future reform initiatives.

In a letter to his fellow Regents just short of one year ago, Angus Davis praised the nomination of Arne Duncan as Barack Obama's Secretary of Education, citing his record of successful turnarounds as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools:

"In a hearing this summer before Congress, he testified, 'We are one of the few districts in the country that literally shut down underperforming schools and replaced the entire school staff. The turnaround strategy has resulted in doubled or tripled student performance in many of these schools, he testified: 'Same children, same families, same socio-economic challenges, same neighborhood, same school building... Different teachers, new leadership and a new educational approach, and the results are dramatic.'"

If this is true and praiseworthy in Chicago (and perhaps it is not (1)), the test score gains at Hope High School have been equally dramatic, or moreso.

The teachers at Hope High School cannot simply be written off as representatives of the "status quo," or people who don't "put children first." They are the vanguard of reform who answered the state's call in 2005, and they have been successful.

In turn, their professional futures at the intersection of local, state and federal reform initiatives look roughly like this: the systematic dismantling of their meticulously crafted program by district administration, test scores likely declining back to the mean just as each teacher is personally evaluated and perhaps compensated based on those scores.

The next step will be closure of the school for management by an outside agency, as the collapse of Hope's reform following a return to district administration will be seen as proof that turning around district schools does not work. The teachers will have no right to another job in the district and a professional portfolio featuring declining scores in a disheartened, failing school, and a local administration which has already shown a willingness to use the mis-named "criterion-based" hiring policies to punish dissent.

This will be their reward for successfully confronting one of the state's most intractable school reform challenges.

As Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider wrote in their book, Trust in Schools (p. 139-140):

...external actors have taken on important roles in schools' social networks, and the development of relational trust across these new role sets also becomes important....

A mutual dependence for success now exists across this expanded social network of internal and external actors. Since power relations typically will be structured with asymmetry favoring district and state agents, it becomes incumbent on these external agents to acknowledge the vulnerability sensed by school-based actors. Any actions taken by external agents to reduce this vulnerability should go a long way toward building trust across this expanded social network. (2)

Put another way, an activist Board of Regents and Commissioner need to demonstrate that you will have the back of those who work directly on your behalf on the front lines.

If the Board of Regents and Commissioner of Education do not have the will, capacity and stamina to defend your own freshly won gains in Rhode Island school reform, then perhaps you should reconsider the scope of your ambition for the future. I hope you will act decisively in this matter.

Tom Hoffman
Providence, RI

(1) http://www.catalyst-chicago.org/notebook/index.php/entry/379

(2) Chall, Leo, Bryk, Anthony, & Schneider, Barbara. (2002). Trust in schools. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation Publications.

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