Friday, January 21, 2011

In Which I Ride My Favorite Hobby Horse Over to Ed Sector

Ms Silva and Ms Headden,

After reading Unlikely Allies: Unions and Districts in the Battle for School Reform, I noted with frustration your footnote: "7. The four 'restart' schools initially included a fifth, Feinstein high school, which was subsequently closed for under-enrollment." This is inaccurate in several dimensions. FHS was never considered as a restart. When it was named as one of the "persistently lowest-achieving" by the state, PPSD was in the middle of a process which would recommend closing the school because of inadequate facilities. There was never any indication that anything other than closure was on the table for FHS. However, it was not because of low enrollment at Feinstein, which had a wait list throughout the last decade.

I know Feinstein High School's story; I helped turn around that school in 2000; my wife worked there for 10 years, and we live in the neighborhood. The FHS story is relevant because it illuminates the spin, self-serving omissions, and inaccuracy of your report's analysis of the recent history of labor/management collaboration in Providence.

From your report, a reader would never guess that in that scary "67-page contract from hell," that there exist provisions for labro/management collaboration around site-based management, including have the freedom to obtain variances from other parts of the contract. Nor would you guess that there were several site-based schools in Providence, including the most successful neighborhood schools in Providence: Vartan Gregorian Elementary School, Charles Fortes Elementary, E-Cubed High School, Feinstein High School, and even PAIS. These schools were governed by a three-part panel comprised of representatives of the school, district and union. Another successful turnaround at Hope High School was administered by the state, but was fundamentally similar in approach to the site-based schools.

I've attached a graph showing the average proficiency rates across all three subjects on the NECAP exam administered in October 2009, including students who attended each school during the 2008-2009 "teaching year." This is the most recent and fair data available at this time. The graph just considers neighborhood high schools, where E-Cubed, Feinstein and PAIS were considered site-based by the district (according to the PPSD website). As you can see, the existing-site based school outperformed the others by more than 10 percentage points. I've also attached another infographic I created to illustrate the reading scores of Providence (and Central Falls) high schools, highlighting size and autonomy.

Reforming and Un-Reforming High Schools in Providence

The Brady administration was hostile to the site-based schools from the beginning, despite their relative success. The newly reopened Nathan Bishop Middle School was not allowed site-based status despite the community's preference. After Brady arrived both the administration and the union ceased the contractually mandated meetings and processes at FHS, and presumably at the other site-based schools as well. The administration never had the decency to officially end the schools' site-based status; they simply ignored it completely.

The real story of Brady's tenure in Providence, at least regarding the part I'm familiar with, high schools, is of dismantling successful collaboration. Hope Arts High School saw a 50% increase in reading proficiency over the last two years. That program is being taken apart.

In the year Feinstein High School was closed it already exceeded the PAIS/Cooley 2012 targets in both reading and writing. In writing, FHS completely eliminated the achievement gap in for black vs. whites statewide, hispanic vs. whites statewide and by low vs. high-SES statewide. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, Feinstein High School maintained the highest rates of college enrollment and retention among Providence neighborhood high schools. Cooley and Feinstein were in the same neighborhood. FHS's reading proficiency exceeded Cooley's by 39%; in writing by 43%. Yet Cooley is open, and FHS is closed.

The reason for this, really, is control. Site-based management at Feinstein High School was much more assertive than either the PPSD or RIDE would allow in 2011, particularly in terms of curriculum. The same at Hope High. Today a restart school can do what they want, as long as it serves the needs of the Aligned Instruction System and the rest of the organized system under Brady.

Will this current round of restarts be successful? Probably on the whole just as successful as the last round, especially since many of the same people are involved, including turnaround Principal Janelle Clarke, whose previous job was Dean of Teaching and Learning at "Persistently Lowest Performing" FHS. The real question is whether or not ten years from now one of the young teachers now working in a Providence turnaround will be writing a letter exactly like this one, to the next generation of self-serving think tank wonks, acridly explaining that no, what is happening now is not new or unprecedented, but the same thing, over and over. And if only we could repeat the next cycle without first burying the successes of the previous iteration, maybe we could actually get somewhere for the kids in this community.


Tom Hoffman


Unknown said...

Bravo! Or better, Touche!

Coincidently, Linda Perlstein, editor of the Education Writer's Association's "The Educated Reporter" blog, today posted some advice for reporters new to the education beat. She advised they bone up on some of the leading actors in the edublogisphere and the wonktankisphere as good prep for their new jobs, among the latter the Ed Sector. Having already read your post, I got a bit exercised and posted a critical comment using your piece for the floor joists. You might be amused. I do apologize if my reference to you as a "veritable prole" offends. I meant it ironically.

Keep up the good fight. I read your blog everyday at my school.

Jill Davidson said...

Well said, Tom. Thank you.