Yale SOM Conference Dilemma

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I spent Thursday night and Friday at the Yale School of Management Ed Reform conference, “From Policy to Practice,” although the emphasis seemed less on that transition than on the old bugaboo of education reform: Do we move incrementally, accepting slow progress as the price of effective collaboration? Or do we define the plight of kids stuck in bad schools as an emergency deserving of unequivocal action? This conundrum has been personified by two of its luminaries, Diane Ravitch, who wants to return to the golden yesterdays of the old public school system, and Chester Finn of Hoover and Fordham, who says, “Nah, it’s too broken. Blow it up and start over.”

In panel after panel, keynote after keynote, the same theme emerged. Do we move incrementally with school choice, with incorporating value-added models of teacher evaluations, with community outreach, as we build buy-in from all stakeholders? Or do we step boldly, inspired by the urgency of kids trapped in failing schools?

So, the incrementalists: conference attendees heard from Senator Mike Johnston of Colorado about coalition-building and long-term political change. We heard from Delaware Governor Jack Markell about his state’s successful Race To The Top application, which featured collaboration with teachers and, apparently, high levels of buy-in from staff and communities. At a session on forward-thinking teacher contracts, Asst. Superintendent of New Haven Schools Garth Harris and the AFT Director Joan Devlin agreed that contractual changes need to be “be fair to teachers and good for kids.”

And on the other side of the ring are the urgentists, best articulated at another panel called “Does the Ed Reform Movement Care about Community Involvement?” Said Ref Rodriguez of Partners for Developing Futures,

We keep saying that this is the civil rights battle of our generation. So why aren’t we acting like it is?

The practice of determining lay-offs by seniority (LIFO for “last in, first out”) can be seen as a barometer of a community’s approach. If local ed reformers cave on LIFO, they’re incrementalists. If they don’t, they’re urgentists.

Newsflash: most ed reformers are incrementalists, at least the ones showcased at the Yale conference.

For a New Jerseyan, suddenly the battle between NJEA and Christie is OUT THERE. Whoa. We’re outliers. We’re badass. Everyone’s sharing tea and crumpets while we’re throwing bombs.

Here’s a representative conversation (edited and paraphrased unless it’s in quotes) at the panel called “The Teacher Contract – 2021,” moderated by Andy Rotherham. Panelists were New Haven Asst. Superintendent Garth Harris, AFT Director Joan Devlin, Brad Jupp of the U.S. D.O.E., and Evan Stone, Exec. Director of Educators 4 Excellence, a group of NYC educators who are looking for a voice in the political hierarchy of their UFT chapter.

Jupp: there’s a “pent-up tension” as teachers seek a voice at the table and reformers seek a more rapid pace of change.
Stone: we’ve identified some factors that can increase student learning, and now the only way to bring these to scale is through teacher contracts.
Devlin: we have to “be fair to teachers and good to kids.” All contract changes have to “be really good for teachers and kids.” New Haven managed to negotiate a progressive teacher contract by having “a productive discussion on the most divisive issues. When we identified problems we fixed them.”
“Where did the negotiations not go far enough?”
Harris: LIFO.
Harris and Devlin nodding: “We’ll get there.”
We have to “establish the credibility of the system.” AFT won’t “go to LIFO on a promise. We agreed with them.”
Devlin: “If you don’t have something that’s dependable and reliable and transparent, it’s not fair.” Senior teachers could get laid off just to save money.
Stone: We have the data already “but we’re refusing to use it.”
Rotherham: “We already have age-discrimination laws.”
Harris: We’ve built an industrial system with “systemic failure.” In 2021, contracts should be standards-based and not rules-based.”
Rotherham: “What other industries operate like this?”
Stone: Let’s get back to LIFO. The argument against it is that some principals are unreliable [in evaluating teachers] and “it’s not fair to some teachers… But it’s not fair to huge numbers of students.” There are no perfect evaluation systems. We can’t wait for the perfect one.

Here’s a bonus for those of you still reading:

Derrell Bradford’s Education Reformers Drinking Game

Instructions: Assemble appropriate drinking materials. Anytime anyone says “high expectations,” “capacity,” “collaboration,” “value-added models,” or “best for kids,” chug away. Feel free to extend the list.

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  • mike, March 30, 2011 @ 4:36 pm Reply

    hi and as always thanks for the effort you put into your blog!

    If we really want to do something fast…something that will help quickly and meet what is really a civil rights issue… teacher evlauation and tenure is not where i would start.

    Start radically by making county school systems and balnacing school districts by socio-ecconomic status of kids.

    Lets stop pretending that this does not matter…

    Then we can slowly play with the other stuff of radical reform…teacher tenure, evaluation…ect…

    Lets make all of NJ schools…middle class schools!

    be well… mike

  • kallikak, March 30, 2011 @ 5:13 pm Reply

    Note to Chester Finn of Hoover and Fordham, who says, “Nah, it’s too broken. Blow it up and start over.”

    Dear Mr. Finn: Under the NJ Constitution, Art. 8, Sec. 4, whatever you bring forward as a substitute must be “thorough and efficient” for all school children FROM DAY 1. Our kids get one pass through the system. They neither need nor deserve to be treated as guinea pigs in anyone's grand experiment in education. Most of our schools are performing relatively well by American standards. Can you guarantee–not too strong a word, given the stakes–that your alternative will match or exceed our current performance in ALL districts?

  • NJ Left Behind, March 30, 2011 @ 7:45 pm Reply

    I'm in complete agreement, Mike. We'll never get to equity without breaking down district boundaries.

  • mike, March 31, 2011 @ 4:44 pm Reply

    NJ Left Behind…

    So… then how do we begin to start a discussion about segragated school districts in NJ?

    Why are we spending all this time and effort on poorly designed testing measures, tying teacher evaluation into student performance, capping superintendant saleries, pushing more and more charter schools, and playing with vouchers?

    Why not talk about county school districts that can balance student population by socio-ecconomic status?

    This would be the civil rights issue of our times…. not this other stuff that simply will not be effective enough to lift everyone up…. including the kids in the suburban districts.

    Got any ideas about how to start that discussion?

    Thanks… mike

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