Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bad Idea

When President-elect Obama announced the appointment of Arne Duncan, Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools, as his nominee for Secretary of Education, he stated (pdf)

I'll never forget my first visit to this school several years ago, when one of the teachers here told me about what she called the "These Kids Syndrome" - our willingness to find a million excuses for why "these kids" can't learn - how "these kids" come from tough neighborhoods, or "these kids" have fallen too far behind.

"When I hear that term, it drives me nuts," she told me. "They're not 'these kids,' they're our kids."


I can't think of a better way to sum up Arne's approach to education

Duncan was appointed head of the Chicago public school system in June, 2001 and has become most associated with Renaissance 2010, described by wikipedia (objective evaluation of the initiative being hard to come by) as an effort

to create 100 high-performing public schools in designated communities of need by 2010. These schools will be held accountable for performance through 5-year contracts while being given autonomy to create innovative learning environments using one of the following governance structures: charter, contract, or performance.

Wikipedia does not mention, however, that Renaissance 2010 is based on a plan, named Left Behind (not the evangelical series), which came on the heels of transfer of control of schools from an elected school board to the mayor's office. It called for opening 100 schools and has included closing at least 60 others. Drawn up by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, the plan left final selection and approval of the new schools with the Chief Economic Officer (now Duncan) of the the Chicago Public Schools but

the Commercial Club, in exchange for agreeing to help fund the project by raising $50 million, was, was granted increased power over the education system through New Schools for Chicago, an organization composed of leading corporate respresentatives, 'civic leaders' as well as the Chicago Board of Education President and CPS CEO. This unelected body participates in the selection and evalutation of Raenaissance 2010 schools, while distributing Commercial Club funds for which the schools must complete. School enrollment policy is also murky and leaves room for formal and informal selection processes.

Far from presenting the "new vision for the 21st century education system" he touted during his press conference, the President elect, urging us to "hold our schools, teachers, and government accountable for results," is practicing the same old politics of education. While Obama wishes to hold everyone but students accountable, Renaissance 2010 represents a movement which

believes educators are the problem with public education. The anti-practitioner nature of this movement is visible in urban districts, from Chicago to New York to San Diego, where businessmen and lawyers, with no background in education, are selected to run the school systems. You can see anti-practitioner slant in organizations like the Broad Foundation, where executives and ex-military men are being recruited and trained as school superintendents. And you can see it in Edison's for-profit schools, which use a business model based on low-cost labor, in the form of de-professionalized teachers who are treated as interchangeable parts in an assembly-line approach to education. What is common to these approaches is prioritizing the management of schools and teachers over a serious analysis of the state of teaching and learning.

The President-elect, referred, by way of unverifiable anecdote, to a "These Kids Syndrome," cited by an unidentified teacher (who often has heard the complaint), thereby insinuating that teachers spontaneous develop, or have intuitively, an attitude of neglect toward children in deteriorating neighborhoods. It is a reprehensible suggestion, artfully and casually delivered, that removes accountability from youngsters and redirects it toward public school employees. Not unlike the guiding philosophy of Renaissance 2000, in which

The business approach to education is a manifestation of the larger critique of the public sector that has become conventional wisdom in recent years. This critique focuses on the "waste, fraud, and abuse" in government and asks why government can't be run like a business. It assumes that efficiency is an alien concept in the public sector and that the introduction of elements such as competition will spur new ideas and more effective practices. Most important, it assumes that everything is a management problem, and, in the case of education, this means that those unaccountable teachers need to be forced to do their jobs. There is little or no recognition of the disconnect between what teachers are being asked to do and what students really need.

It is no coincidence that Barack Obama chose to announce his selection of Arne Duncan at a school which was closed and revamped during Duncan's adminstration. Now a charter school, Dodge Renaissance Academy may be emblematic of the misguided notion that while public money is always welcome, control of schools by the community or the educational profession is not.




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