"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Reading the Revolutionary Overreaching by Michelle Rhee

After six years of NCLB's guaranteed failure plan, the public schools in America's largest urban school systems are ripe for the ultimate reform: the shifting of control to corporations that will make private decisions on the use of public dollars to carry out the en masse cognitive lynchings against black children behind the privacy screens set up by by no public oversight and the relinquishing of civic responsibility.

The most aggressive and egregious of these strategized privatization steamrollers is rolling in the nation's capital, where the diminutive, smiling Michelle Rhee has been put out front to announce the demise of tenure laws, the end of due process in hiring and firing, and the shift of civic responsibility and democratic control to a couple of hand-picked contractors who will be put in charge of the future with absolutely no evidence that they can produce better educational results than what we have now.

And what has prepared Michelle Rhee for such responsibility? Look at her resume, and you will see that, even though she has no experience to recommend her bold (reckless) moves, she has resources at her disposal: Joel Klein, Margaret Spellings, Kati Haycock, and Wendy Kopp.

What a team! Political ruthlessness and stupidity egged on by moral superiority and an implacable denial of reality.

If you missed the chilling John Merrow report last week on Little Michelle's big adventure, check it out here.

And here is an astute reading of the situation by Marc Fisher in WaPo:

Uh-oh, here we go again. Not even a year into D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee's ambitious effort to remake the city's school, it's time once more for a trip into the fantasy land of fixing the schools by handing them over to untested, unimpressive private companies.

Rhee is talking about giving 27 of the District's many dozens of failing schools to some of the companies that contract with school systems to take over and revamp exceedingly bad schools. The track record of such companies is fair to poor. Studies looking at how those companies have performed tend to conclude that the success of the privatized school is heavily dependent on the abilities of the principal and other school leaders, as well as the amount of community support there is for the concept and its execution. In other words, what makes a school work is pretty much the same whether it's a traditional public school or a privatized school.

The attraction of the privatization route is that it's dramatic, and if there's anything Mayor Adrian Fenty and Rhee are all about in their school reform movement, it's being dramatic. The other appeal of privatization is that it's a quick fix, a way to circumvent the failed administration of the D.C. public schools. That's a real appeal, especially given the rising skepticism that Rhee will prevail in her far more ambitious and important effort to win permission to clean house in the DCPS headquarters. Perhaps she is anticipating failure in that effort, which would leave privatization as one of the few remaining ways to pull some schools out from under the cynics and incompetents who toil at the system's central office.

One of the leading companies under consideration to take over some D.C. schools is apparently St. Hope Academy, which is controlled by former NBA star Kevin Johnson. The company's record at its schools in California is not exactly stellar, and it has a somewhat checkered history both as a school operator and as a real estate developer and manager.

In Philadelphia, where an embrace of private management for public schools has led to what some academics call a public-private hybrid school system, the results of the changed structure of public education has been pretty much as mixed as anywhere else. As with charter schools, the bottom line is determined by the creativity and smarts of the school operator, rather than by the very concept of privatization. Some people do this well, most do not. That's par for the course in any kind of school governance. So privatization is neither panacea nor disaster.

But it is folly to assume that the D.C. school system will be rigorous or honest enough to choose the very best of operators if it does go down the road to privatization. The record through decades of experiments with D.C. schools is that almost any charlatan can come along and get a piece of the D.C. system to play with. The charter school system in the District has had a disturbing number of operators who seemed to be in the game primarily to make money or try out some bizarre and ill-planned educational concept. The good charters do exist, but they are hardly the majority of the schools in that chunk of the system.

As the Post's Theola Labbe and Dion Haynes report, No Child Left Behind gives school systems these options for dealing with failing schools: Bring in private firms to manage the schools; convert them to charters; keep them under the system's control but replace the principals and teachers; allow the state -- or in Washington, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education -- to seize the schools; or devise something else.

In the District, there are really only three options, since handing over a school to the "state" is a farce, seeing as how there is no state. Privatization and conversion to charters are paths of last resort; the system should at least make an effort to remake its worst schools with all-new staffs.

Everything Rhee has said since arriving on the scene has raised hopes that the system would cleanse itself and try to manage its schools in a less centralized, more independent and creative manner. To talk of privatization now is to deflate hopes across the city. The chancellor should be focused on building political support for her plan to clear out the central headquarters, not to give away schools before she's even tried to fix them.

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