I went over to Boston College the other night to hear U. of Chicago prof., Charles Payne, speak as the keynoter at the 11th annual Lynch School of Education Fall Symposium, which was originally scheduled for October but got pushed back to December. Whatever the reason, Dr. Payne shared the evening's bill with the 2010 Exemplary Teacher Awards, which served to compress the professor's remarks into a thin broth of ed reform news, with almost an equal amount of time given to two BC professors to respond to Payne's remarks. Which left the Q & A session sounding more like a hurried auction than a deliberative consideration of the esteemed professor's message. Very odd.
Given the limitations, however, Dr. Payne's overview was offered with his signature pointed humor and measured irreverence. As a native of New Jersey, he seemed to relish critiquing the overbearing and outrageous antics of the spokespersons for the morbidly-obese Governor Christie. He cited as examples of what he delightfully calls "militant ignorance," the comments of former Ed Commish Schundler, who called Jersey's #1 ranking in NAEP scores irrelevant to the irredeemable awfulness of the state's public schools. Payne also noted that New Jersey's #1 ranking for NAEP and its #1 ranking in high school graduation rates were accomplished by the most unionized teacher corps in the country. Are you reading this, fathead?
Payne also made the central point that educational reform efforts in urban schools have effectively destroyed the essential elements of trust that are necessary for functional democratic institutions to survive. In giving up on the capacity of these schools to improve, which is itself a key element of and instigator for mistrust, reform schoolers have turned schooling into policing, rather than leading and teaching. As I often say, as trust recedes policing advances. Payne offered the work of Supt. Alonso in Baltimore as a hopeful example of reform grounded in the restoration of community trust and involvement as key components to real achievement.
In defending his latest book, So Much Reform--So Little Change, Dr. Payne noted that the book could be read optimistically if we acknowledge the necessity for understanding the dynamics of failure as a necessary element to improvement. Clearly, Payne believes that the real energy in the urban schools today, with the people who are there, remains untapped, and if reformers can leave aside proven failure techniques of wholesale replacement of school faculties and administrations long enough to develop the talent that is waiting to be challenged and acknowledged, then real homegrown and more sustainable improvements may be possible.
In a riff that was decidedly off key during a mostly melodious evening, Dr. Payne indicated that he believes the regular classroom teachers of Chicago are resentful of Teach for America because TFA teachers are optimistic. This clearly shows how wishful thinking may be confused with optimism, just as it shows how a lecture on the need for more trust can easily turn self-referential in its implications.