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

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Review of Alexander Russo's 'Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors'

Anyone in search of a rather level-headed look at school turnarounds should check out Alexander Russo’s Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors. It’s both an enjoyable read and highly interesting – I’d place it in the rather small education drama-slash-documentary genre.

The book is not a puff piece, nor does it leave out criticisms. I say that as someone who generally is quite skeptical of charter management organizations, outsourcing, and reforms that deal almost exclusively with school-level changes.

I should also note that I play a very small (minuscule) role in some of the drama that unfolds in the book.

Readers beware: I may say some things here that you disagree with, or that you’re surprised to hear.

Let’s start with Steve Barr, because that’s a fitting way to start a conversation about the book’s real story: the school “turnaround” at Locke High School. Also, I think it’s better to deal with my small role right away and then focus on more important topics.

Honestly, I have a good deal of respect for Steve Barr. However, I have an equal amount of concern when it comes to his tactics and rhetoric, and I seriously question whether or not his strategy (and the strategy of other CMO operators) will lead to serious improvements. I think he means well, and, to some degree, he’s right about certain topics. Although I’ve never met him, he’s clearly an engaging fellow, charismatic, and probably someone that would be great fun to have a beer with (incidentally, that’s where Barr spent some of the money in question: drinking with teachers). His rhetoric and search for the spotlight seem to undermine the ideas that some of us would find more reasonable.

It’s fitting to start with Barr because he’s been practically synonymous with Green Dot since the organization’s early years. Barr eventually kind of departed Green Dot and started another organization, Green Dot American, now known as "Future is Now Schools". Marco Petruzzi became the lead man (although he'd had a significant role at Green Dot for a while), and the book makes it sound like it wasn’t all roses between those two:

“’That was Steve,’ said Petruzzi, who had since his arrival at Green Dot been dismayed at how many times he had to swoop in and clean up one of Barr’s messes or make good on one of his unanticipated commitments.” (p 170-71)

On October 30, 2009, I posted an entry on this blog that noted a curious statement in Green Dot’s 990 form. At the time, I didn’t know what it meant, but I did know that it suggested CEO Steve Barr did something that was questionable. That was the full extent of my knowledge of the situation. (In hindsight, my comments were a bit too dramatic, and probably didn't reflect what actually happened.) Only later – after a few brief emails with Russo, by reading a few postings on his blog, and reading this book – did I learn about how Barr spent the money. He twice used a Green Dot credit card to pay for personal expenses – but promptly paid back that money the following day. (Not a wise move, but not exactly all that scandalous.) He went out with some teachers and paid for drinks, which certainly isn’t a wise move (nonprofits can’t buy alcohol with their funds). There were also "isolated instances of expenses that were more extravagant than they needed to be for a nonprofit," according to Green Dot Chairman Shane Martin.

I still wonder why Green Dot included the note in their 990. It seems unnecessary to me. Were they required to note it, or was it included for some other reason?

The real substance of this story, however, is whether or not this will be a promising way to improve schools in America’s toughest neighborhoods. Keep in mind that the Locke turnaround required many millions in additional funding, and it’s unclear if there will be lasting improvements. Is the school better than it was before? I don’t think too many people would say it’s worse now than before, but I don’t think anyone can rightly claim it’s a miracle or even a turnaround. As Russo says, “Expecting big things immediately is understandable but ultimately destructive,” and I think he’s right: judging the effectiveness of this turnaround in year one isn’t really fair. Baby steps forward are appropriate in the first year, as are some baby steps backwards. So, while I’m quite skeptical, it is still worth knowing how this experiment works out in the long run.

Russo spends most of the book talking about the people involved at Locke: teachers, administrators, and students. (I do wish there'd been a bit more about parents and families, however.) Their stories range from inspiring to depressing, and they all add to the nuance of the book. He also spends a good deal of time explaining the problems Green Dot faced, and the ways they were and were not prepared for the dramatic change. This on-the-ground stuff kept me engaged just as much as the discussion of 30,000-foot issues.

The Locke experiment may prove to be an incremental improvement over the much-disliked “status quo” (disliked by everyone, I might add). It makes me quite nervous that our Secretary of Education says he thinks Barr and Green Dot have “cracked the code” considering there have been such small improvements to date. Although I’m quite skeptical, I try to remain open to the fact that certain reforms I may not favor could lead to positive changes.

If this doesn’t prove to be a promising way to turn around schools, what are other options that can be considered? I found myself thinking about that question as I finished the book, and it’s a question at the heart of many criticisms of the current reform movement: If (when?) the “evaluate teachers with test scores,” "test a lot more," and “open lots of charters” craze ultimately proves to be unsuccessful, what changes could actually make big improvements?

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