Sunday, April 09, 2006

Transformation v Destruction

There is a revealing article in the front page of today’s NYTimes about phase II of standards based reform in the NY City Public school system (coming soon to a district near you). Upon reading this article, many will feel that here is more evidence that the goal of high stakes testing is to destroy public schools by privatising them. For example,

Joel I. Klein . . . has hired Chris Cerf, former president of Edison Schools, the commercial manager of public schools in 25 states.”

“. . . what prices should be set if services like teacher training, now provided by the administration, were essentially for sale, to be purchased only by schools that want or need them?”

“Support services, like counseling programs, could be outsourced.”
But a full reading of the article suggests that the story is more complex than “privatization”. There is no question in my mind that CEOs want to shrink public space (parks, schools, hospitals, housing), but I don't believe they are in agreement with Norquist that they want to take it into the bathroom and drown in it the bathtub. They still want taxpayers to pay for socializing and sorting the work force. Transformation is not the same as destruction. Destruction is useful as a rallying cry for public school teachers, but it is not useful to get parents on board who feel that any change is better than what has been. Transformation may be a more accurate description than destruction to explain what is happening in Chicago, NYC, Philadelpia, New Orleans, Baltimore and other major urban public school systems. But transformation doesn't describe the emotional and psychological impact that such reforms are having on teachers. Union leadership, therefore, is trapped into defending a system from "destruction", a system, however, with which poor and working class parents of color have never been happy. This allows vouchers to be an effective wedge issue, destracting both parents and teachers from the real changes CEOs want to make.

Klein is quoted in today's article, as calling the process “evolutionary restructuring.” Plato didn’t write the allegory of the cave for nothing. If we only look at the shadows --the effects of high stakes testing in the classroom -- and don’t read the policy literature that the people casting the shadows write for each other (see, we have only a distorted understanding of what is happening and why. And a distorted understanding leads to ineffective strategies and tactics of resistance. Granted, we will never really know with absolute certainty what the CEOs are up to in their pursuit of fundamentally restructuring public education (K-16)—I doubt they know themselves for sure, which is part of the problem. But we need to be more open minded about what the range of possibilities could be if we are going to be effective in resisting the changes. I don’t think it is a slam dunk that "the powers that be" are out to destroy public schools. If we can keep an open mind about this and debate the other possible goals, perhaps we can get some sharper definitions around the shadows, and thereby make our choice of strategies more effective? or maybe even develop some long range strategies? and then FRAME those strategies in a way that brings people to the barricades the way "destruction" is rallying teachers to charge into the valley of the shadow of death.

To go back to the NY Times article about Phase II plans in NYC and to provide context from the perspective of my research, I would argue that the following quotations support the thesis that the CEOs are still looking to impose the model of Total Quality management, USA style, onto public schools. This model comes from envying Toyota’s success in the 1980s, wanting to imitate Toyota’s business model, but not to the point of actually giving up control to the line workers, as Toyota did. TQM is not a term used anymore, but the concept is still seen as the elusive holy grail by many of the top CEOs in this country, and have been acting upon their interpretation of it for the last 20 years. They want to (and have been able to) downsize middle management—central office staff, supervisors, even school boards. Upper management (operating through state legistators) keeps control of the goals of the production process (accountability by test scores and other hard data as well as determining the budget parameters). Line workers, ie teachers, take on management tasks (interpreting the meaning of test scores, developing instructional responses, writing grants, and deciding what services to outsource). This model is revealed in the quotations below from the same NY TIMES article. Outsourcing is not necessariyly destruction – it is part of the leaner and meaner system. Closers are not destruction either. IF a lot of schools are closed and pushouts increase – that is okay because the real point is to increase the numbers of students going to college just a little so a greater surfeit of college grads will bring down the salaries of high tech workers. Growing numbers of pushouts are acceptable becuase they can compete with other low skill workers to drive down un-living wages even lower (those who don't cooperate are being taken care of by the growing prison industrial complex).


“. . . Mr. Klein and his aides say they expect to produce a school system unlike anything the city has seen, with schools the primary drivers of decisions, and administration acting in service to them.”

“A top goal is to find ways to relax much of the very centralization put in place by the Bloomberg administration and give principals a far freer hand, provided schools can meet goals for attendance, test scores, promotion rates and other criteria . . .
Hypothetically, principals, now supervised by a local superintendent, might choose either to keep that overseer or to use the money to hire a different achievement adviser. Support services, like counseling programs, could be outsourced.”
At Mr. Klein's direction, the consultants' most immediate mission is to create a framework for expanding the "autonomy zone," a pilot group of 42 schools whose principals were largely cut free of administration this year after agreeing to meet performance targets. Mr. Klein announced in January that 150 more schools would enter the zone this fall.

The consultants are also working to fulfill the chancellor's pledge to redirect $200 million from administrative budgets to schools.

But to hold principals accountable, the department must have a way to judge performance. So the officials and consultants, led by James Liebman, a former law professor at Columbia, are looking to develop more sophisticated measures of performance and to vastly increase the amount of data available to administrators and teachers . . . . And in granting autonomy, how can the school system avoid what some experts view as a flaw in charter schools — privately run but publicly financed — which is that if they fail, typically the only remedy is to close them?

To give principals more control over school finances, the consultants from Alvarez & Marsal are mapping how every dollar flows through the system's $15 billion budget and how the flow might be altered. . . .what prices should be set if services like teacher training, now provided by the administration, were essentially for sale, to be purchased only by schools that want or need them? How can spending authority be given to principals without losing economies of scale? How can controls be established to prevent patronage and corruption?

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