SCHOOLS REFORM : THE “ACT TO FURTHER NARROW THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP” — WHAT WE LIKE AND WHAT WE DON’T

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^ stalling the huge reform, maybe for good reason — one hopes ; St Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz

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Much energy from the usual suspects in schools reform matters has decried the exquisitely named “Act to Further Narrow the Achievement Gap” that now sits “stalled” in the legislature’s Education Committee. To find out why, and to assess the opponents’ arguments, one need first to actually read the proposed bill.

Please do so before going on to read my words. Here’s the link : http://www.bostonfoundation.org/uploadedFiles/Sub_Site/web_specials/Race_to_the_Top/An%20Act%20to%20Further%20Close%20the%20Achievement%20Gap%20(1.17.2013).pdf

You will have noted that the proposed new school law is twelve (12) pages long and has twelve (12) sections. Each has its points; some merit more discussion than others. As for the Bill in its entirety, you will have noted its language to be procedural. This is a law for administrators; not a law for teachers.

Were it a law for teachers, it would give some guideline, at least, for what teachers are to teach, and how, and in what spirit. This, the law does not do. It’s a law for superintendents, evaluators, testers, commissioners of education. All of which limits the law’s reform reach and thus details the devils.

The more a law clings to details, the more opposition it will draw. Each detail of an administrative directive inconveniences those who administer. From mastery of the process, they return to being beginners, having to re-learn all over again what it is they are supposed to do. Of course they don’t like it.

It would have been far wiser for the reform bill to set general goals and empower generally. Then the persons affected could work out for themselves how to devil the details; and all such work-out discussions would have given the affected persons personal input into making it work. This new law denies them that. It’s a directive — a tsarist ukase. Little wonder that the established interests are complaining and that key staff are opposing.

That said, the law commits to some very useful tasks :

It grants a superintendent strong power to make the administrative, staffing, and curriculum changes that he or she sees fit, the objective being to improve the performance of so-called “underperforming schools.”

It allows for additional charter schools, above the 140 charters already allowed by MGL c. 71 : but, unwisely, only in districts that fall within under-performance results specified in section 4 of the bill.

It identifies what school performance falls short of stated standards and thereby gives the superintendent a flash point at which to intervene comprehensively.

Let me note right away that everything the reform bill grants to superintendents, John McDonough is already doing as interim superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. This part of the reform law would be difficult for even the most change-averse teachers union to object to.

Much more controversial is Section 4’s creation of an under-performing school district exception to the 140 charter school limit in the current MGL cl. 71, section 89. In the context of the law’s drastic superintendent takeover of under-performing schools, this charter school exception feels like punishment : not only are the personnel of an underperforming school district to face an entire, superintendent make-over of everything they do, including keeping their jobs, but, with the charter school creation possibility, they are put in the position of losing students notwithstanding how they might improve performance under direct superintendent management.

It would be far wiser for the proposed school law to choose one or the other — superintendent takeover, or charter school creation — but not both. Superintendent takeover threatens the jobs of poor teachers; charter school establishment threatens all the affected District’s teachers.

The consequences of this provision in the proposed law leads it almost inevitably to its most objectionable provision : Section 2(g), in which superintendents are given the power, when confronting an under-performing school or district, to alter the compensation, hours, and working conditions of school staff. I don’t think it wise to threaten the pay of the very people whose enthusiastic support the law needs if it’s to work. as for hours of work, everybody agrees the school day should be extended; but i there any reasonable objection to the teachers’ insistence that they be paid for working longer hours ? I think not.

I’m also not a fan of that provision in Section 9 which, in case the Commonwealth is approaching its “net spending cap,” gives preference to charter school providers who operate in more than one municipality. Why so ? No charter school should be like a bank’s branch office, understaffed maybe and offering fewer services. I trust the proposers will explain ?

To sum up : the reform bill contains many valuable provisions, assuming that a bill almost purely administrative is advisable, and that micro-managing the administrative requirements is realistic. The charter school exception, however desirable, makes its entrance on the wrong foot and in the wrong way. it should be the subject of separate legislation and should NOT be tied to under-performance issues and administration. Heck ; if charter schools are good — and I strongly support them — why should only children in under-performing districts have extra access to them ? Has no one learned anything from the Special education experience ? parents, seeing that special need children could claim an individualized curriculum, did everything in their power to get their children designated as special needs so that they too could get an individualized curriculum plan. I can easily see, under this proposed law, parents seeking to have their kids’ school designated as under-performing so that their kids would have a better chance of winning a charter school placement lottery.

This is what happen when you try, by laws, to do too much. You end up with laws that work opposite to the intention, or which can’t get enacted at all because they coalesce many kinds of opposition.

Pare down the bill, make it less administrative, put its page after page of do-this detail — especially the per pupil tuition reimbursement formula ; my goodness me ! — into a regulation, and give the statute some room to flex and develop. Then offer it for enactment. Until then, I think not.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

Author: hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

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