The Limits of Business Writers Writing about School Reform

Back when I was a teacher at the Lower Manhattan Outreach Center, an alternative program for dropouts and near dropouts that existed for years until it was “reformed” out of business — we had to experience “Principal for a Day.”  Our guest principal was some Wall Street investment type who suggested that students who’d been overly talkative in class should be made to pound chalk erasers.

When he was out of the room, the school coordinator (technically an assistant principal, but she ran the site), rolled her eyes, and said to me, “Can you imagine if I went to Wall Street and volunteered to be an investment banker for a day?”

Joe Nocera, a business writer, known to be quite good at his job, today takes on “school reform” in a New Times Op/Ed piece entitled,  The Limits of School Reform. He gets it spectacularly wrong.  Are there no education editors who could have kept him from embarrassing himself?

First, he writes about the article in the Times Magazine two weeks ago about Principal Ramon Gonzalez of MS 223 in the Bronx and Gonzalez’s skepticism of Joel Klein and “school reform.”  What Nocera seems to miss is that Gonzalez is a true reformer, trying to make his school, responsive to the community it serves, mentoring his teachers with an awareness of best practices and encouraging them through his example of leadership to go above and beyond.

Nocera, who probably saw Waiting for Superman, buys into the idea of Klein and other corporate types as the “reformers” and places “social scientists” and of course “teacher’s unions” as the enemy of school reform.

He seems completely oblivious to the notion that there is a battle for the mantle of “reform.”  Teacher unions don’t just fight for “tenure” and higher salaries for teachers.  They fight for smaller class size, more professional development, and teacher mentoring.  The fight for the type of reforms that help keep teachers in the profession because as even Geoffrey Canada admits in Superman, no one is a great teacher their first year in the profession.  To classify “teacher unions” as being anti-reform while lauding corporate types who believe that all that is required to run public schools is business style “management” is disingenuous at best, and Orwellian at worst.

Bloomberg’s school control has led to the opening of charters often by people with a corporate business background and little knowledge of education.  Often these schools take away resources from public schools, including their buildings.   The charter movement is not pro-reform.  It presupposes that public schools are simply bad and must be destroyed.  It is a privatization movement, but one eerily similar to the prison industry in that it must depend on public funding as it grows.  True reform is about creating better public schools, the kind that even families that could somehow scrape together the money for private school would want to send their kids to.  The charter movement, however, is about creating schools for poor kids that would ultimately cost less than public schools.  Their superficial success not only owes much to the way they are funded, but also to the fact that they can remove students who are not doing well or are disruptive — an option not open to public schools.

Nocera seems unaware of these facts or even that there’s any dispute.   He takes the corporate-reformers at their word — the only impediment to true reform is those teachers and their salary and tenure demands.  His only quibble with the corporate-reformers seems to be his interpretation that the core of their argument is that better teachers will lead to better outcomes.  He buys into the idea that unions are somehow anti-reform. He’s dead wrong in his assumption that unions are NOT also in favor of best practices for teachers or that they disagree with the idea that teachers make a difference in student achievement.  Teacher unions in fact support professional development, teacher mentoring programs, and other initiatives that help keep teachers in the classroom.  Smaller class size and placing more experienced teachers in the classroom are just two of the reforms that unions promote.

Nocera points to the case of Saquan Townsend, mentioned in the article on Gonzalez’ school.  Saquan, who was living with his mother at a homeless center, was at first disruptive at his new school, but then after his teacher reached out to him — something good teachers have always done and not something the UFT is fighting against — he began to thrive.  Nocera writes that his mother “seemed indifferent.”  This was a mother who had left Brooklyn and her home because her life and the lives of her children were in danger.  Her choice was saving her sons’ lives or disrupting their education.  How is that indifferent?   She eventually found permanent living space, but it was back in Brooklyn.  Nocera seems to think this was a selfish choice on her part since it meant Shaquan would have a long commute if he stayed at his Bronx school.  He seems to be unaware that for people within the shelter system, you don’t exactly have the option of holding out for an apartment in your school district of choice.  He misses entirely that many kids in the city have ridiculously long commutes to school.  These include kids traveling over ninety minutes to the city’s elite and specialized high schools, kids whose families consider themselves lucky, because for many these schools represent their best chance of escaping poverty.

Nocera uses Saquan as evidence that perhaps the noble corporate reformers are naive in believing that their initiatives can overcome the effects of poverty.  In this he concedes that the teacher unions may have a point though of course he gets the point wrong. He ends more or less there, with the idea that the “reformers” can only do so much and need perhaps a bit of humility.  In other words, the poor we will always have with us, more or less.

But Joe, here’s something to think about: What if the true reformers weren’t just out to create some model charters for lucky lottery winners?  What if more principals in public schools were like Gonzalez?  Not corporate types looking for another career, but real leaders who devoted their lives to education?  And what if there were more  teachers like Saquan’s?  What if public schools actually supported outreach efforts like the ones made by her by making it part of the teachers’ workday?  What if moving back to Brooklyn wasn’t an educational disaster for Saquan because ALL public schools were as good as MS 223?  What if reform meant making schools more accountable to the communities which they served, making sure that they worked collaboratively with local institutions and organizations including businesses, hospitals, etc. to make learning a community endeavor with mentoring, internships and experiential learning that engaged students not only in school but in their neighborhoods?  Engagement by the way, is something that helps prevent kids from dropping out.  What if schools opened their doors to parents not just for meetings, but also for adult education, inter-generational activities, and community events?  What if the schools were so good that even middle-class parents would send their kids there as they used to once upon a time?

That’s school reform, Joe.  The real deal.  It’s about equity in education, not lotteries, or choosing between staying in a shelter or being housed.

(Marion Stein is a former New York City school teacher who has also worked as an administrator in college-high school collaboration programs, and currently works as a grant writer, specializing in education-related grants.)

6 thoughts on “The Limits of Business Writers Writing about School Reform

      1. Of course. Huzzah is a well-known British cheer. Speaking of which, look for an e-mail.

        1. Of course, I should have known that given my large British fan base. Are you going Anglophile on me?

  1. Bloody hell, Joe Nocera is usually pretty good. The problem is that a business writer is writing about something that BY DESIGN is not for profit. Even if you substitute profits for smart kids there is a problem. If you are in a business and your widgets don’t sell, you shut down the line stop making widgets, cut your losses. Private and charter schools can do that individually, but public schools can’t. The malcontents, the troublemakers, the ones that take up most of even a good teacher’s time, resources, and patience, the “bad widgets” still have to be there.

    1. In the previous post I did about education “reform” referencing the new film “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman” — that film makes the point that the retention of students over time in the charters is terrible. The kids who can’t make it get kicked out. And despite the lotteries, kids who have learning disabilities and need accommodations for the most part aren’t accepted even if they “win” the lottery. We really need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel and start looking at replicable models of public schools that work here and abroad. We also need to do some serious work on addressing the problem of poverty in the USA. While the poor we may always have with us, the United States has a much higher percentage than most other developed nations.

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