Chariho School Parents’ Forum

June 11, 2008

Leadership and competition: Keys to effective school reform

Filed under: 1 — Editor @ 1:28 pm

My friend Jim Stergious has a must read in the Providence Journal today.

JIM STERGIOS

BOSTON

NEW school superintendents will be taking over in urban districts across Massachusetts, including New Bedford, Lowell, Springfield and Worcester (and, in Rhode Island, Providence). But how much change will they really bring?

History tells us the likely answer is “not much.” We’ll probably get a lot of hand-wringing about teacher quality and how rigid union work rules obstruct progress. These are valid concerns, but it’s too easy to blame teachers for failing schools. Only leadership will bring change — and real opportunity for inner-city students.

Change requires a superintendent and a mayor. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg and school chancellor Joel Klein are implementing bold, results-oriented reforms. But of late, even more attention is focused on the most unlikely of places: Washington, D.C.

Despite spending over $15,000 per student, the city’s schools have for years suffered from declining enrollment, low test scores and a graduation rate of less than 60 percent. But today, a miracle is occurring in our nation’s capital.

Mayor Adrian Fenty ran on fixing the schools, and after taking control of the school board, he hired Michelle Rhee, a 37-year-old Korean-American who came out of Teach for America teacher corps. At her swearing in, she declared: “What we are embarking upon is a fight for the lives of children.”

The mayor has given her the green light to go “100 miles an hour” and said that any city personnel blocking her progress will be fired.

Rhee cut 100 people from a central office top-heavy with bureaucracy. With system enrollment less than half what it was in 1960, she announced the closure of 23 under-performing, under-enrolled schools.

“Firing people is not going to solve the problem,” says Rhee, who proposes to plow the savings from those closures back into the schools in the form of new social workers, art and music teachers, literacy coaches and extracurricular activities. “What’s going to solve the problem is creating a culture of accountability in the central office first and then eventually everywhere in the school district.”

Rather than complain about federally mandated benchmarks, Rhee is restructuring 26 other schools that have failed to meet them. Using the options laid out in the No Child Left Behind law, she has tailored remedies to the individual needs of each school. She is replacing many of the principals, some teachers and outsourcing the management of other schools to nonprofit managers.

Fully one-quarter of public schools in the District are charter schools. Eliminating the system’s monopoly has transformed public education in Washington. Instead of opposing Rhee’s changes, D.C. union President George Parker supports a collaborative approach. The reason is simple. As he told The Washington Post, “If we don’t get on the ball in terms of improving our schools, charters will have a majority of our students.”

Rhee doesn’t suggest dismantling the public school system or even turning all the schools into charters. Her focus is on attracting and retaining the best teachers. “If you are not willing to say that despite all of [the obstacles], I am going to make my kids succeed at the highest levels,” she declares, “this might not be the district for you.”

To attract those teachers, she is currently negotiating a teachers’ contract that she says will “revolutionize education as we know it.” It will reportedly eliminate seniority, allowing teachers to be placed based on their qualifications. The change would provide an important tool for recruiting young teaching talent.

To retain talent, Rhee is looking at differentiated compensation based on improvements in student performance. Last year, teachers at one school that made significant gains on the city’s standardized test were given bonuses.

Rhee hopes that “everything that we do will have reverberations across the country.” We hope so, too. Mayors, superintendents — we need you. Now. The Commonwealth is the nation’s public-education leader. If schools can be transformed in what was known as one of the worst school districts in the country, it can certainly happen in urban districts across Massachusetts.

It all comes down to the simple question Rhee asked Fenty before she took the job: “What would you risk . . . to change the school system?” Without missing a beat, Fenty replied, “Everything.”

Leadership means everything.

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts public-policy think tank.

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1 Comment »

  1. http://hopkinton.wordpress.com

    New Blog.

    Comment by I am Ishmael — June 14, 2008 @ 7:31 pm | Reply


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