05/26/2011 02:13 pm ET | Updated Jul 26, 2011

The Fundamental Choice

We want businessmen in the free market to take risks and leverage their capital in order to increase their profits and create a dynamic economy. Some experiments will fail, but "its only money." Actually, the game involves more than money as families, as well as the investors' bottom line, are damaged when gambles do not work out. That is why we need the checks and balances of our democratic system to counter the "creative destruction" of capitalism.

The biggest winners in today's corporate world seek to apply the same competitiveness to school reform. They have adopted a strategy of "convergence" or "flooding the zone" to drive rapid, "transformational change" in selected districts and schools. They seek out charters and systems with mayoral control in order to avoid the messiness of constitutional democracy. These sincere data-driven "reformers" are funding a culture of risk-taking, and urgent experimentation. The Gates and Broad Foundations are leveraging their investments to create "disruptive innovation," in order to produce dramatic change. The assumption is that some of the gambles will succeed, as others fail. Then, as with any other capitalist venture, the plug can be pulled on failed experiments.

Data-driven "reform" seems very rational, and not inhumane, from 30,000 feet above our schools and families. But, what parent would agree to an experiment where one of her children was likely to benefit greatly, in return for another suffering equal or greater harm?

While attending presentations last week at the Columbia Journalism School and at the Americas Society, I kept recalling a phrase that was once used by "reformers." When the Gates Foundation, and others, were first learning about school reform, the ugly phrase of "earned autonomy" was tried out. The slogan has largely been retired, presumably because of its harsh and plutocractic connotations. When the big dogs said that some schools should be granted earned autonomy, it sounded too much like "earned respect" or "earned dignity." Perhaps the term was just too accurate. Its most blunt advocate was Joel Klein, who said that schools that earned their autonomy by raising test scores would be granted the right to have respectful learning cultures. Those schools that did not meet the grade, would be subjected to rigorous accountability regimes.

I would argue that the original sin of the accountability hawks was the belief that they had the right to grant or deny autonomy on fellow human beings. The original sin of their funders was the belief that their primitive metrics empowered them with accurate measures of which schools were effectively adding value to student performance and which were not.

In reality, schools that were "born on third base" were praised for hitting a triple, and rewarded with the enormous bounty of the Gates small school experiment. Those that were born with two strikes on them were condemned to soul-killing test prep. Worse, failing schools lost their top students to anointed small schools, thus leaving even greater concentrations of generational poverty. So, Gates funding allowed successful small schools to create even more engaging cultures for instruction in a respectful manner, making them even more attractive for great teachers and, eventually, their graduation rates rose. Neighborhood schools, that were thus dealt an even worse hand, were blamed for their failure to produce improved outcomes, and they lost even more of their ability to build trusting relationships, and resist pressure to teach-to-the-test.

In February, after an audit questioning the reliability of New York City's school report cards, the district began "appearing to acknowledge rising concerns that some schools might be manipulating the statistics they are judged by." Shael Polakow-Suransky, NYC's Chief Academic Officer, sent an e-mail to principals saying the district would be tightening up on its grading system. Last week, the report cards, that had been notoriously unfair, were given a pretty good grade. Polakow-Suransky then gave a pretty good response saying that the city could now compare schools serving comparable populations. I have no ability to judge the accuracy of the statement. In "Comptroller Gives School Progress Reports Passing Grade, Mostly," the Chief Academic Officer said the city would focus next on the most vulnerable children, and he affirmed, "We need to prepare our students for a world where it's not enough just to succeed at filling in the bubbles on a test."

We should welcome this pronouncement. We should also ask what took NYC so long.

Last week, Polakow-Suransky gave an impressive presentation at the Americas Society, saying that the small schools movement was more successful in New York City because they had a longer history of laying a foundation for the reform. Later, he was the panelist who answered my question.

In my experience, the expensive "reforms" of the last decade have shown the ability to improve schools with principals who have exceptional moral integrity, and who protect their teachers from pressure to teach-to-the-test in a destructive manner. Students with more fearful principals, however, were often subjected to nonstop rote instruction. Polakow-Suransky did not reject my thesis and he condemned the educational malpractice of short cuts to raise test scores and, as usual, he expressed hope that someday we would have better tests. Afterwards, true to his reputation, Polakow-Suransky was reflective and he asked how I would take the next step toward reducing the pressure toward primitive test-driven instruction. He then listened thoughtfully.

While I was very impressed with that advocate of data-driven accountability, he provided no indication that "reformers" are contemplating the Solomonic decision that they have imposed on parents. How much disrespect, scripted instruction, and intimidation would they accept for one of their own children, in return for humane investments in another one?

"Reformers" have an extreme sense of urgency when tackling the educational legacies of generational poverty. When their not-ready-for-prime-time theories fail, however, parents and educators are told to be patient as the kinks are worked out. And where is the sense of urgency in regard to our most vulnerable students who have more educational malpractice rammed down their throats? How long do students in our neighborhood schools have to wait before the people in the central offices, the state houses, and the corporate board rooms figure out a way to respect their autonomy?