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Marc Epstein

Marc Epstein

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The Education Reformers' End Game

Posted: 03/28/11 03:00 PM ET

Okay, you've won! Tenure has been abolished. There are no limits on charters, and vouchers are available to all takers. Collective bargaining is a thing of the past. The dreaded fire-breathing dragon union now resembles a salamander. Governors, state legislatures, mayors and editorial boards, who've claimed that they can turn around the dismally depressing performance levels in our urban inner cities -- if only these vestiges of the past were abolished -- have had their way.

But some questions remain, because as Colin Powell once said when referring to post-war Iraq, the "Pottery Barn Rule" now applies. That is, "you break it, you own it." So it might be useful if we ask the victors some questions about the new education landscape now that the "War on Entrenched Teachers & Unions" has been brought to a successful conclusion.

I was talking to a guidance counselor about students with special needs the other day. He told me that the number of kids attending city schools who live in shelters is at an all-time high. Just a few days ago, a colleague at an elementary school had told him that a number of these students, that had been placed in their building because their shelter was nearby, just disappeared without anyone informing the school administrators.

It seems that the city had moved them to another shelter, and they were shuffled off to the new location and another school without notice.

Now all obsolete, ineffective teachers on the losing side of the war believe that children placed in shelters have all sorts of disadvantages before they enter the schoolhouse door, a view not shared by the value-added reformers who maintain a good teacher should get any child to make a year's worth of progress under their supervision. I wondered -- if these students who were forced to move had been enrolled in a charter school, could the city demand that another charter school closer to their new shelter be required to accept them even if it means that they exceed their capacity?

Here's another question: Which teachers are we going to hold responsible for these students' performance? More than half the school year is over, and when we track student performance with less than 16 weeks left in the term, will their results be tied to their old teacher's evaluations or the new one's?

You might not realize it, but the problem isn't just confined to homeless kids who are moved around like furniture. New York City has a remarkably unstable student population. Students drop in. They drop out. The most recent census figures indicate that the outflow of population from New York is the largest in the nation.

An NYU study tracked a student cohort numbering 86,000 that entered the first grade in 1995. It found that less than 40 percent remained in the system after eight years! How will the progress of these students be measured? Who will be rewarded for the unmeasurable progress? Who will be blamed?

Combine these numbers with the outflow New York is experiencing and you realize that the exodus can't simply be blamed on poor public schools when people are leaving the state altogether, not just switching to private and parochial education.

We know this to be true because the Archdiocese of New York announced that it would be closing 27 schools in June.

As it stands now, 50 percent of the teachers who are hired in any given year leave the system voluntarily by their fifth year of teaching. So why are the generals in the Gates Reform Army so energized about holding on to the youngest teachers when half of them will be gone before you know it? Just what will a fabulously expensive tracking system track if neither teachers nor students remain in the system after a few years?

Will Gates, Bloomberg or Rhee suggest that a special court master be appointed so that a salary "clawback" paid to teachers who left the system after a few years and didn't live up to the data's expectations be created? After all, if you can do it with people who were on the winning side of the Madoff Ponzi scheme, why can't you do with it teachers who don't produce the good data?

Then there's the testing conundrum. Now that the unions, seniority and tenure have been dispensed with, what are we going to do about the testing system that will tell us which teachers are worth retaining?

In New York, the Regents have admitted the tests they've been administering aren't a valid measurement of student progress, and because of costs, they want to eliminate high school Regents exams in some subject areas instead of expanding them. So what are we going to do about high school teachers who don't teach a Regents course?

How will we judge art, music and physical education teachers? For that matter, how will we measure teachers of languages like German, Hebrew and Latin? If a child enters a gym class overweight and doesn't lose a designated amount will the teacher be held responsible? What skills do we expect art and music teachers to impart so that we can determine if they should be terminated?

Now imagine that the number of students enrolled in charter schools grows to about one half of the NYC school system. Who is going to be inspecting these schools to ensure that monies are properly spent, crimes and abuses are reported to the appropriate authorities, and that an excellent teacher isn't fired because a capricious principal doesn't find the teacher appealing?

In short, how do you finance and maintain a bureaucracy that actually has to deal with the nuts and bolts of educating hundreds of thousands of kids when everyone is on their own?

Bill Gates, a man who put his money where his mouth is when it came to financing the "War on Entrenched Teachers and Unions," wants a new education environment that discards the 19th- and 20th-century industrial model, because as a man who made his fortune in the post-industrial age, he believes that we have to keep up with the times.

I'm sure that he envisions a day when we'll be able to say "beam me up Bill and Melinda," and we'll all realize our educational potential. Why not distance learning without teachers at all? But until that day arrives, he might do well to study an earlier attempt to break away from the past by washing it away with a reform tsunami, and look at the bleak outcome we see in the field of mental health.

The New York Times recently ran an expose of the abuses that go unreported in mental health group homes in New York State. The movement to remove mental patients from the horrors of state hospitals in the '70s and place them in group homes echoes in the arguments against our public schools and the need to "deinstitutionalize" students, moving them into charter schools. However, the litany of abuses documented in the group homes by the Times should give anyone who thinks that the smashing of one troubled institution and replacing it with another is the magic bullet.

Just how the reformers will remake the landscape is a matter of speculation. But I would suggest turning to China's Cultural Revolution for guidance about how it will shake out. That's because Utopian schemes foisted on large complex societies with religious zeal substituting for sound public policy usually end badly.

Richard Stengel wrote

"At a 1979 White House banquet honoring China's Deng Xiaoping, Shirley MacLaine enthusiastically recalled a trip to the People's Republic and a meeting with a nuclear physicist. Since being sentenced to a commune to grow tomatoes, she told Deng, the scientist said he felt much happier and more productive. Replied Deng politely: 'He lied.' "