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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ravitch on mayoral control of schools

by folkbum

As the discussion keeps winding up about "what to do" with the Milwaukee Public Schools, I want to throw another log on the fire. In addition to the studies from PPF and EPIC cited in my last post that suggest handing control of school districts over to mayors or governors is at best a wash and ay worst a thoroughly disruptive mess, I'll add Diane Ravitch:
Actually, the record on mayoral control of schools is unimpressive. Eleven big-city school districts take part in the federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Two of the lowest-performing cities — Chicago and Cleveland — have mayoral control. The two highest-performing cities — Austin, Tex., and Charlotte, N.C. — do not.
Ravitch goes on in that op-ed to discuss how New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has used and abused his near-total authority over the schools to produce no real results but a tremendous amount of PR smoke and mirrors. Taking the schools out of the hands of an accountable, elected school board has done more to boost Bloomberg's ego, it seems, than student achievement.

But more intriguing to me than her op-ed was testimony Ravitch gave to the New York state legislature about the law giving Bloomberg control of schools. Via, here's something--well, two things--interesting:
The present leadership of the Department of Education has made testing in reading and mathematics the keynote of their program. Many schools have narrowed their curriculum in hopes of raising their test scores. The Department’s own survey of arts education showed that only 4% of children in elementary schools and less than a third of those in middle schools were receiving the arts education required by the state. When the federal government tested science in 2006, two-thirds of New York City’s eighth grade students were “below basic,” the lowest possible rating. These figures suggest that our students are not getting a good education, no matter what the state test scores in reading and math may be.

The Department of Education, lacking any public accountability, has heedlessly closed scores of schools without making any sustained effort to improve them. Had they dramatically reduced class sizes, mandated a research-based curriculum, provided intensive professional development, supplied prompt technical assistance, and taken other constructive steps, they might have been able to turn around schools that were the anchor of their community. When Rudy Crew was Chancellor, he rescued many low-performing schools by using these techniques in what was then called the Chancellor’s District. Unfortunately this district—whose sole purpose was to improve low-performing schools–was abandoned in 2003. There may be times when a school must be closed, but it should be a last resort, triggered only after all other measures have been exhausted, and only after extensive community consultation.
One, NYC's rigorous and to-the-exclusion-of-all-else focus on "the basics" is not good for students, which should hold a lesson for those insisting that all we need is more of the same--longer day, longer year, whatever--for more math and reading instruction. Two, what did work in failing schools were things like small class sizes and professional development, expensive measures that despite their effectiveness are unlikely to be considered by any governance structure created with a primarily anti-tax, anti-spending motivation behind it.

This fresh talk of mayoral control follows on the heels of the audit suggesting MPS wastes $100m a year (if things like hundreds of family-supporting jobs can be considered "waste"). Assuming every suggestion in the report is implemented, the pressure will be to return that money to taxpayers, not to use it to do anything constructive and helpful like increased arts education in the early grades (shown to have lasting positive effects on achievement) or reducing class sizes at critical grade levels (I would start with 7, 8, and 9).

Both Ravitch pieces are worth reading in full, if only for her insight into the present mismanagement of the nation's largest schools system, and what we in Milwaukee might want to take away from it as we consider reforms in MPS.

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