Tagged: Reform

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The Middle Path of Reform

A contrarian approach is perhaps endemic to the reformer.   If A is the problem, then it is natural to assert anti-A as the solution.  In the realm of education, if we have been losing ground as a nation, and if the skills gaps among racial groups have not been closing, then the obvious choice of legal reform efforts, beginning in the 1980’s and 1990’s, has been to blame the highly regulated system of public educational bureaucracies.  If such educational systems were A, then the solution, for the reformer, must be the anti-A of choice, competition, and accountability to loosen the stasis of ineffective systems.  Thus was born the state assessment movements of the 1990’s which culminated in the federal choice and accountability No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of 2002, the charter school movement which began in the 1990’2, and the rise to preeminence of accountability educational leaders such as Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein of New York who began reforms in 2002, and Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C., who was appointed Schools Chancellor in 2007.

However, in 2010, Rhee and Klein are no longer Schools Chancellors, significant reforms and flexibility to NCLB are being advocated by President Obama, and the charter school and choice movements are struggling to determine how to replicate the results of highly successful charter models more broadly.  Although successes exist, there are a myriad of frustrated reformers originally arrayed with weapons of Harvard Business Review terminology, data-driven instruction, and high expectations who have been slain on the battle field by entrenched interests, the lack of human capital for extremely difficult work, and psycho-social and academic barriers, especially in the urban context, which are rooted in depth beyond what human beings can face with any level of comfort.

The United States is undoubtedly moving into another epoch in educational reform.  The question is:  Will we continue to manifest bipolar disorder and revert back to A, or will a dialectic of A and anti-A yield a uniquely informed synthesis?   One could argue that it is precisely such synthesis underlying President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (NCLB is the current version of this legislation), as well as his competitive grant program Race to the Top under the American Recovery Reinvestment Act.  In his educational approach, Obama seeks to unleash local ingenuity through competition, walk the federalism tight rope by encouraging, but not requiring, states to adopt common national assessment standards, and maintain accountability for school performance, but with more funding for school improvement.

But the middle path of synthesis is not compromise.  It is a third way (or a fourth way, etc.), and thus its thoughtful substance threatens deeply the worlds of A and anti-A.  Recent political history, of course, has overtly challenged visions of complexity.  As the current political landscape collides with the next wave of educational reform that is upon us, we can only hope that synthesis is possible.  If one is a supporter of the Obama vision–and I am–then one must believe that the tortoise must outlast the hair.  One must have the integrity and resilience to maintain faith when the fears of the world have necessitated a reversion to anti-A.  One must have the courage to live in uncertainty and seek complex solutions to the almost unbearably complex challenges we face.

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Law, Education, and Hard-Driving Reform

Shortly after Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated in the mayoral primary this September, Michelle Rhee resigned from her position as the Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor.  In her three years in the position, Rhee had gained a national reputation as a zealous “no-excuses” reformer seeking to hold teachers and educational administrators accountable in an attempt to raise urban student assessment scores.   Along with Geoffry Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Rhee is spotlighted in the educational documentary Waiting for Superman as the type of reformer needed to turn around the multi-decade dysfunction and despair of urban education.  However, Mayor Fenty’s political loss and Michelle Rhee’s resignation can rightly been seen as the most visible incident of a growing national educational trend to push back on hard-driving top-down reform with genesis outside of the communities which are in need of reform.

When Newark Mayor Cory Booker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg (Geoffry Canada was there as well) recently appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to announce the $100 million donation to the Newark Schools by Zuckerberg, Oprah hinted to Mayor Booker that Rhee is a dynamic reformer who could fill the soon to be vacant position of the Newark Public Schools Superintendent.  Mayor Booker affirmed Rhee’s dynamism, but quickly stated that the real genesis of reform in urban education must emanate organically from the community.  It is the parents, students, and community members which must be the supermen and superwomen.  And thus, on November 1, 2010, an initiative called PEN Newark (Partnership for Education in Newark) has been launched as the first stage in the utilization of the Zuckerberg donation for education reform.   PEN Newark has been founded as a collaborative effort between Mayor Booker and Newark Public Schools Advisory Board of Education Chair Shavar Jeffries.  Jeffries is an organic leader from Newark who ran his campaign in 2010 on a platform of community engagement.  The initiative is an extensive feedback and outreach initiative.  Its mission is to connect, interview, survey, and speak with all stakeholders within the Newark community concerning the types of reform the Zuckerberg donation should generate.  Mayor Booker has learned this political lesson well.  And, indeed, this is the model of participative and collaborative reform that is gaining momentum nationally as a reaction to hard-driving no-excuses top-down reform.

But if this is all politics and education, what does it have to do with the Law?  Everything.  Public education in the United States is completely constructed and defined by an interactive array of legal regulation–both policy and jurisprudence.   From comprehensive federal accountability legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act (the current iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act first passed by Congress in 1965), to the interpretation of educational rights by state and federal courts, to the strong support of collective bargaining agreements by most state law makers, education is minutely regulated.  For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 20 Abbott v. Burke opinions have interpreted the New Jersey Constitution’s right to a “thorough and efficient education” (Article VIII, Sec. 4) to not only delineate school funding formulas which provide for vertical equity (more money for students facing greater need), but have also mandated preschool education, reform from specific educational models, facilities construction and even curricular content standards.   Over the past forty years, as urban schools have increasingly struggled with low performance, inefficiency and mismanagement, and, at times, corruption, greater detail and layers of policy and jurisprudence-based regulation have been implemented.  When such micro-regulation has been added to schools within communities under great stress and poverty, dysfunction has been guaranteed, and stasis has resulted.

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