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Chasing school reform


I'm getting really tired of "school reform."

Rochester, like the big Midwestern city that's getting the headlines right now, has embarked on lots of reforms. Over decades.

The result of our effort and money: test scores and graduation rates have kept dropping. And middle-income families have moved out or sent their children to private schools. Which worsens the economic and racial segregation of city schools. Which ups the challenge for the schools.

The same thing has happened in urban school districts around the country, and we all keep pulling reforms out of a hat, looking for the new, new thing.

The reforms of the day include tougher teacher evaluations, longer school days, and a longer school year. Predictably, some teachers' unions have resisted them. I think all three are necessary, but there's a right way and a wrong way to get them. For one thing, teachers should be paid for working more hours. And: bullying teachers does more harm than good, as Chicago's Rahm Emanuel should be learning.

Reformers like Emanuel have a simplistic view of the problems and solutions in urban education. They think there's a simple way to judge a teacher's performance. They assume that test scores alone can tell us what a child has learned and how effective teachers are.

And they assume that teachers can overcome, on their own, the poverty and neighborhood environment in which their students live.

But there's plenty of blame to go around. As much as I sympathize with teachers, there's more than a grain of truth in critics' charge that teachers sometimes put their own interests ahead those of their students. Teacher tenure, seniority, "step" raises granted simply for reaching certain experience levels: I understand the rationale for these things, but they can have results that have little to do with helping children learn. In fact, they can get in the way.

For instance: Many teacher contracts protect teachers with seniority from losing their job if their school is shut down. If closing a school means that some teachers will be laid off, those with seniority can bump out less senior teachers in another school, regardless of teaching ability – and regardless of the wishes of the principal in that school.

And yet... teachers aren't confident that every principal will make personnel decisions fairly. And cash-strapped school districts could be tempted to save money by getting rid of their most senior teachers.

Besides, if teachers aren't doing a good job, how come they're still in the classroom? Teacher contracts have specific procedures for evaluating teachers – and for terminating incompetent ones.

Ah, but there's a big problem. For one thing, in Rochester (and, from what I've read, in Chicago), the evaluations are often meaningless. Almost everybody is rated "satisfactory." Why? Because administrators aren't trained properly? Because there's no oversight? Because nobody expects anything better? I don't know. But it's not the teachers' fault.

If districts haven't evaluated their teachers properly in the past, why should anybody think they will when we add students' test scores to the mix? And will school district administrations and teachers' unions be able to speed up and sharpen the due-process procedures that have protected incompetent teachers in the past?

And on the broader level: Will government and taxpayers recognize at last that an urban district full of high-poverty children, with poorly educated parents, faces vastly different challenges than a suburban district does? Will government and taxpayers be willing to provide the funding that these districts need?

It will not be cheap. But if we fail to do it, we'll keep pointing fingers and coming up with new reforms. It's so much easier to turn to simplistic solutions – order more tests, close schools, combine schools, create new schools, kill the teachers' union – than to deal with the principal reason that so many children are failing.

The principal reason is the poverty in America's inner cities. And that so many of the victims are African American and Hispanic is a stain on this nation's soul.