The Summer Soldiers of School Reform

By Diann Woodard
Originally published on The Huffington Post

The hype about Waiting for ‘Superman’ has given leaders of the business model of school reform an opportunity to promote their cause with renewed vigor, as evidenced by an opinion editorial in the Washington Post on October 10. In it, heads of 16 of the nation’s larger urban school districts reassert their arguments for charter schools and data-driven performance measures as solutions to the challenges hampering improved student performance.

Ironically, the case offered by the heads of these school districts — among them New York, Chicago and Washington — is strikingly at odds with factual evidence long available to more experienced educators.

For instance, to strengthen their claim that educators and their unions are the primary, if not singular impediment to improved student performance, the Post authors wrap their argument in the mantle of President Obama’s politically charged assertion that the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is the quality of their teachers.

While neither my union nor those representing teachers would diminish in any way the significance of teacher performance, unfortunately for the avatars of reform, countless studies have shown that the quality of parenting has the most profound impact on student performance.

Among the studies that have escaped the notice of these “leaders” are those showing that the most accurate predictor of a student’s achievement is the extent to which that student’s family is able to create a home environment that encourages learning, high but not unrealistic expectations, and their involvement in their children’s education at school and in the community.

In fact, a review of 66 studies involving parental involvement and student achievement found that when parents are involved in their children’s education at home, their children do better in school.

The “Superman” crowd’s conviction that “we also must make charter schools a truly viable option” is as ill informed as its singular focus on firing teachers and principals — often without due process and in violation of legally binding collective bargaining agreements.

Available studies on charter schools reveal that 17 percent of them perform better than public schools while more than twice that many — 38 percent — fall short of public school performance. Somehow these readily available statistics have eluded the data mavens of reform. These evidentiary “oversights” vividly expose the willful blindness of the business model reformers to the social and economic forces at play in their communities.

One wonders, for example, if Michelle Rhee, who doggedly adheres to the business model in Washington, really believes that the 30 percent unemployment rate among African-Americans in her city has no impact on the quality of family life and hence student performance. And these economic pressures are heaped atop the preexisting pathologies of drug use, violence and parental abandonment plaguing inner-city children and their educators.

The 16 leaders also characterize their penchant for closing neighborhood schools as “a difficult decision that can be very emotional for a community.” It can also be a very bad idea, as it has been in Chicago, where moving students across neighborhood boundaries has, among other things, triggered heightened gang warfare.

“There has never been a time when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has been as destabilized as it is now,” says Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.

A Chicago schoolteacher who retired out of disgust with experimental reforms after 30 years service recently wrote, “There should be less emphasis on testing, more on tapping these students’ gifts. Many of my kids could take an engine apart and put it back together. I had some of the most talented artists, even if it was street graffiti. So what does CPS do? They close down all the auto shops, drafting and wood shops, where my kids were in a comfort zone for their abilities.”

Nor is it insignificant that these “leaders” are proving themselves the summer soldiers of school reform. Ron Huberman, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, announced his resignation just 2 days before his name appeared as a co-author of the Post op-ed, abandoning an unresolved budget, unfinished preparations for state tests, and thousands of educators who have made a lifelong commitment to improving children’s lives — hardly a paragon of public service.

“Until we fix our schools,” the Post op-ed concluded, “the gap between the haves and the have-nots will only grow wider and the United States will fall further behind the rest of the industrialized world in education, rendering the American dream a distant, elusive memory.”

To which the educators we represent reply, “Amen,” fully aware that this can only happen when solutions are based on facts instead of myths, and when those of us on the frontlines of overcoming the challenges have a voice in fashioning the plans for improved student performance.