Education reform should come from within by Wendy Lecker

In her latest Stamford Advocate commentary piece, education advocate Wendy Lecker observes, Education reform should come from within.  Wendy Lecker writes:

The State Board of Education’s recent rubber-stamping of Capital Prep Harbor charter school’s expansion in Bridgeport is yet another example of a common theme in education reform: trampling community will. Capital Prep, which opened in 2015 over the objection the Bridgeport’s Board of education and community members, does not reflect the community. The school serves no English Language Learners, though 15 percent of Bridgeport’s students are ELL. The school has a 37 percent out-of-school suspension rate, over twice the rate in Bridgeport’s public schools. Bridgeport’s Board of Education unanimously opposed the school’s expansion. Bridgeport already must pay several million dollars annually to charters. As the superintendent testified, the expansion will drain an additional $200,000 from Bridgeport’s budget; money it cannot afford. Last year, owing to decreased state funding, Bridgeport had to fill a $16 million budget gap. The state board ignored Bridgeport’s needs.

As recent education reform failures demonstrate, robbing local districts of decision-making power over education policies is a recipe for disaster. By contrast, reforms that emanate from the school districts themselves have shown success.

The ultimate in top-down reform for struggling districts is state takeover. Two much-hyped state takeovers occurred in Tennessee — the Achievement School District (“ASD”), and Detroit — the Educational Achievement Authority (“EAA”). After years of consistent failure, both recently closed, returning control of schools to the districts.

ASD and EAA employed reform’s “greatest hits.” Outside managers were hired to run the districts. Charter schools proliferated. They used ill-trained Teach for America recruits.

EAA also employed “student-centered” “personalized” computer-based learning, which caused 10,000 struggling students to fall further behind academically.

Both “reform districts” were plagued with high teacher turnover, a major factor in their failures, and rampant financial mismanagement.

State takeover made things worse for students in the ASD and EAA. In 2015, only one fourth-grader in Detroit’s EAA passed the state math test. After years of EAA control, only three of the 15 EAA schools moved off the list of the lowest 5 percent in the state. In Tennessee, the results were similar, with the ASD’s charter schools performing the worst.

After years of failure, both states admitted defeat. EAA was labeled a “train-wreck of educational policy.” Tennessee was recently ranked the worst in education, owing in large part to its severe shortage of trained teachers.

In a telling comment, one departing ASD chief, charter founder Chris Barbic, admitted that it is harder to succeed in “a zoned neighborhood school environment,” rather than when he was able to cherry-pick charter students.

Incredibly, other states replicate these failed ideas. Charter expansion, questionable teacher “licensing” and state-imposed receivers are still being pushed despite lackluster, if not failing, results.

At the same time, officials ignore the slow and steady progress made by districts that engage in home-grown educational improvement. Long Beach, California, and Union City, New Jersey, are good examples. Both districts are diverse and majority economically disadvantaged. Yet both have been able to sustain improvement by focusing on the unique needs and strengths of their communities.

As reported by journalist Jeff Bryant, Long Beach resists reform trends, instead focusing on time-tested educational policies. It increased resources in its schools. Instead of focusing on rooting out teacher incompetence, the district provides additional supports. The district forged strong relationships with local community colleges and universities. Long Beach State trains 70 percent of the district’s teachers, who student teach in the city’s schools. The district has a 92 percent teacher-retention rate. Years of focus on supporting teachers and children have paid off. The district’s graduation rate has climbed steadily, often beating the state average. District alumni who attend Long Beach City College graduate at higher rates than their classmates.

Union City, New Jersey, as chronicled in David Kirp’s book, “Improbable Scholars,” is a similar district-grown success story. The district received a sizable infusion of resources as a result of the Abbott school funding case. The money was spent on preschool, reducing class size and instructional initiatives that this majority Spanish-speaking population needed. The architect of much of the reform was a bilingual-teacher-turned-administrator who spent his career in the district. As in Long Beach, struggling teachers are provided support, rather than fired. Stability is a key to Union City’s steady progress.

In contrast to failed state takeovers, that leave children and communities behind in their wake, district-led improvement methods have staying power precisely because they use the needs of their children and communities as their starting point. It is a shame that Connecticut officials ignore our own local, well-informed voices.

You can read and comment on Wendy Lecker’s piece at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Education-reform-should-come-from-11734462.php