The Perils of Top-Down School Reform
By: Dr. Yohuru Williams
The latest debacle involving Bridgeport Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas is a not-so-subtle reminder of what is truly at stake in Bridgeport and around the nation with regard to so-called school reform -- American democracy.
One of the primary criticisms of the Bush-Obama model of market-driven educational reform is the dictatorial style in which many of its so-called champions operate and the chilling effect this has had on local control of schools. In most cases, administrators like Vallas parachute into communities to which they have no real ties with an "I've got all the answers" approach that seeks to limit rather than encourage community participation. In the race to receive federal funds, the voice of "the people" is diminished as administrators pursue a scorched earth policy aimed not only at teacher unions but school boards and local PTAs.
There is no room for a diversity of voices in the corporate hierarchy. Many of the so-called reformers want to run schools like mini- corporations, with administrators beholden not to communities, but appointed boards of directors -- a far cry from the days of the popularly elected school board. It is not only this model of corporate management but also its language that has seeped into the structure of public education. In Maryland, for instance, school superintendents are now called CEOs.
Disregarding the voluminous data in educational research that discounts the changes they seek to implement, they nevertheless assume more power in the dismantling of public education. When their haphazard model of action is exposed, as it was last week with the dismissal of Principal Byron Williams, of the newly formed military academy, less than three months into the job, the real dangers are revealed.
Responding to criticism over the dismissal of Williams, whom he praised just two months earlier as "outstanding," Vallas highlighted the school's poor performance, complaining that "discipline is weak," and "instruction needs to be stronger." But how exactly could he make such determinations in just nine weeks? Is this merely another example of the duck and cover language often employed to shield the rhetoric of top-down reform, where incompetence parades as progress and the staples of democracy, transparency, due process and democratic decision-making are the first casualties?
Although never enamored with the idea of a boot camp dressed up as "military academy" as the solution to Bridgeport's problems, I nevertheless have to ask the question: What was the real reason for Williams' dismissal? If we don't have reasonable expectations for principals, how can we ever expect to have them for teachers or even students? We are not managing a McDonald's or stocking the shelves at Walmart. Schools are not assembly lines.
Let's be clear. The Common Core, a military academy, and a sprinter superintendent won't fix Bridgeport's public schools. I borrow the term "sprinter superintendent" from Stanford Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban. In an Aug. 4 blog post, he outlined the formula employed by "reformers" such as Vallas who swing into crisis cities with a cookie-cutter program for change. They scurry about in their haste to bolster student achievement, measured by test scores, while introducing changes that often leave stakeholders disappointed and their communities in shambles. Like Cervantes' fictional hero Don Quixote -- an appropriate analogy since their narratives are also the stuff of fiction -- they charge at windmills, dragons of their own making, including teacher unions, underperforming district administrators and, in some cases, such as in Bridgeport, democratically elected school boards, all in the name of the fixing the "crisis" in American education.
They often seem more interested in how their actions play in the media, never missing the opportunity to lambaste teachers, parents and apparently even the persons they appoint. Their impatience with change is equally quixotic. Firing a principal after nine weeks is extreme even by corporate standards. Most companies offer three months' probation.
The real issue in this case was Williams's alleged failure to secure the proper certification to head the school, ironically the same issue that should have already assured Vallas' ouster as superintendent. Unfortunately, as we have seen time and time again, the rules operate on a sliding scale. Rule-breaking at the highest levels is celebrated as take-charge innovation rather than the worst kind of malfeasance -- that which threatens the future of our children.
Vallas, like his colleagues in other states, has instituted faux community involvement through community conversations. In reality, these events have proved to be little more than public relations ploys, giving the specter of community engagement while blocking any meaningful dialogue. Mostly dominated by the superintendent with a brief and tightly regulated period for questions and answers, they mock real engagement.
The question for us all is: is this the model we want to present to young people of democracy in action? In communities already short on patience and long on frustration with the failure of the democratic process, it is not unreasonable to think of the chilling effect not only on the parents but the students, whose first glimpses of democracy in action have been skewed by market-driven educational reform.
Dr. Yohuru Williams is chair and professor of history at Fairfield University. Follow him on Twitter @yohuruwilliams