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Thompson: Two Cheers for Mike Petrilli's Reform Rethinking

Wow! I agree with Mike Petrilli on two big issues in one week! The revocation of Oklahoma’s NCLB Waiver, based on our repeal of Common Core, is a “terrible decision.”

I mostly agree with Petrilli’s thoughtful address to the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. In an effort to understand the anti-reform backlash, he asks where his movement went wrong.

Most schools aren’t failing; the bigger problem is mediocrity. Most “failing” schools have teachers who are probably as good as those in higher-performing schools. 

I taught in “dropout factories, the dangerous schools …,” and my colleagues were far better teachers than those of my childhood. In the 1990s, our Curriculum Department and professional development were awesome.

But, Petrilli gets the second part of his diagnosis backwards. My schools responded to “wave after wave of reform.”  Those half-baked reforms made them worse.

I share Petrilli’s doubt that districts can replicate the few successful high-performing charter schools. He might also be right; in ten or twenty years, high-poverty systems may be dominated by charter schools.

But, that would be the double nightmare scenario - bad for more kids in "No Excuses" charters and worse for students left behind in even more awful concentrations of poverty and trauma. High-performing charters have contributed to a “neo-Plessyism” which is bad for all constituencies.

As choice spins out of control in an age of competition-driven reform, these charters seem to be doubling down on a doomed “behaviorism” that can make the disgusting old version of “drill and kill” seem humane. Students who can’t make it in “No Excuses” charters end up in neighborhood schools with greater and greater concentrations of extreme poverty and traumatized children.

Petrilli’s diagnosis of the failures of top-down reform could point the way toward progress. First, we need a bipartisan effort to sue Duncan’s USDOE for its extreme overreach.

Then, federal school policy in suburban schools should help them promote excellence, and to better serve their disadvantaged students. But, that doesn't mean it should continue to encourage the micromanaging of urban schools and teachers.

Above all, the government should advance “win win” policies so that poor children of color don’t have to settle for “No Excuses” or any other second-rate pedagogy. All students should have equal access to the same engaging instruction that nurtures creativity.

Reformers should stop their top-down social engineering of our nation’s diverse schools and punishing teachers for failing to make their test-driven reform mandates work. They should join us in creating full-service community schools that create truly respectful learning environments that allow for teaching and learning for mastery.  If we invested as much effort in fighting the real problems that undermine our schools, and not politicized reform wars, our schools would get better.

If we agreed that all of our children need a 21st century education, not just a behaviorism we’d never accept for affluent children, our society would get better. –JT(@drjohnthompson) 



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The best thing about Petrilli's post is his admission that the reform movement has the wrong diagnosis and the wrong prescription. If the correct diagnosis, as Petrilli asserts, is at least in part poverty and the barriers it creates, I still disagree with Petrilli's prescription. He sugar coats charters as the solution, ignoring the fact that charters do not actually get better results. In fact, the solution (prescription if you like) is plain and obvious. Kids in high poverty neighborhoods need:
1. High quality early childhood programs from age 2.
2. Small class sizes and facilities that show the kids that the nation cares about them.
3. A professional core of teachers who team together, get trained in the state of the art, and stay in the schools they teach in for many years, getting to know the kids, their families, and the community around the school.
4. A sufficient mixture of kids so that less poor kids, racially diverse, are mixed in. Districts that have experimented with this have demonstrated that it works.
No, charter schools are not providing these five things. Staff turnover in charters is higher than the regular neighborhood schools. We do have, however, examples of high poverty urban schools that have these components and the results in those schools show it works. But its not cheap. Its not magic. It doesn't come from privatizing. And it doesn't come from pushing "rigor" as if it were that simple.
So, Mike Petrilli, one cheer. Partially right diagnosis. But please fix that prescription. Charters are just not all that.

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