More on the Mortality of Inanimate Objects

Amanda Paulson at The Christian Science Monitor has a nice look at the Fordham report I discussed yesterday.  Mike Petrilli had this to say on the Fordham blog:

“But for some reason, Arne Duncan and other reformers believe that, with another $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants, we’re going to be able to dramatically turn around failing district schools even though their incentives (or lack thereof) and constraints (or abundance thereof) make them even worse bets than the low-performing charters. Remind me again why we think that’s going to work?”

Mike is a smart guy who thinks a lot about this stuff, but I honestly don’t understand what he’s getting at with this question.  First, I’d love to see the alternative.  Closing schools is only a viable solution if we had a predictable alternative once schools are closed.  But even the best charter schools are insufficient in size and number to deal with the magnitude of this problem.

Second, and more importantly, I don’t buy the premise that we’ve tried before and it didn’t work.  Someone – anyone – please show me where there has been in the past a systematic set of policy interventions aimed explicitly at chronically failing schools.  The only candidate is NCLB, but it didn’t actually require substantive school-level changes (see: the “other” restructuring option).  As I said yesterday, almost all past interventions have been of the light-touch variety and aimed at continuous improvement … not at tackling chronic under-performance.

Forgive this tortured analogy … but this is sort of like saying we should give up on trying to cure cancer, because our investments in treating ear infections haven’t done the trick.  Those investments were important, and we’ve learned things from them, but they weren’t actually designed to tackle the challenge at hand.  We just cannot settle for a world in which some schools in some neighborhoods will always under-perform their peers AND under-serve children and families.

Update: I added the last italicized addendum, which wasn’t in the original version (Thanks for the comment, friend/reader Rick!)


One Response to More on the Mortality of Inanimate Objects

  1. Rick Larios says:

    Amen, Justin. The only qualifier I’d make is to the phrase “under-perform their peers” because the real issue is they fail to serve their students and their communities in a profoundly damaging way. If it was just a relative variation in performance, however consistent, it wouldn’t be the crisis it is. The fact is it is an ethical and social justice cancer and needs the persistence and sustained effort you indicate. What’s been tried to date has come with the constraints you summarize and whatever ambivalent results have been netted to date should neither be dismissed (rather they should inform improvements to policies, to models, to implementations) nor be the excuse for walking away from potentially successful innovations because the results aren’t immediate or the innovations were applied weakly, reluctantly, or, to use your metaphor, provided at the lowest dose tolerable to the caregiver, rather than at the strength the patient needs.

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