Letter to Hillary: Beware Education Advice From Hedge-Funds

Last week, The New York Times, published a front page story about the pressure Hillary Rodham Clinton is under to declare herself on a host of controversial education-reform initiatives, including the Common Core State Standards and charter schools, which are championed by the business community, especially hedge fund executives.

This open letter offers some suggestions about the business advice worth heeding, and the kind that’s not.

Dear Secretary Clinton,

There are a great number of lessons that educators and policymakers can learn from business and industry, but they are rarely the ones touted in mainstream education reform circles.

Let me begin by suggesting that the advice of hedge-funders, the high-rollers in what have become “aggressive, highly-leveraged, speculative” casinos—this from Forbes magazine, hardly a tool of the left—is the worst kind you could follow.

The industry’s influence can most recently be seen in New York’s latest regressive teacher-evaluation scheme, which was championed by Gov. Cuomo, the chief water carrier for hedge funds and their war on public schools.

A far better source of wisdom would come from business people and educators who have the proven ability to nurture organization over time—especially those who pursue an all-hands-on-deck, systems-oriented approach to long-term improvement. By arguing a good-school (charters), bad-school (public schools)—or good teacher, bad teacher—duality, many education reformers ignore the extraordinary complexity of the American education landscape, as well as a key challenge for all organizations, including schools: They should all strive for continuous improvement.

Many in the business world have learned this lesson. You could look at folks like Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox and a decades-long veteran of a company that has built on a hard-won reputation for quality and customer service; Don Petersen, who rescued the Ford Motor Co. when it was being beaten by the Japanese in the 1980s; and the curious case of Alcoa, which declared that safety was more important than profits. All are turnaround stories in tough competitive industries.

The story of Alcoa is particularly instructive. In 1987, a new CEO, Paul O’Neill, promoted a strategy that defied most quick-change solutions. He didn’t fired anyone. Nor did he focus on improving profits. Instead, O’Neill pushed both management and rank-and-file workers to find ways to improve safety in dangerous aluminum smelting plants. O’Neill’s approach was so inclusive and created such a collaborative culture that the suggestions of hourly workers not only improved Alcoa’s safety record dramatically, it also empowered ordinary employees to propose process changes that would save the company tens-of-millions of dollars throughout its operations. “By taking care of those nonfinancial indicators,” O’Neill said at the time, “I had a really strong feeling that the financial result would take care of itself.”

Alcoa’s focus on collaborative problem solving is a hallmark of the the process-oriented systems thinking that was popularized by W. Edwards Deming, the American statistician and management expert whom I’ve written about extensively, including here. It’s also at the core of Japanese Lessons Study, which has its roots in Deming’s ideas, and is just now sweeping classrooms across the U.S.

A key requirement of credible continuous-improvement systems is the need to create collaborative cultures that are free of fear. That realization has helped to define some of the greatest (and most unsung!) public education success stories, in both red and blue states—including among the poorest hard-scrabble schools and school districts. Like Alcoa, they have focused first on the process—improving school wide literacy, say—not the bottom line, i.e. test scores.

Even Arnie Duncan has discovered the benefits of teacher-led improvement efforts. The U.S. Secretary of Education recently launched a new initiative, Teach to Lead, which “seeks to catalyze fundamental changes in the culture of schools and the culture of teaching so that teachers play a more central role in transforming teaching and learning, and in the development of policies that affect their work.”  Some of the best charter schools, according to a new book A Smarter Charter, Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter also are “breaking the mold and providing explicit means for teachers to collaborate and participate in school decisions.”

“[W]e’re at a tipping point where we’re realizing that we cannot have those outside education, with no education background, with no education experience” lead education policy, argues Megan M. Allen, director of programs in teacher leadership at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Mass.

But, like industry’s doomed quality circles, a 1970s and 1980s fad that withered inside the authoritarian regimes of failing companies, well-meaning teacher- leader/cooperation/collaboration efforts are up against myriad contradictory (and punitive) reform initiatives that alternately seek to shame, scapegoat or incentivize teachers. A 2013 government study, “States Implementing Teacher and Principal Evaluation Systems Despite Challenges,” found numerous problems with how the latest round of teacher evaluations are working on the ground and cited the challenge states were having in “prioritizing evaluation reform amid multiple educational initiatives.”

So, when The New York Times runs a front page story suggesting that you should heed the education prescriptions of hedge fund managers, that’s a sure sign the education establishment is going in the wrong direction.

It’s time to look at schools and entire schools districts that have, over the course of years, developed strong teacher-led school communities that have successfully improved education for their kids—including the poorest kids. They long predate Arnie Duncan’s latest epiphany—some by decades. Yet you probably haven’t heard of them because they are not the stuff that today’s quick-change ed-reformers promote. (My new book will explore these quiet revolutions.)

Here is a preview of the most important lessons those examples can teach:

Search out examples that have stood the test of time: You could begin by looking at the two-decade-old so-called Massachusetts miracle, which is no miracle at all. Since 1993, when Massachusetts passed its landmark education reform legislation, the commonwealth has served as the gold-standard of American education.

“Beginning in 2005, the commonwealth’s students have scored first in the nation in every subject at every grade tested on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card” and outscored kids from around the world on international tests, notes Tom Birmingham, who co-authored the education law. But the Massachusetts reforms were no overnight success; they were the result of years-long hard-work and collaboration at almost every level—among teachers and administrators, Republicans and Democrats, policy makers and local business leader. Now Birmingham warns that former Gov. Deval Patrick’s decision to embrace the common core and PARRC tests, in order to win a one-time Race-to-the-Top grant, threatens Massachusetts’s progress.

Process matters more than the Common Core standards: Outside Massachusetts, the biggest problem with the common core is not the standards themselves, but the way they have been implemented. In some states, like New York, kids were subjected to poorly designed ostensibly common-core aligned tests long before curriculum materials were available and before teachers had received any training in the new standards, spurring a widespread backlash among everyone from educators to the general public.

And unlike in Massachusetts, which developed its standards and state tests over the course of years, improving them with input from educators and key stakeholders at all levels, the common core was developed behind closed doors. It remains a locked system that protects the profits of Pearson, the testing company that is administering the common-core tests, over the long-term improvement that greater transparency would provide.

Why not call on states or regions to bring together top local educators, from K-12 teachers to university experts, along with parents and community leaders to work on improving education standards. And, like Massachusetts, do it for all subjects. That way science and social studies won’t become orphans, neglected because they are not tested. (Ironically, the Patrick administration pulled the plug on U.S. history testing requirements in 2010 citing budget issues even while embracing the common core, which has added new costs.)

The process won’t be quick and it will be messy. But if you select the right people to lead the process and keep it local and collaborative, you could come up with a set of best-practices and standards that states might adopt voluntarily—not because they’ve been offered carrot-and-stick incentives, a la Race to the Top–but because you’ve built a robust framework that makes sense to key stakeholders.

The one thing that won’t work is top-down mandates no matter how smart they are. I recently visited a fast-growing red-state district that has pursued a continuous improvement strategy for two decades; the chief architect of the strategy told me that she has assiduously avoided district mandates, preferring to lead by example and seed experiments among the most forward-looking schools.

Experience matters and teachers, especially veterans, are important. Perhaps the most destructive education-reform shibboleth is the anti-teacher—often deeply misogynistic impulse—of many ed-reformers. While the industrial-era work rules of many teachers’ contracts need to change—even Diane Ravitch favors restructuring seniority rules—the states that promote dumbing down teacher standards and replacing experienced teachers with well-meaning, but virtually untrained recent college graduates pose the biggest threat to improving education.

The best examples of long-term improvement, whether in Massachusetts or the aforementioned red-state district, are driven by schools with lots of veteran teachers and low teacher turnover. Curiously, aside from the fact that it didn’t have a union, the red-state district looked and felt much like its best Massachusetts counterparts. One reason is that both have worked to foster a culture that is free of “fear”–in the red-state district this included winning exemptions from state-mandated test-based teacher evaluations.

To be sure, there are bad teachers just as there are bad investment bankers, bad lawyers and bad CEOs. How many is the subject of great dispute. While Gov. Cuomo and many of his hedge fund backers are convinced that the best strategy for improving education is to weed out bad teachers, even Paul Vallas, the controversial former superintendent of both Bridgeport, CT. and New Orleans’ so-called Recovery School District, says: “The vast majority” of teachers “are excellent when provided with the curriculum, instructional models and supports” they need.

All this raises the important question: Does it make sense to build an entire education-reform apparatus —as we have done for over a decade—on weeding out and punishing bad teachers, instead of supporting good ones or potentially good ones?

Lavish attention—and funding—on education; test sparingly: Since the Great Recession, fair-funding levels nationwide have decreased. That is, the number of states with historically “progressive” funding formulas that provided extra money for high-poverty districts are tightening their purse strings. These states include both Massachusetts and New Jersey, both of which had narrowed—though not eliminated—the achievement gap by redistributing funds to poor districts.

One way to help restore progressive funding would be to cut back on the panoply of low-quality high-stakes tests; annual testing is both expensive and wasteful. Instead, develop high-quality tests and administer them during benchmark years—say 3rd, 8th grade and 10th grade. Refocus resources on helping educators analyze the data they have from both tests and classroom assignments to help improve instruction and learning.

Here’s another idea. Rafe Esquith, who has been called the best teacher in America, suggests buying kids violins instead of computers. Actually, Esquith, whose teaching methods and fifth grade Shakespeare productions have won him both worldwide acclaim and lots of private funding, buys his kids both violins and computers. But his point is this: art and music—from violin lessons to Shakespeare productions to creating hook rugs—are all about teaching kids the importance of process, patience and stick-to-it-ness, as well as giving them an outlet for their creativity. While some of the country’s most heralded education-reformers, including KIPP, have borrowed the superficial trappings of Esquith’s class—the slogans and college banners—they missed the arts, which are at the heart of his lessons and a key to helping students improve their own learning.

Charters—look behind the curtain: The highest performing charter schools in the country are in Boston, at least in part because there are so few of them and charter-authorizations are meted out with great care. Also, the kids in Boston charter schools (like the ones in Harlem) are economically much better off, less likely to be English Language Learners than their public-school counterparts. Over a decade into the charter movement, there is still no evidence that charter schools, as a whole, perform better than public schools with comparable student populations.

Even the grand experiment in New Orleans is more mirage than miracle. A new study by the pro-charter Education Research Alliance for New Orleans confirms what many critics have long charged–that high-performing charter schools engage in illicit “student selection” practices, otherwise known as “creaming”; these practices include counseling out students who are considered a “poor fit” for the school or holding invitation-only events to advertise openings.

Thus, any charter-school strategy has to address the central dilemma of the charter-school movement: What’s the tipping point at which fostering charter schools undermines traditional public schools and the neediest children they serve?

As Mathew Di Carlo recently wrote, it’s time to go back to Albert Shanker’s original idea of charter schools, that is: to create varied “policies and practices within districts, and thus expanding schools’ ability to try different things, test their impact (hopefully on a variety of different outcomes), and inform the design of all schools, regardless of their governance structures.”

Finally, beware the modern-day Moloch, with its insatiable appetite for test scores and other simplistic, and misleading, data points.

The mainstream education-reform movement is at an inflection point. There is more and more dissatisfaction over test mania and its impact on kids. There is deep concern over the corrosive high-stakes teacher evaluations. There is distrust—if not of the common core itself—then of the top-down way it’s being imposed in many states, as well as the opaque testing regimes that are being imposed in its name. And, there is deep suspicion over the enormous potential profits generated by these tests and evaluation systems, as well as education surveillance systems.

This may be the best time in years to promote a new more collaborative, process-oriented approach to education—the kind that has worked at companies like Aloca, in states like Massachusetts, and even in some red-state districts. It is a community and woman-friendly, teacher-focused approach that has demonstrated great promise to improve education. You have a unique opportunity both to turn the page on zero-sum education policies like Race to the Top and NCLB and to challenge all stakeholders—teachers, families, local business people and unions –in supporting a professional, improvement-oriented culture for schools.

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4 Responses to Letter to Hillary: Beware Education Advice From Hedge-Funds

  1. Albie says:

    Thanks, Andrea Gabor,
    For making such an informed and inspiring case for setting our schools in a direction that both honors our teachers, students, parents, and communities, and draws upon their talents, concern and creativity to make it happen! And, Secretary Clinton, if you are reading Gabor’s letter, knowing how much you value and enjoy the process of developing good policies to shape the future of today’s youth, I hope you will see the wisdom of Andrea Gabor’s perspective.

    With admiration and appreciation to both of you, Albie Davis (Boston, Massachusetts)

  2. It would be wonderful if politicians and policy-makers would heed your advice. Great post!

  3. Reblogged this on DAVID B. COHEN and commented:
    Andrea Gabor is right on target with this advice to Hillary Clinton. If you want to make good education policy, you need to listen to teachers and look at models of stability and long-term success.

  4. Reblogged this on DAVID B. COHEN and commented:
    Andrea Gabor is right on target with this advice to Hillary Clinton. If you want to make good education policy, you need to listen to teachers and look at models of stability and long-term success.

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