Monday, April 18, 2011
Michael Winerip: In Public School Efforts, a Common Background: Private Education
Ten years ago, the No Child Left Behind bill was passed by the House of Representatives, 384 to 45, marking the first step toward a major transformation of public education in America. The law has ushered in what its supporters like to call the “reform movement.”
For the first time, human bias was removed from student assessment and replaced with scientific accountability systems.
No longer did teachers’ subjective opinions of children distort things. Scores on standardized tests became the gold standard.
No longer did a person with a clipboard have to spend days observing a school to determine whether it was any good. Because of the law, it is now possible for an assistant secretary of education to be sitting in his Washington office and, by simply studying a spreadsheet for a few minutes, know exactly how a school in Juneau is performing.
Each year since then, researchers have found new things to assess. The New York City Department of Education, a pioneer in the science of value-added assessment, can now calculate a teacher’s worth to the third decimal point by using a few very long formulas. (No word yet on whether department researchers have developed a very long formula to assess chancellors and mayors.)
For a while it appeared that the Republicans were way ahead on the reform front, but in 2007, Whitney Tilson, a hedge fund manager and Democratic fund-raiser, founded Democrats for Educational Reform to help his party catch up. By all accounts, it has worked. Today, the consensus is that there is little difference between President Obama and former President George W. Bush when it comes to education policy. Nor is it easy to distinguish differences between the secretary of education under Mr. Bush, Margaret Spellings, and the current secretary, Arne Duncan.
Those who call themselves reformers are a diverse group, men and women of every political stripe and of every race and ethnicity.
But there is one thing that characterizes a surprisingly large number of the people who are transforming public schools: they attended private schools.
Which raises the question: Does a private school background give them a much-needed distance and fresh perspective to better critique and remake traditional public schools? Does it make them distrust public schools — or even worse — poison their perception of them? Or does it make any difference?
Following is a list of some of these national leaders and the private schools they attended:
¶Senators Judd Gregg (Phillips Exeter, Exeter, N.H.) and Edward M. Kennedy (Milton Academy, Milton, Mass.) and Representative John A. Boehner (Archbishop Moeller High School, Cincinnati) were three of the four Congressional sponsors of the education legislation, which was signed into law by Mr. Bush (Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass.) on Jan. 8, 2002. (Representative George Miller was the fourth sponsor.)
¶Mr. Obama (Punahou School, Honolulu) will be remembered for his signature education program, Race to the Top. This program rewards states with hundreds of millions of dollars in grants if they develop systems to rate teachers based on their students’ test scores and if they agree to fire teachers and principals based on those scores. In contrast, Michelle Obama, who attended public schools (Whitney Young High, Chicago), has frequently spoken out against the education law’s reliance on testing. “If my future were determined by my performance on a standardized test,” Mrs. Obama has repeatedly said, “I wouldn’t be here, I guarantee that.”
¶Michelle A. Rhee (Maumee Valley Country Day School, Toledo, Ohio), the former Washington schools chancellor and a founder of StudentsFirst, an advocacy group, is probably the No. 1 celebrity of the reform movement. She is education’s Sarah Palin.
¶As governor, Mitt Romney (Cranbrook School, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.) brought accountability to Massachusetts.
¶Bill Gates (Lakeside School, Seattle) has donated billions of dollars to public schools with the proviso that they carry out his vision of reform, including tying teacher tenure decisions to students’ test scores. In November, Mr. Gates and Mr. Duncan (University of Chicago Laboratory School) called on public school leaders to increase class size as a way of cutting costs in these hard times. The two men suggested that schools could compensate by striving to have an excellent teacher in every classroom. The private school Mr. Gates attended has an average class size of 16, according to its Web site. The home page says the best thing about Lakeside School is it “promotes relationships between teachers and students through small class sizes.” Mr. Duncan’s private school has an average class size of 19.
¶Jeb Bush (Phillips Andover), the former governor of Florida and the founder of the Excellence for Education Foundation, is responsible for making Florida a pioneer in the accountability movement by issuing report cards for every school based on test results. In the process he had to overcome many obstacles, including how to explain why his state’s rating system was so badly out of whack with the federal government’s rating system. One year the state report cards gave two-thirds of Florida’s schools A’s or B’s, while the federal system rated two-thirds of Florida schools as failing. As a result, there was widespread confusion among parents who couldn’t tell if their child’s school was succeeding brilliantly or failing miserably.
¶Chester E. Finn Jr. (Phillips Exeter) is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, two of the country’s leading conservative research groups. Mr. Finn is the scholarly counterpart of Ms. Rhee. Early on, he supported the privatization of public education, the use of vouchers and the development of a national core curriculum, which could possibly mean every public school would be teaching the same thing at the same time. His recommendation for reforming the public school system: “Blow it up and start over.”
¶David Levin (Riverdale Country School, the Bronx) is a co-founder of KIPP, the nation’s biggest charter chain.
¶Cathleen P. Black (Aquinas Dominican High School, Chicago), the former chancellor of New York City schools, had just 95 days to put her reform agenda into place before she was asked to leave.
¶Merryll H. Tisch (Ramaz School, Manhattan), chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, along with David M. Steiner (Perse School, Cambridge, England), the New York state education commissioner, have fine-tuned the state’s extensive testing system pioneered by the former state commissioner, Richard Mills.
¶Steven Brill (Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, Mass.) is perhaps the charter school movement’s most literary advocate. He is working on a book about public school reform.
¶Marc Sternberg (Episcopal School, Baton Rouge, La.), a New York City deputy chancellor, has been a path finder in the practice of moving charter schools into district school buildings.
¶Davis Guggenheim (Sidwell Friends School, Washington) is the producer and director of “Waiting for Superman,” the widely acclaimed 2010 film that championed charter schools and dismissed traditional public schools as dropout factories. Mr. Guggenheim’s film begins with him driving his children to their private school and feeling guilty about all the bad Los Angeles public schools he is passing. This is not the first time this happened to Mr. Guggenheim. As a child, he passed bad Washington public schools on his way to Sidwell Friends.
When President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind legislation, he expressed his hope that it would combat the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Indeed, the law could not have higher expectations: every child in the nation is required to be proficient in math and English by 2014. Schools that do not meet their proficiency goals, which are raised every year, are labeled as failing.
Last month, Mr. Duncan predicted that by the end of this year, 82 percent of schools will miss their goal. At this rate, it is highly likely that in a few years, every single public school in the United States will be labeled a failure.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 18, 2011
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to an advocacy group founded by Michelle A. Rhee, the former Washington schools chancellor. It is StudentsFirst, not Sunshine First.