Responding to Diane Ravitch's drive-by shooting of Cleveland’s school-reform plan
Diane Ravitch's blog earlier this week on "Desperate Times in Cleveland and Ohio" was troubling in how much it got wrong. Specifically, she totally misconstrues what Mayor Frank Jackson's bold school reform plan is trying to do and who it is trying to help. According to Diane's post, Jackson’s plan is nothing more than an attack on hardworking teachers and an effort to enrich for-profit charter school operators (namely the Akron-based, for-profit White Hat). This assertion is simply wrong.
I live near Dayton - another struggling former industrial power that is a shadow of its former self - and spend a lot of time in Cleveland meeting and working with some of that community's fantastic civic leaders, philanthropists, educators, and business people who are trying desperately to save their city. There is no doubt that Cleveland is hurting and it is bleeding families and children. The city has 30,000 fewer children today than it did just a decade ago, and many of the children left behind are struggling academically. In 2010-11, 56 percent of students in Cleveland attended a school rated D or F by the state. This is despite the fact the district spends a little more than $14,000 a pupil.
Because Cleveland is shrinking, its schools are facing a serious fiscal crisis. The district faces at least a $64.9 million budget deficit in 2012-13, and without additional cuts and or revenues the district's five year budget forecast shows a shortfall of close to $300 million by 2016. Despite the fiscal challenges, Cleveland has seen the emergence of some truly high-performing schools. Some of these schools are innovative district-operated schools like Campus International, a high-demand K-3 school housed on the Cleveland State University campus, and MC2STEM high school located at the Great Lakes Science Center. The district also has some successful “traditional” schools, like Louisa May Alcott Elementary (which we featured in our 2010 report on high-performing, high-need urban schools).
Other high-performing schools in Cleveland are charters like the Breakthrough Schools network, in which student achievement rivals and even surpasses that of the highest performing suburban schools in Ohio. In fact, in 2010-11 nine of Cleveland's top 15 schools were charters. While Mayor Jackson’s plan puts a priority on partnering with such high-flying charter schools, NOTHING in it favors for-profit or low-performing charters, and certainly the plan is no gift to White Hat or any other management company, as Diane alleges.
The fact is that Jackson’s plan seeks to confront a stark economic and academic reality by focusing on what works in education and cutting out what doesn't. Those schools that work for children and deliver academic results - be they district schools or charter schools - will be encouraged to expand their enrollments and even add new buildings. Those schools that are struggling the most (be they district or charter) will face either serious restructuring or closure. The plan focuses on performance and seeks to identify and keep in Cleveland the community's very best teachers while in time recruiting more to its schools through programs like Teach For America and the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program.
In order to maximize its talent pool, however, Jackson is calling for giving the school district more flexibility over personnel by doing away with damaging policies like Last In/First Out (this will require a change to state law). Currently, as Cleveland has shrunk it has had to dismiss its teachers based solely on seniority. This has hurt the district in two ways. First, such quality blind policies mean that some of the district's most effective teachers have been let go for more senior,and possibly less effective teachers. Second, the per teacher costs in Cleveland are higher than most other school districts in Ohio because it is populated by older teachers who have accrued larger salaries by accumulating years of service.
What Diane calls an attack on teachers is actually an honorable response to a brutally tough dilemma facing a city that has to shrink its overall number of schools and teachers. Mayor Jackson's plan is an honest effort to do this in a way that will result in fewer, but better, schools. It is in fact a brave effort to try and make the best of a truly difficult situation. Fair-minded people in Ohio understand what Mayor Jackson and his district CEO, Eric Gordon, are up to. This is why the State Board of Education - both Democrats and Republicans - gave Eric Gordon a rousing applause when he presented the plan to them earlier this week.
Cleveland and its leaders are trying to do right by their children, their city, and their future. They need and deserve all the support and encouragement they can get. They certainly don't deserve to have bullets shot at them by a drive-by pundit.
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May 8, 2013