Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Speedy School Reform: An Oxymoron That Breaks My Heart

The Baltimore Sun's lead editorial today deals with the efforts of Baltimroe Schools CEO Andres Alsonso speedy efforts at reform:
Even with a four-year contract, Mr. Alonso is well aware that momentum for reform can be fleeting, and he is wisely striking early and often. He expects to see some positive results sooner rather than later, but turning a battle-worn ship around could take a decade - and requires a broad array of support from many players in the city and state.
Alsonso's plans include increased autonomy for principals (and control of funds to boot) but without the crutch of the central office to blame when things go bad. Alsonso is also trying a combined middle/high school model that it is hoped will keep older kids in school longer rather than dropping out. Whether his ideas produce results of course remain to be seen.

But it is the time frame for reform and results that is troubling. We want change to show results immediately and while Alsonso, and his peer in Washington DC Michelle Rhee are moving quickly (and largely on a similar track) it is hard to imagine seeing any measurable results in these education cesspools in anything less than three years. Do we have the patience and stomach to wait that long?

In a culture so used to instant gratification, it is hard to imagine that the public in Baltimore and Washington having the patience to wait. So the dilemma is this: In order to see change, we have to allow it to take root, but can we stomach the continued poor performance of the schools as they are until that time. The reason is that while the reforms gestate, thousands of students continue to be ill-served by the schools they attend.

I think everyone interested in education reform faces this dilemma, but few, if any, really talk about it. Will a child in, say the sixth grade, be in a position to reap some of the rewards of changes made today (assuming they work)? What about an eigth grader? Certainly, it seems unlikely that present day tenth grader will see any significant changess by the time he or she graduates? Have we done a disservice to that child by not going faster?

There is, of course, no simple answer to the dilemma and only one real option. Try something and wait. Doing nothing means we have surrendered to the disfunction and it is heartening to see that leaders like Rhee, Alonso and the hundreds and thousands of teachers and administrators really are trying their best. They are tackling the problem head on and not shying away from the problems they see. If that were the only quality in play, I would be optimistic. But with dozens of other efforts, from charter schools, to homeschooling, to experiments in methods, classes, schools, etc., I am confident in the extreme that America's ingenuity will find the right balance of options and delivery to satisfy students and their parents.

However, that optimism doesn't diminish the heartache I feel now. I know that education reform is an evolutionary process and the intellectual side of me knows that change does not and will not happen over night. But the emotional side of me weeps for the high schooler who is cheated because we as a society were too change resistant, too scared, too blind or just plain too stupid to see how poorly we treated our students to effecuate any sort of change sooner. It breaks my heart to see what our ineptitude has wrought.

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