Sunday, October 11, 2009

Huberman's vision for education in Chicago

I heard the Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Office Ron Huberman speak on September 29 to a group of principals and teachers where he once again laid out his agenda for Chicago public schools.

Huberman's plan is organized around themes of "performance management" and "data driven instruction." Like other Mayor Daley appointees, Huberman (who, for the sake of possible non-Chicago readers, came to the school system from the Chicago Transit Authority) in theory brings private-sector style managerial expertise to the sprawling bureaucracy of CPS. George Schmidt, in his front page story ("Data Driven Drivel", sprawling in its own way) in the latest issue of Substance, uses the term "narrative" to describe Huberman's pitch. The term is well chosen I think. "Narrative" captures the essential point that Huberman is telling a story about what is happening. In this case he is framing it within the too familiar story of capitalism and the market, with all of the narrow and limiting assumptions and possibilities that that dismal story allows: In his narrative-story-vision, schools are education finishing plants that add education "value" to children. Value-added is measured by the change in standardized test scores over time. Individual schools are the education providers (not the school system, which only provides infrastructure), and schools, in the Obama-Duncan-Huberman world of "choice" (another marketplace term), compete with each other for raw material to finish. In this story, parents are free to take their raw material to whichever finishing plant is going to add the most value.

Hubeman is very explicit about this. In his September talk, he described each child as having a "backpack" of money, the money collected from taxpayers to educate children. CPS collects about $10,000 per child per year, or $14,000 for Title I schools (schools with large numbers of students from poor families that receive additional Federal money). In Huberman's vision, parents should be able to take that backpack of cash to the school of their choice. Schools will have consumer report cards showing their "value-added" scores to help parents in choosing the schools most successful at raising test scores. Teachers at each school will compete with the teachers at other schools in the city, both public and charter, and through that marketplace competition, their schools, at least in theory, will become better finishing plants.

So what is wrong with Huberman's story? I think that in practice, schools doing well now will catch the best students, and struggling schools will fall further behind. It is the same process of polarization that plays out in the economy at large -- the rich get richer, etc. Likewise, charters skim off the best students, or the students with the most parent involvement in their lives (and there is some correlation there). Public neighborhood schools become the schools of last resort -- they cannot refuse to take a student in their attendance boundaries. The students with the most needs will pool up in the public schools. Their test scores will sink the neighborhood schools, feeding a vicious cycle of increasing privatization. More charters will spring up to snatch the backpack of cash; the teacher's union will be effectively broken; and the concept of public education as a great project of Democracy will die.

Management by FUD -- Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt -- is the order of the day in many CPS schools now as the pace of this process accelerates. It is questionable that that strategy works in private companies; in a school it is disastrous. Teachers feel like they are under siege. They have a difficult-enough time as it is, coping with classes with too many students, with too few resources, no recess, and a steady stream of new mandates from on high. The axe of school closing and unemployment, based on one testing event a year, now swings over their heads as well.

The marketplace model has other problems too. Certainly accountability is important, but it needs to recognize that schools are not separate from social and historic forces playing out outside of the school building. But reducing accountability to test scores is fundamentally flawed. Test scores are a convenient metric, and fit in with the overall quantification of everything that is part and parcel of the marketplace metaphysic. More on that in my next post.


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