Not the Change I Had in Mind

I am still not over the sadness and anger I feel over what happened to my colleague, Joyce Irvine.

Even though I have never met her, I call Ms. Irvine my colleague because of the way her work as principal of Wheeler Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont, has been described. As reported in the New York Times parents are grateful for her leadership, she knows all her students, she has begun innovative programs, her teachers and her superintendent give her high marks, even her U.S. Senator praises her work.

And she has been fired.

Yep, call it what you want (she has been transferred to a district administrative spot) but she has been fired because the children in her school, overwhelmingly poor and immigrant, did not get the test scores the federal government says they should have. And given the choices the district faces—pass up on federal stimulus money or take on one of the federally mandated ‘school turn around’ strategies—Joyce Irvine was removed from her job.

Recently, apparently feeling the sting of repeated criticisms of his administration’s education policies, President Obama said that part of the resistance to his Race to the Top initiative (which led to Ms. Irvine’s firing) “reflects a general resistance to change.”

Guess again.

What it reflects, in the case of many dedicated educators, is a resistance to change that does not have any basis in reality.

Many of us have been involved in the front lines of change in our schools since the time that the President was an undergraduate at Columbia. While not counted among the so-called education reformers today, these leaders such as the late Ted Sizer, Linda Darling-Hammond, James Comer, Gerry House, John Goodlad, Robert Moses, Deborah Meier, and others have demonstrated how to change schools so that all of our children can have more equitable educational opportunities and outcomes. There are lessons to be learned here, but they do not include firing principals who choose to work with those students whose test scores will never reflect the mandates of Washington.

As noted, some of the critiques of the current administration’s agenda seem to be getting through. At a recent speech Secretary Duncan admitted that the current ways we measure student progress are wrong and that the criticism of teacher’s unions and blanket praise of all things ‘charter’ are not useful or factual.

Perhaps this is in response to the recent critiques put forth by a network of civil rights groups. And maybe the Secretary will look at the alternatives to his current ‘turn around’ strategy found in the recent report put out by Communities for Excellent Public Schools.

But this comes too late for Joyce Irvine. As I have pointed out many times before, current federal policy has created at the local level all the wrong incentives. When rewarded or punished solely on test scores schools are encouraged to push out or not take students who will not score well, narrow the curriculum to basic skills, cut out enrichment and engagement activities, and narrow teaching to rote memorization drills. Joyce Irvine would not do any of that, and she is paying the price for it.

Federal policy works by creating incentives for particular actions. Funds are dangled before states or other entities if they will do what the feds want. We know this strategy can work—it desegregated schools and has opened up educational opportunities for groups of students excluded from public education. The problem with the current set of incentives is that they have things backwards. Rather than reward principals like Irvine for taking on students who are the least likely to do well on standardized tests, it punishes her for the work we all want to have done. Meanwhile, schools that work with the easiest to teach—through district boundaries or admission policies in some charter or similar schools that skim off the most motivated students and parents—get all the praise and rewards.

Over the next few weeks school will reopen, ushering in a school year in which ESEA may be reauthorized. Congress should heed what happened to Joyce Irvine and her school when they finally get around to overhauling NCLB. The Forum has, as have many front-line educational groups, issued our recommendations for change. But above all when Congress acts they should remember the physician’s admonition—first, do no harm.