Why the Push to Close 5,000 Schools, Why the Push for Mayoral Control?

Reports that Obama “intends to use $5 billion to prod local officials to close failing schools and reopen them with new teachers and principals,” have generated well-deserved criticism on several fronts. A post on the PURE website offers this:

Obama [is] behind the destructive strategies of Renaissance 2010 in a way that may just destroy the heart and soul of hundreds of communities across the US. Obama wants to see 5,000 schools closed and ‘turned around,’ which hasn’t worked….  And he’s going to use the precious stimulus money — you know, the money that’s supposed to help create new jobs — to fire thousands of experienced teachers.  Duncan says that ‘The point is to take bold action in persistently low-achieving schools’.  I disagree.  I think the point should be to try to do something that works, not to BOLDLY go expand a program that doesn’t work and actually creates worse problems.”

The post goes on to cite work by William J. Mathis and Charles Payne (who wrote the book, So Much Reform, So Little Change).  The essence is not only that “restructuring” schools does not improve the quality of education for those attending the restructured school, but that it also makes things worse for the students and communities ostensibly being helped.

Again, reports and debates about the merits of governance reform such as mayoral control now being promoted by Arne Duncan have meet with just criticism.  Here too there is little evidence that such reforms “work”.   Sherman Dorn argues that “governance reform” is not reform:

While New York rages over mayoral control, which is all the rage, schools in Pinellas County are headed towards The New Site Based Management, which was the rage in the late 1980s and early 1990s and which Bill Ouchi hopes will be the rage again.  While there are plenty of ways that governance can affect the classroom, I am consistently underwhelmed by the argument that governance reform improves what happens in the classroom.

While these criticisms and observations are certainly warranted and helpful, might they be missing something?

If someone pursues the same path, over and over again, with little evidence of positive results, yet says they expect different results this time, and are going to push even harder, and even further expand their efforts in this failed direction, even when the chance of obtaining these expected results is extremely unlikely in light of past experience, and the possible negative outcomes for those who are the object of these efforts are likely negative, one has to conclude that the person is (a) insane and/or (b) not being truthful about the purpose of their efforts.

“What works” is of course the kind of phrase designed to divert attention from the question: what works for whom, to what end? It may just be that these reforms are working well to alter the larger governance structures in the society, with the ideals of improved education the ideological garb that has us all debating the merits of “school reform” when in fact the object of reform is not school, but government itself.

Why not inform these debates with this question: who decides?  Even if “restructuring” or “mayoral control” “worked” shouldn’t the schools and communities who will be effected have a say?  Can research justify the elimination of democratic institutions?  Haven’t we learned our lesson from A Nation at Risk, a report authored by a committee that, in the end, had little regard for “what the facts are”?  Debates about proposed or enacted education reforms that ignore the larger political function of school reform are likely to mask in whose interests these efforts are driven, and what problem are in fact being addressed.

The AP story may have come the closet to going from appearance to essence:  “Obama doesn’t have authority to close and reopen schools himself.  That power rests with local school districts and states.  But he has an incentive in the economic stimulus law, which requires states to help failing schools improve.”  Indeed.  And so, we need an analysis of the political functions of the ARRA, the way in which it serves to alter the rights and responsibilities of the levels and branches of government.

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