Friday, June 7, 2013

Mayoral Forum on Education: Recap

Recently, I expressed my concern that powerful corporate-backed education reform groups and venture-philanthropists are trying to influence both the state legislature and the Boston mayoral race. Along these lines, I highlighted that several of these education reform groups were hosting the first Boston mayoral candidate forum. Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub had an excellent commentary on the debate. As a Boston resident, I also attended the forum to help inform my choice in the upcoming election. After reflecting on the forum, I have grouped the candidates into three camps: market-based reformers, supporters of district schools, and no clear vision. I will summarize the candidates based on these groupings.

Market-Based Reformers:
This camp was entrenched in the market-based reform ideology of the groups hosting the event (Stand for Children, Teach for America, Education Reform Now). These candidates desire more decentralization in the Boston Public Schools. They made clear their support for charter schools, turnaround powers, and outside organizations managing district schools.

John Connolly has been running on an education reform platform since he first declared his candidacy back in February. During the forum, Connolly accused the Boston Teachers Union of being the main barrier to the school district's improvement. I found most troubling his position on taking power away from the central office at Court Street and decentralizing the school district. In his ideal system, each school would function on its own, which he envisions as freeing these schools to be innovative (essentially make the entire district comprised of independent charter schools). This view proves to be incredibly naïve, as it ignores the reality that most charter schools have student populations that are self-selecting and do not represent similar populations to the district schools. For district schools to improve, they actually need centralized leadership and support to guide them in these school improvements.

Dan Conley highlighted his background in the justice system, which ultimately exposed his lack of educational knowledge. It was frustrating listening to him say repetitively "studies show," when it was clear he has limited understanding of educational research. At one point, he declared to the audience that he had no idea why the state hasn't abolished the cap on charter schools, but he could offer very little explanation as to why more charter schools were needed beyond "they get results." Finally, his most concerning comment was that he will treat teacher "training" (his word, not mine) like he trains his attorneys. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how quality teachers are prepared.

Mike Ross expressed very similar educational views to to the others in this camp. He showed support for lifting the charter school cap, but added that it should be done carefully and that he did not know how many charter schools were a good number. Mike Ross cited his respect for Geoffrey Canada and the schools he runs in New York (Although there is much to admire about the Harlem Children Zone, with its wrap-around social services, I wonder if he know that the it is also notorious for pushing students out and they even "fired" a class of under-performing students?). Yet, Mike Ross's most unusual statement was that across the nation it is commonplace for traditional districts to be improved by the presence of charter schools. In reality, there have been numerous studies on charter schools, including the rigorous Stanford CREDO study, that show charter schools generally have similar or worse results to their district peers. Other studies show that charter schools tend to be more racially and economically segregated than district schools. Finally, I am unsure where Mike Ross read that charter schools make districts better. I assume he either refers to a policy paper from the conservative Manhattan Institute or a similar report from the Department of Education, neither of which are research.

The last member of this group was John Barros. He established one of the first in-district charter schools in Boston, would like to lift the charter school cap, and, showing his lack of educational knowledge, cited New Orleans as one of the best urban success stories in the country and one that Boston can learn from. Interestingly, New Orleans, with more than 70% of its students attending charter schools, is one of the lowest performing districts in the country, and Boston, with only 8.7% of its students enrolled in charter schools, is one of the best. I recently read Kristen Buras' eye-opening book on the privatization of the New Orleans public schools and the impact on students. I would recommend others do the same.

Supporters of District Schools:
This camp expressed the view that the Boston Public Schools are a high-quality urban system, that any reform must include working with the teachers union and district administrators, and that the focus should be on struggling schools within BPS, rather than charter schools. I spend less time analyzing their comments and supplying data, because their answers were more aligned to my description of BPS in the preceding post.

Felix Arroyo attempted to show that he was a strong supporter of in-district schools and BPS. First, he cited that many of his family members, including his wife, teach in the system. He highlighted several times that he attended BPS through high school (unlike John Connolly, for instance, who attended Roxbury Latin, a private school in West Roxbury). In front of an audience that was generally supportive of market-based reforms, Felix Arroyo said he did not support raising the cap on charter schools and that BPS would be the main focus of his mayoral administration, as he would "double-down" on the public schools. He discussed his concern for English language learners and his experiences as an native Spanish speaker.

Marty Walsh declared that the system can only be improved by working with the Boston Teachers Union and that attacking teachers will not improve the system. He advocated for expansion of vocational schools, like Madison Park, and pre-kindergarten to all residents of the city. Although his stance on the charter cap was very nuanced, he expressed that lifting the cap will not be the panacea that some hope it to be.

Rob Consalvo focused on the positive developments in recent years in the Boston Public Schools. He framed BPS's struggles in terms of limited resources and lack of collaboration. He emphasized the importance of parent involvement and discussed the need for more active parent engagement. Stating that he supported charter schools, he argued that it would not be appropriate to raise the charter cap at this time.

Charles Yancey discussed the many educational programs he created and supported as a longtime city councilor. He was genuine and displayed his passion for constitute services. At times, this meant that he did not directly address the question at hand. However, he had the most poignant comment of the night when he stated that he didn't want to discourage charters, but frankly, as mayor it would not be his job to help charters, but to instead fix BPS and draw kids away from charters. He felt that the charter school cap was necessary and that Boston's mayor should really only care about the district schools.

No Clear Vision:
This final camp seemed well meaning, but lacked any strong opinions about the issues. Both candidates in this group discussed charter schools as positive, but also not the only solution. Both candidates shared stories of successful district schools that should be models for other schools and they seemed generally supportive of BPS. They both discussed the need to share practices across schools. It was somewhat difficult to analyze most of their comments on education due to their relatively vague answers.

Charlotte Golar Richie emphasized her background in both city and state government. She framed her discussion in terms of the achievement gap, but also a resource gap. She called BPS a great district and cited the Broad Prize. Often her answers were very eloquent, but somewhat vague. I left not really knowing her stances on the key educational issues.

Bill Walczak highlighted the need for strong school leadership in any successful school. He discussed the role of the principal in leading teachers and that he would attempt to lengthen the school day by working with the union. He supports increasing the number of charter schools in Boston, but also wants to increase the Level 1 and Level 2 disctrict schools.

You can watch video of the forum here and judge for yourself (you can enlarge it to full screen):

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