Always Listen to the Billionaire

Eli Broad's Education Week Commentary "Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste" proves the dictum that a journal of record should never deny a billionaire the soap box he craves, even if he offers little of substance.
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Eli Broad's Education Week Commentary "Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste" proves the dictum that a journal of record should never deny a billionaire the soap box he craves, even if he offers little of substance. Especially when a corporate leader is just pontificating, always let him speak. Broad's "do what I say, not what I do" approach to school reform offers an invaluable glimpse into what he thinks the "billionaires boys club" is doing for schools. It also shows that Broad has no clue about what it is actually doing to schools.

Based on "one difficult year" teaching in a university a half of a century ago, Broad says that schools should "never shy from an unreasonable goal." Broad tells educators to "use crises as chances to rethink everything, question your assumptions, and start afresh." For instance, Broad complains that diverse children with varied learning styles should not be expected to "learn the same lesson taught in the same way."

So, Mr. Broad, why were poor children in Philadelphia and my home of Oklahoma City subjected to a rushed, top down, paced curriculum, where everyone "learn(s) the same lesson taught in the same way?" Our "everyone must be on the same page" instruction was imposed by a graduate of the Broad Superintendent's Academy. Where did our superintendent, who had no background in urban education, get such a strange idea? His mentor, Arlene Ackerman, was superintendent of the Broad Academy. She then imposed the same command and control model on neighborhood schools in Philadelphia.

The Broad Academy is run like a corporate executive training program, and it emphasizes data, choice, and other market-driven policies. Their curriculum stresses instructional alignment and its management techniques emphasize "pacing work for optimal quality."

It was touch and go as to whether Oklahoma City's schools would survive the six-month reign of error produced by the Broad script. We survived, but it is unclear whether Philly will survive their Broadie's overreach.

I don't know if the Philadelphia mayor is welcoming his system's crisis as much as the Chicago mayor who seems to be reveling in the mess that he created. But, Broad quotes Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who said, "Never allow a crisis go to waste." Broad says, "That's a good rule for everyone to keep in mind." He adds that the slogan should be followed "no matter the type of crisis you find yourself confronting."

What if Broad rethought his assumptions that the lessons he learned as a businessman are applicable "in the same way" for everyone, in every school, no matter what type of crisis they are facing? I was only a teacher, but I would never tell businessmen what they should always do in every situation. Neither would I tell a football quarterback that he should always throw into double coverage, never protect the ball, and always throw the bomb when facing a blitz.

I will suggest, however, that schools in crisis should never gamble on "transformational" reforms. That applies double to urban schools. During hard times in the inner city, we need more disruptive innovation like we need another gang war.

An economic downturn is the worst possible time to roll the dice on "reforms" such as Arne Duncan's Race to the Top or his School Improvement Grants, or to gamble on risky experiments like value-added evaluations. When the economy goes south, there is no buffer to protect poor families. Children bring the emotional toll of broken economies to class. Job number one needs to be protecting those children so that they do not fall off the conveyor belt that is k-12 schooling. In a crisis, we want educators to be doing the extra work that is necessary to avoid worst case scenarios. Job number two must be supporting educators so they are not burned out by the additional suffering that lands in their classrooms.

Similarly, recessions are the worst time to launch educational wars of choice. Schools today are cutting early education and afterschool programs at a time when billions of dollars are showered on consultants, computer systems, and additional testing. Trying to spend this bonanza in a prudent way is like drinking from a fire hose. If this "fire, aim, ready" approach to school improvement doesn't produce transformational improvements, however, schools will face the next crisis with no such bounty to waste.

A prime rule of education, I argue, should be, "first, do no harm." The best way to improve schools would be to reduce unforced errors. In fact, the endless stream of "silver bullets" dumped on schools in the name of "reform" has long been recognized as being a big reason why it is so hard to improve student performance. "Quick fixes" repeatedly imposed by non-educators have damaged "the DNA" of our troubled schools.

I would suggest another reason why schools should be risk-adverse. Students aren't lab rats. Maybe our government has been right or maybe it has been wrong in allowing corporations to gamble with other peoples' money. We should never be so reckless with other children's futures.

Finally, what if Broad followed his own advice and thought anew? To my knowledge, Broad's construction company never denied the practitioners' conventional wisdom that houses should be built on a solid foundation. Even in a crisis, that reality-based tradition should not be rejected.

What if Broad heeded what he says, and also let schools do what he did as a businessman? Even if he has no respect for and little knowledge of educational research, today's so-called crisis could allow him to question his assumptions. He could let educators decide whether we want to lay a foundation for sustainable improvement, as opposed to hurriedly implementing the billionaires' preferences. If Broad was willing to rethink his opinions, he might even allow the public to decide whether their schools should adopt reasonable or unreasonable goals.

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