City Lit: Reformulaic

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Two decades ago, New York City schools chancellor Frank Macchiarola proposed ending “social promotions,” the practice of automatically sending failing kids to the next grade level. Either they go to summer school, he righteously declared, or they get held back. It transformed Macchiarola into a folk hero.

But in the end, the proposal was a bust. Not only had Macchiarola been unable to fund and implement it by the time he retired in 1982, but a convincing body of research since then has shown that holding kids back actually increases their chances of dropping out.

Yet many still consider Macchiarola the greatest chancellor in New York City history. And the idea of ending social promotions remains wildly popular across the county–President Clinton recently urged the nation to ban the practice.

Frederick M. Hess, in his sometimes valuable but often maddeningly vague book Spinning Wheels, calls this sort of policy-making “symbolic reform.” From 1992 to 1995, Hess surveyed 57 school districts, interviewing nearly 3,000 journalists, senior school administrators, local businesspeople, minority leaders, union heads and school board members. He discovered that contrary to popular belief, school chiefs aren’t afraid of reform. They produce plenty of it, but, Hess says, it tends to be superficial.

Most of the policies, it turns out, are pseudo-events. District superintendents instinctively know that the mere act of proposing reform pleases community leaders, board members and parents, all of whom are anxious to rally around some kind of proposal–any proposal. Many school and community leaders who responded to Hess’ survey didn’t know that reform is supposed to improve teaching and learning. One Atlanta respondent was so out to lunch he told Hess that the greatest success of the new regime was “orderly school board meetings.”

Nevertheless, Hess sympathizes with school policy-makers, even as he asks why they churn out so much bogus reform. His conclusion is that there are few incentives for real reform. The average tenure for a big-city superintendent is less than four years–in New York City it’s a year and a half–so superintendents hurry to build a political base, and the best way to do that is to propose reforms that don’t rock the boat.

In Hull, Massachusetts, rookie superintendent Claire Scheff launched a sensational barrage of new ideas during her first 18 months in office, delighting the newspapers and winning awards. But the plans came too fast, overwhelming the teachers. Very little changed. After a few years, writes Hess, “Scheff declared victory and left Hull for a more prestigious job as superintendent of a larger system, leaving a slew of unfinished initiatives and resentful faculty.”

Furthermore, symbolic reform, for all the goodwill it generates, lasts only as long as the superintendent who proposes it does. When Ramon Cortines was New York City’s chancellor, he assembled a 284-member committee that spent a year and truckloads of cash writing a 211-page report known as the Curriculum Frameworks. Amid great acclaim, the committee provided a copy to every teacher and administrator in the system. When Cortines’ successor Rudy Crew took over, the Frameworks disappeared faster than a spare pencil down at the Board of Ed.

Still, Hess points out that policy-makers hate proposing changes that really might improve learning, and not always because of union opposition. Often it’s simply because substantial changes take a long time–and a lot of work–to show results. When the Palo Alto, California, schools tried to switch over to year-round schooling, a change many researchers believe would improve teaching and learning, parents went ballistic, mainly because they wanted to know what they were supposed to do with the kids during vacations.

Hess’ analysis, however, is overly simplistic. For instance, what do we make of current New York City chancellor Rudy Crew? Crew blew into town championing the unproven philosophy of the Efficacy Institute, which claims to eliminate teachers’ racist attitudes with a four-day workshop, and threatening to send “educational SWAT teams” into as many as 300 of the city’s worst schools. The policies made headlines, but neither went much further than that. But now, Crew has picked a fight with the mayor over vouchers. Is Crew, who has never proposed anything that would actually change the way teachers teach, doing too much? Is he being political-or as his run-in with the mayor over vouchers suggests–just the opposite?

The book has other weaknesses. Hess’ own proposals for “becoming unstuck” from pseudo-policies are surprisingly symbolic themselves. He backs all of the “free-market” reforms–school choice, charter schools, vouchers–none of which have improved teaching and learning. Bizarrely, he also advocates handing school districts over to private management companies, an experiment that failed miserably in Hartford and other cities. But Hess’ worst sin–one he shares with way too many education writers–is his prose. The writing is so wooden, so unrelentingly academic, it could put amphetamine to sleep. If style is the message, then Hess is telling us that talking about school policy is about as appetizing as chalk-dust.

Billy Tashman is a freelance writer and former teacher who frequently covers education issues.