By Mel Riddile
Note: This is an update of a previous post.
I went back and re-read an interview with Texas Superintendent, John Kuhn, who is famous for his Letter from the Alamo. In the interview, Kuhn lambasted a so-called school reformer for engaging in a type of reprehensible behavior that I have come to refer to as the “Hollywood Movie Set” or the “59th Minute Surprise.” Kuhn describes the incident in his own words:
“I was invited to speak at a college here, and I spoke just before a nationally-known school reformer who is a high school principal. So he spoke about how he got miraculous results in his school, and how 100% of his students went on to four-year colleges, etc. It was all very inspirational. And then, in the middle of his speech, he felt the need to say, “I don’t work at a charter school, either. I work at a public high school. “The implication was clear–he plays by the same rules as public school principals, he just gets better results. We all play the same game, he’s just a better coach. So, I was troubled when I got home. I was a public school principal for several years, and I couldn’t get 100% of my students to graduate, much less go to college. And I worked hard! What was he doing that I didn’t do? So, I went to his school’s website and I saw an interesting button on the home page. “Apply now!” it said. Weird, I thought. Nobody “applies” at my school. So I clicked on it and discovered that his “public” school is actually a “public magnet” school. He strategically left out that important detail in his speech. You have to apply and be accepted to get into his school; you only have to breathe and live in the district to go to my school. If you don’t toe the line at his school, this golden child principal will–wait for it–send you back to the public school! He drafts his players and I play with the Bad News Bears over here, and then he sticks his chest out and tells us all what a skilled coach he is. In short, he deliberately, calculatingly lied by omission to an unsuspecting audience. And that’s when I realized that the school reform movement is populated by self-promoting snake oil salesmen, and our elected officials are buying their tonic by the truckload. It’s hard for me to watch this train wreck slowly unfold.”
Why do I call it the “Hollywood Movie Set”? When you visit a movie set, the buildings look like real buildings (schools), but when you open the door to enter one, you realize that, what looked real, was only a facade. Why do I refer to this behavior as the “59th Minute Surprise”? Like Superintendent Kuhn, I have sat through many a presentation only to find out that it was all smoke and mirrors and the school wasn’t what the presenter had said it was. Two occasions stand out it my mind.
The 59th Minute Surprise
I once attended a presentation by a principal whose school was named one of the top high schools in America. What the principal didn’t tell the audience until the “59th Minute” of a sixty-minute presentation was that his school was an International Baccalaureate (IB) magnet school for his entire district, which meant he only served the best of the best in the entire school district. His students were required to apply and to take a full load of six IB courses in both their junior and senior years. His graduates typically entered college with a full year of credits. Had I known in the first minute that his was a magnet school, I would have left to hear another presenter who might offer me some value.
Lesson learned: Anyone can raise student test scores by sorting applications.
The Hollywood Movie Set
Teams of teachers and principals were invited by our district to attend a full-day training featuring a well-known school reformer, who spent the entire day talking about how his teachers worked collaboratively to improve student achievement. It sounded great! I was sold. A while later, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who has been a principal and a long-time superintendent and who was absolutely dedicated to working with under-resourced schools and students. Over the years, he has done on-the-ground, roll-up-your-sleeves work with hundreds of schools. No magic. No silver bullets. Just a lot of hard work. For some reason, I mentioned this expert to my friend, who immediately launched into a tirade.
“His school was located in an affluent upper-middle class area. The parking lot was filled with expensive cars. There were almost no minority students in his school. My school was in the same region, but I had a lot of minorities and many under-resourced kids–almost the polar opposite of his school. He looked down his nose on the rest of us. He wouldn’t know what do in a diverse, high-poverty school. He could never lead a school like yours or mine.”
Lesson learned: Always look behind the door. Make sure that what is being said is real.
Fill out an application
Finally, I read an editorial in the Washington Post by an educator that chastised other educators for buying in to the myth that class size matters. The author pointedly stated “small class size is neither a guarantor nor a prerequisite of educational excellence.” The author then skillfully demonstrated that, by adding just one student to a class, her school was able to totally equip every classroom with the latest technology.
“Every student gets a laptop and an e-reader with immediate access to an essentially unlimited supply of e-books. Every classroom has an interactive whiteboard, a modern blackboard that is a touch-screen computer with high-speed Internet access. Every teacher has a laptop, video camera, access to a catalogue of lesson plans and videotaped lessons.
She went on to say “Obsession with class size is causing many public schools to look like relics. We spend so much to employ lots of teachers that there isn’t enough left to help these teachers be effective.”
Everything made sense until I went to the school’s web site and found out that families had to apply and students were chosen by lottery. So what! Here’s what!
This individual could determine in advance her budget, the number of teachers, and the number of students in each classroom by simply accepting one more application per room. Her school did not have to serve anyone and everyone who showed up. She knew how many would attend and she had a waiting list. She controlled the input, and to a certain extent, the output. Regular public schools have no control over who or how many students show up to attend. They serve everyone. If there is a budget cut, they cannot decide to serve fewer students. In bad budgets, public schools have to spread the same dollars over the same number or more students but fewer teachers. Regular public schools have no control over budgets or class sizes. They must constantly adapt to the current reality.
Lessons learned: 1) Applications stratify student populations. 2) When you take applications, you are sorting kids. 3) The application process gives schools total control over class size and budget. 4) The people who say that class size and teacher experience don’t matter send their own children to schools with small classes and experienced teachers.
The Bottom Line
What happens to the kids whose parents don’t, can’t, or won’t fill out the application? They get to attend the school where class size doesn’t matter!