Between periods at Crenshaw High School in South L.A., May 2011.
Let's say a certain school's reform plan has yielded measurable academic gains (especially for disabled students), a decrease in student suspensions and expulsions, and is enthusiastically supported by the principal, teachers, and many parents. The plan has also garnered national interest, attracting funding from a major philanthropy and the Obama administration, too. This school is by no means perfect; Latino students, in particular, need significant help. And the school in question has a history of outspoken activism, with parents and teachers partnering to demand better textbooks and technology, and some teachers closely-affiliated with their union and loudly opposed to popular reform strategies such as merit pay tied to student test scores. Should this school's reform plan be halted by a district administration with a different agenda, or allowed to continue its experimentation?
This isn't a hypothetical case, but the real story of Crenshaw High in South Los Angeles, which I reported on earlier this year, and which now faces a district-imposed "reconstitution."
Crenshaw is a high-poverty, predominantly African American school that has followed a unique reform blueprint called the Extended Learning Cultural Model. Led by a group of visionary teachers–and financed by the Ford Foundation and a federal School Improvement Grant–the Crenshaw model split the school into several themed academies ("social justice;" "business") and reorganized the curriculum around neighborhood problem-solving. What does this mean in practice? Students worked with university researchers to examine local health and nutrition issues; graphed the relationhip between school truancy rates and incarceration rates; and interned at local non-profits. They read Our America, a book about life inside a troubled Chicago housing project, and openly discussed racism and classism. Interim principal Sylvia Rousseau worked closely with teachers to raise academic rigor across the curriculum and implement the new Common Core standards. But as I wrote in February:
What’s controversial about the Crenshaw reform agenda is that it is explicitly political. It asks students to think critically about the social forces shaping their lives and to work actively to improve their low-income neighborhood. Poor children often hear that they need to do well in school in order to escape their communities. What if, instead, kids understood that doing well in school could help them become more effective advocates for their families and neighbors?
The man who became L.A. schools superintendent in April 2011, John Deasy, has quite a different orientation toward education reform. He has been affiliated with the Gates and Broad foundations, which–while both very supportive of the Common Core–tend to focus more attention on tying teacher evaluation and pay to student performance than on ensuring the curriculum is "culturally-relevant" to poor children's lives. Gates and Broad are also heavily invested in charter schools, while Crenshaw is a traditional, large comprehensive high school–the kind many education reformers believe is outmoded and should be phased out. So in part, it is no surprise that on Oct. 24, Deasy notified Crenshaw that he intends to halt the school's existing reform agenda, divide Crenshaw into three magnet schools, and ask the current teaching and administrative staff to reapply to their jobs.
There are a lot of great things about magnet schools, so I'm eager to hear more about what Deasy and his team have planned for Crenshaw. Deasy also says he wants to see more Advanced Placement and potentially International Baccalaureate classes at the school, which could be excellent ideas, and potentially worked into Crenshaw's existing reform plan. But what's discouraging about this news is that the district seems determined to paint Crenshaw — in many ways an underdog success — as an abject failure. Under its Extended Learning Cultural Model, Crenshaw actually met or exceeded state academic growth targets for most of its students, and earned broad-based community and even national support. Its School Improvement Grant is administered at the state level and tied to Crenshaw's current reform plan, not the agenda Deasy hopes to implement, which raises questions about accountability for federal dollars.
Everyone in the field of public education has his or her favored reform methods, from merit pay to vocational education to year-round schooling to giving every kid violin lessons. But if district leaders don't allow other experts' ideas to come to fruition over the course of years, not months, new strategies can never be fully assessed, nor scaled-up if they work. Before its current reform plan was in place, Crenshaw had five principals in nine years. This school is desperately in need of some stability, and as I saw when I sat-in on professional development trainings last year, the current staff is deeply comitted to seeing its reform project through, and unusually self-reflective about the work they are doing. What's more, the explicitly activist, social justice lens through which these educators teach their students is increasingly rare in public schools in 2012. Yet a lot of smart people, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Lisa Delpit, have observed that disadvantaged students learn more when their curriculum reflects, at least in part, their own histories and struggles, and shows them how education can serve not only their own individual interests, but those of their communities, too.
The whole saga at Crenshaw reminds me of the sad story of another creative public high school that bucked the prevailing reform winds of the day: Feinstein High, in Providence, Rhode Island. Feinstein was founded as a Ted Sizer-inspired “Essential School” organized around the principles of civic engagement and volunteer work. Serving just 360 students, Feinstein was highly nontraditional: It stressed long-form writing, not test scores, and there were no sports teams, class periods, or even grades. Every student had every teacher’s cell phone number, as well as a laptop they could carry between home and school. Although test scores were uneven, Feinstein demonstrated consistently impressive graduation and college-going rates compared to other high-poverty high schools in Rhode Island. For awhile, the school was recognized as a rare success story within an otherwise failing district. In 1999, the Gates Foundation gifted Providence $13.5 million to experiment with creating more small neighborhood high schools, using Feinstein as one model.
Over time, however, Gates, disappointed with stagnant test scores and graduation rates at some Foundation-funded small schools, decided to change his focus. In 2005, he stopped funding non-charter small schools and began investing heavily in school choice and standards-and-accountability reforms, such as charter schools and data-driven teacher evaluation. As the largest private foundation in the world, the Gates Foundation’s priorities are powerfully influential over the entire non-profit sector, and certainly help shape federal and state education agendas, too — in part through the seeding of Foundation alumni, like Deasy, in important policy-making jobs. It didn’t take long for Feinstein to fall out of favor with Rhode Island’s political and philanthropic elite, and in 2010, despite emotional protests from students and teachers, the Providence school district shut Feinstein down.
Now the same thing could happen to another school with a nontraditional reform agenda, Crenshaw High. But there are as many ways to reform education as there are principals, teachers, students, and parents comitted to doing this very difficult work. The cause of school improvement would probably benefit from a political environment in which educators were more often allowed to break the mold of the most established and popular reform strategies, especially in cases where doing so has already yielded positive change for children.
To learn more about the fight at Crenshaw, check out Crenshaw Cougars Fighting Reconstitution. After the jump, I have posted Superintendent John Deasy's letter to the Crenshaw staff.