Great schools conference: sorry about small schools, let’s try merit pay

As Portland teachers approach 500 days without a contract, and as discontent bubbles to the surface over a failing experiment in K8 schools and an ill-conceived “surplus” auction, senior management of Portland Public Schools spent last week at the downtown Hilton, enjoying seminars and speakers, not to mention complimentary breakfast and lunch.

They were there as hosts of the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) fall conference, with a headlining keynote address by former PPS superintendent Vicki Philips. Philips, now director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was the architect of Portland’s devastating experiments in K8s and “small schools” high schools.

She openly acknowledges that small schools were a failure (as does PPS, at least as implied by the proposed high school redesign). The latest trend being pushed by Gates — not to mention the Obama administration — is merit pay. Only we can’t call it that. “This has been the third rail,” Philips told Willamette Week‘s Beth Slovic.

Instead, much as fundamentalists have re-clothed creationism as “intelligent design,” Philips and other merit-pay proponents dress up their union-busting with terms like “performance” and talk about ways of measuring it, like videotaping teachers, sampling student work and surveying students.

According to Oregonian education blogger Betsy Hammond, Gates “will award millions to several pioneering urban districts that agree to hire, place, train and pay teachers differently…..”

So while bargaining team members from the teachers’ union report intransigence on the part of the school district in resolving their contract dispute, while a second generation of middle graders begins a middle school career in contained classrooms, and while parents report no homework due to a paper shortage even as the district auctions “surplus” paper, our superintendent and at least ten administrators spent last week taking tips from the very person responsible for a great deal of the morass our district faces today.

Portland Public Schools spends $35,000 a year in dues to the CGCS, and it spent at least $1,750 on conference fees (the superintendent and board members attend at no additional fee), not to mention the much greater cost of 11 person-weeks spent away from the district’s business of (ahem) educating our children. On Facebook, a senior PPS administrator defended attendance at the conference as a “relative bargain.”

But what’s the value to our students in sending so many senior administrators to a week-long conference (at a luxury hotel) touting the latest corporate foundation-driven trends in urban education? Under Carole Smith, our district has taken a welcome turn away from trend-hopping, instead proposing a bold, homegrown vision for our high schools, firmly repudiating the bad Gates medicine we swallowed under Philips.

Why should we blow good money to listen to Philips now?

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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This Week in PPS: the State of Black Oregon


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“It is a civil rights violation of the worst kind in the city of Portland when based on race and zip code roughly 85% of white students have access to opportunity in rigorous college prep programs, curriculum and resources compared to 27% of black students. We are a better state than this. We are a better city than this.” –PPS Deputy Superintendent Charles Hopson

This week in PPS, we feature sound clips from the Urban League of Portland‘s presentation to the Portland City Club on the State of Black Oregon.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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