Audio: Jonah Edelman (and me) on “autonomy and accountability”

10:53 pm

Johna Edelman, head of Stand for Children, addressed the City Club of Portland last Friday on the topic of improving education in Oregon, even as we face budget cuts.

He identifies three ways to improve things: teacher and principal quality, autonomy within a framework of accountability, and time.

Edelman had some good points about teacher pay and training, and the need for good and supportive principals. He also made valid points about our antiquated agrarian school calendar.

The autonomy bit raised some red flags with me, of course, since I’m very well versed in how that’s worked out in Portland. But first, here’s what he has to say about it (1 min. 32 sec.):

If you don’t have audio, here’s what I think are his salient points: accountability equals test scores. “When I say free [principals and teachers] up, I mean free them up to help students reach high academic standards set by the state and then hold them accountable when they don’t.”

Edelman doesn’t let the fact that Portland Public Schools principals in poor neighborhoods have not always made the best choices deter his optimism: “…when schools are freed up from bureaucratic rules, and given the autonomy to decide how to make maximum use of time, people and money, educators can do a far better job of providing the personalized, rigorous, engaging education that meets the diverse needs and taps the diverse strengths of students.”

At this point, I threw away the question I was going to ask him about the role of Stand in Portland school board elections, and decided to ask him how we can assure that with autonomy, poor schools don’t just become test prep factories (2 min. 13 sec.):

Edelman points out that we’re not as bad as Washington D.C., where they do 52 days of test prep (so maybe we should be happy with that?). And while he makes a valid point about special ed and ELL money from the state not fully following students, he completely missed my point about PPS principals in poor neighborhoods cutting non-core programs (music, library, etc.) to focus on “academic achievement”.

I’d like to invite Jonah out to a tour of our second-tier system in the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters to see just how well autonomy has worked for the invisible half of Portland, the half that doesn’t always get the things other parts of town take for granted, like college prep, world languages, boutique condo schools, music, art, chemistry, civics, calculus literature and libraries.

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

filed under: Assessment, Audio, Budget, Curriculum, Equity, Program cuts, Reform, Stand for Children, State

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16 Responses

  1. Comment from Terry:

    Ah, my god! What does Edelman mean by “bureaucracy”? I’ve never served under a principal who was hampered by “bureaucratic” constraints.

    You should have asked him the school board question, Steve. It’s unlikely he would have been able to so easily provide a non-answer, as he did to your question about accountability.

    But at least we know where he stands on tests. He’s for ’em, and to hell with real learning.

  2. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    In defense of Jonah, he does make a distinction between “summative” testing and testing “for learning.”

    I think this is the same distinction Rick Stiggins and our friend Peter Campbell make when they talk about assessment of learning vs. assessment for learning.

    But Edelman fails to define accountability beyond the scope of test scores, no matter what kind.

    Maybe, if I had made my observation of the extreme autonomy in PPS more clear, he would concede that we need some accountability in terms of academic offerings and student support in order to guarantee a minimum level of education to our poor and minority students.

    I’m just floored that he lives in Portland and is a national figure in ed reform, but he seems unfamiliar with how the kind of autonomy he’s now advocating has created a massive opportunity gap for poor and minority students in his own back yard.

  3. Comment from Terry:

    Stiggins (and Campbell) go far beyond standardized multiple choice tests in their vision of what Stiggins calls “authentic” assessment.

    The bottom line is this: Edelman’s accountability is synonymous with standardized test scores, “summative” or otherwise.

    And I’d still like to know what be meant by “bureaucratic” impediments to principals doing their jobs. The only obstacle that I can think of (and a phantom one at that)is the union insistence on due process before principals can arbitrarily fire teachers.

    The role of Stand in school board elections still rankles. The head of the Portland chapter endorsed Vicki Phillips’ plan for school closures. And in 2003 Stand backed a “slate” of candidates to ensure that such closures would proceed as before, all to pacify the business community.

    Edelman had to be aware of that.

  4. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Here’s some evidence of what Steve is saying. Look at the difference between Kindergarten at Rosa Parks and Kindergarten at Ainsworth. Let’s start with recess.

    At Rosa Parks, kids have one 40-minute lunch/recess period per day. About 20 minutes of that time is actual recess time.

    Meanwhile, at Ainsworth, kids have three (3) recess periods per day: morning recess, lunch/recess, and afternoon recess.

    Now let’s look at “specials,” i.e., the extra goodies that Kindergartners get in addition to their core classroom experience.

    At Rosa Parks, kids get drama, PE, and library for 30 minutes each once a week. They are offered back-to-back on Wednesdays. So that means that 4 out of 5 days, these 5 and 6-year-old children at this school get nothing but the highly-structured academic curriculum for the entire day with 20 minutes of play time.

    At Ainsworth, Kindergarten kids get PE, music, art and singing once a week each. They get 30 minutes for PE and music and an hour for art. Singing happens every Friday.

    91% of the kids at Rosa Parks are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

    5.9% of the kids at Ainsworth are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

    Rosa Parks is rated as a “satisfactory” school by the state.

    Ainsworth is given an “exceptional” rating.

    Something stinks here.

  5. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Just to be clear – that’s five point nine per cent, not fifty-nine per cent eligible for free and reduced lunch at Ainsworth.

  6. Comment from Marian:


    Ainsworth’s website says the kids visit the library once a week. So that should be added to their list of specials.

  7. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Perhaps the folks at Ainsworth consider going to the library an essential part of being in school and therefore don’t consider it a “special”? Imagine that!

    This also speaks volumes for the need to have a single source of reliable, current data about what schools do and do not teach in their buildings at each grade level. I’ve called for these data before.

  8. Comment from mary:

    I’d like to see a comparison of what Ainsworth could offer with and without foundation money. I am assuming they raise 200,000+ per year.

    And yes, the PPS website should have clear and concise info on what each school offers. I am trying to compare my neighborhod k-8, a middle school and a focus option. I’m not finding the details on the web, at open houses or during tours.

    I personally am tired of hearing accountability tied to standardized test scores. Given that test performance is linked to the SES of the parents the effort should be put into reducing poverty vs. giving poorer kids a stripped down curriculum.

  9. Comment from lauralye:

    Has anyone posted this before? It shows the breakdown of grant awards from the equity fund, though it is a bit dated.

  10. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    The Portland Schools Foundation exists to allow wealthy families to directly fund additional teachers in their children’s schools. Even though they must pay 30% after $10K to the “equity fund,” not a single teacher is funded through this fund.

    I challenge anybody to show how the “equity fund” does anything but reinforce pre-existing inequities, since it allows wealthy schools to add FTE, but does not increase FTE at schools without direct fund-raising capacity.

    The only way to equitably run the foundation would be to make it 50-50, with no exemption, and eliminate the requirement that poor schools write grants.

    That way, when they fund one teaching position at a wealthy school, one poor school would also get a teacher.

    I called for this kind of reform a year and a half ago when the exemption was raised from $5K to $10K.

  11. Comment from Zarwen:

    Last week, I had a conversation with a parent whose children used to attend a Foundation school. She told me that, at their Foundation meetings, one of the agenda items was how to AVOID paying the 1/3 to the central Foundation. If that’s an agenda item at one Foundation school, I bet it’s an agenda item at every Foundation school.

  12. Comment from mary:

    If foundation money can be used for FTE, why can’t foundation money received through grants be used for FTE? This seems only fair. I suppose there are pages of rules on this? The usual response to this situation is that Title 1 money helps to “even” things out. If this were true, there would be more equity between programs. Anybody have a good rebuttal to the Title 1 “evens” things out line?

  13. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    For the most part, in the Title I schools I’ve looked at, the extra money goes to fund teachers and aids for resource rooms to give extra help to academically challenged students. This is incredibly valuable and necessary, given the correlation between socio-economic status and academic preparedness.

    But meanwhile, schools in wealthy neighborhoods are reducing class size, adding certified music and art teachers, and putting teachers in their libraries instead of (or in addition to) clerks.

    Even things out? More like “let them eat cake.”

  14. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Steve wrote: “But Edelman fails to define accountability beyond the scope of test scores, no matter what kind.”

    Good question, Steve. Take a look at what New York City has done in this regard. The UFT — NYC’s teachers union — caved on a proposal to tie pay to performance. How do they determine performance? By test scores. So now teachers in NYC have a financial incentive to teach to the test.

    The easiest way to “hold principals accountable” would be to look at their schools’ test scores. If they go up, they keep their jobs. If they go down, they get fired. Easy, right?

    But this completely overlooks the collateral damage caused by an overly zealous approach to raising test scores. Ah, who needs recess, art, music, and a librarian?

    As much as I detest D.C. schools superintendent Michelle Rhee, at least she has the cajones/ovaries to say what she means:

    “People say, ‘Well, you know, test scores don’t take into account creativity and the love of learning. I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t give a crap.’ Don’t get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job.”

    There it is, plain and simple. Easy, right? There’s a specific way to teach kids to read, and if you’re not doing this, you’re not doing your job.

    Of course she, like Edelman, overlooks the fact that kids are not simply empty receptacles into which skills and knowledge are poured. Kids are people, too. And like most people, if you make learning into drudgery and tasks, kids will not respond well. In fact, they’ll do just the opposite.

    And we wonder why kids — esp. low-income minority kids — are voting with their feet and dropping out of school in such huge numbers?? Please!

  15. Comment from pdxmomto2:

    “Kids are people, too.”

    This profound and true statement sadly seams lost on many educators and especially education policy makers!

  16. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Steve, you can take Jonah Edelman on all the tours you want and he won’t get it. As long as his organization is controlling school board elections and thereby running the school system they will keep favoring their schools and to hell with the rest of them. Of course, you know this.