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Books, Blogs, Ideas: Gerald Tirozzi

Former assistant secretary of education Gerald Tirozzi on the excesses and missteps of school reform.

We are in an era of education reform—NCLB, RTTT, charters, SIGs, the parent trigger. It can seem like an endless parade. In Stop the School Bus, veteran educator Gerald Tirozzi critically examines the most prevalent reforms of the past decade—and sounds a call for educators to take back reform, and their profession.

Q You call Teach for America a “drop in, drop out” model.
A At some point in the past eight to 10 years, TFA’s focus has shifted dramatically. It’s become more of a political group. Founder Wendy Kopp openly talks about how TFA alumni run for office, serve on school boards, and so on. That’s all well and good, but TFA’s original purpose was to teach children, and that should be the hallmark of what they do. Roughly 80 percent of TFA teachers leave within two to three years. And it’s unfair to take people with the least amount of training and put them in the toughest schools.

Q Is all outside funding of education a bad thing?
A The Gates Foundation has done some very good things for education, and the Broad Foundation’s efforts to train urban superintendents is a step in the right direction. But many [outsiders] seem to have an agenda to privatize public education.

Q Talk a little about alternate certification for principals.
A If we want principals to be instructional leaders, it makes no sense to certify people who have backgrounds in business and industry. You need principals who really understand what good teaching is, and if you haven’t been a teacher or worked in a school, I don’t know how you develop those skills.

Q On tenure reform, you recommend levels of certification and probation.
A More and more states are changing tenure laws, but they’re saying, “Get rid of tenure and you can improve teaching.” Tenure itself isn’t the problem. I don’t believe a teacher wakes up in his or her fourth year and suddenly becomes incompetent. If a teacher is incompetent, ideally you have a principal who recognizes it. But if you have these alternately certified principals, I don’t know how they recognize it.

Q How can we reward exemplary teachers?
A There’s no validated research to show performance pay makes a real difference in test scores. Many teachers could be doing curriculum and professional development and mentoring new teachers. You would be paying them for different skills, so that wouldn’t cause the problems we have now with pay-for-performance.

Q Does the idea of teacher evaluation certificates—certifying veteran educators as evaluators—have traction?
A It’s still a germ of an idea. It’s going to take a huge mind-set to change this. But principals can’t have it both ways. If you’re too busy to get into classrooms, you should be looking for someone to give you assistance.

Q What are your biggest issues with charters?
A Charters are crawling out of control, and there’s little evaluation data on them. As for equity issues, supporters claim charters outperform public schools. But when you look at the number of ELLs and students with severe disabilities at charters, it’s very low. And charters can basically dismiss any student—the “no-excuses” schools. You can’t do that in a public school, nor should you.

Q Are there charter models that you feel are worthy?
A KIPP has a good track record. There are questions about attrition, but it’s developed slowly and seems to have good leadership and test scores. When we go back to the original vision of giving teachers autonomy to make more decisions, charters make sense. But it’s become a game of competition.

Q You position NCLB as one of the most damaging reforms of the past decade.
A Oh, yeah, because it’s brought proficiency test scores into clear focus, and it’s caused some of the issues, like cheating, because teachers feel such pressure. NCLB is almost an affront to improving our public schools. I don’t think the federal ­government really did its homework on this one.

Q Has anything good come of RTTT and School Improvement Grants?
A I’m sure there are good examples, but it’s much too early to have a victory rally. Many of the schools with SIGs have already replaced the principals they installed. What’s happening is that the same faculty and principal simply transfer to another school. If they’re incompetent, then you’re simply transferring incompetence to someone else’s children.


Review: Stop the School Bus
Gerald Tirozzi puts school reform under the microscope in his new book, arguing that many of the ­“solutions”—Race to the Top, NCLB, charter schools, SIGs—lack a solid research base, make unreasonable promises, and don’t address student needs. Too often, he says, it’s “smoke and mirrors.”

The federal government comes in for a trouncing for its support of these reforms. The administration, says Tirozzi, “shouldn’t try to be a national school board and the secretary of education shouldn’t try to be a superintendent of schools.”

Tirozzi doesn’t deny the need for reform, but he cautions against buying into the “reform du jour” and suggests that all those RTTT and SIG dollars could be better spent on improving teacher prep programs and teacher evaluation methods.

—Summer 2013—

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