Monday, August 22, 2011

School board chair defends CMS reforms

I called school board chairman Eric Davis this morning to ask about the two workshops the board has scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday (both at 1 p.m. in Room 527 of the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.). The workshops center on the search for a new superintendent -- more particularly, finding the right search firm to lead the hunt for one. Makes for a busy week for the school board, which will also meet Tuesday evening (6 p.m. at the Government Center, Room 267) for one of its regular monthly meetings. It plans to talk then about redistricting, the opening of schools and the board's Strategic Plan 2014, among other issues.

Mention of that last topic prompted Davis to offer a brief but impassioned defense of the educational reforms driving the 2014 plan, the board's roadmap for improving local schools. As much as former Superintendent Peter Gorman was vilified for the dozens of controversial new tests CMS rolled out this spring, the impetus behind those tests came more from the board's 2014 plan than from Gorman. Gorman was carrying out the board's orders. Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh says he'll do the same. Davis said that, as the board begins looking for a new superintendent, he feels it's doubly important for the community to understand the 2014 plan. He said Hattabaugh and other staff members will take time during Tuesday night's meeting to spell out what the plan is, what it does, and the rationale behind it.

Davis called the plan "fundamental" to the selection of a new superintendent. He noted that about five or six years ago, the school board shifted its overarching philosophy of reform from a focus on "managed instruction" (i.e., a regimented system centered on making sure all kids were getting lessons) to "managing performance" and "empowerment" (that is, not just making sure lessons get delivered, but making sure the lessons are delivering results and that the educators delivering the lessons are held accountable). Thus, you get the current drive for dozens of new tests, and the push toward performance pay for teachers. "It's about the end result, whether the child's learning or not," Davis said. "So much of that gets lost in the individual tactics, what it means to me as an employee, or the impact on my child's school." He wants people to look not just at the new tests, but at the 2014 plan overall. He seems to believe if they do, they'll see the validity.

Obviously, critics of CMS' reform program see things differently. They want the board to rethink its direction -- or, more accurately, they want to elect three new board members this November who will force a move away from the test-heavy approach CMS is employing. Davis doesn't sound like a man who's thinking the school board needs to change course. He said: "When there's criticism about the direction we're going in, I think a valid question is, 'What's the alternative?'"

It will be interesting to see how the tensions play out in the upcoming school board race, and in the selection of a new superintendent.

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