Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Shoot the messenger principal

Denial in the name of "school reform" is going to do no one any good.

And in Omaha, politically correct political posturing may have just turned into full-blown delusion. Unfortunately, Washington has the clout -- and state officials are craven enough -- to turn a public-policy psychotic break into a world of hurt for children . . . and for those struggling to teach them.

Here's the story: One day, Nebraska education officials are praising the excellence of four local high schools. The next, the state puts the schools on a "persistently lowest achieving" list, qualifying them for federal stimulus money aimed at lifting troubled schools out of the educational gutter.

To qualify for these stimulus funds, Omaha Public Schools must institute "reforms" at the excellent-yet-underachieving schools, reforms ranging from removing the "excellent" administrators to shutting down the "excellent" schools.

We are Americans. That means we do insane things, from destroying Vietnamese villages in order to save them from the Red Menace to closing "excellent" schools to rescue them from dissoluteness.

AND IN OMAHA, according to a story in today's World-Herald, Americans are about to elevate their "crazy" to a whole new level:
The full list includes 28 high schools, eight middle schools and 18 elementary schools. Two of the schools house both middle and high school students.

Included on the list are five Omaha area high schools Omaha Central, Omaha North, Omaha South, Omaha Benson and Bellevue East. Indian Hill Elementary School in OPS also made the list.

The designation could mean federal grant funding for the schools if their districts agree to reforms prescribed by the Obama administration such as staffing changes at each school building.

John Mackiel, superintendent of the Omaha Public Schools, expressed frustration Wednesday at OPS schools making the list.

The four OPS high schools made the list because they have graduation rates below 75 percent.

Mackiel sharply criticized state officials for labeling the schools in order to receive federal funding.

“I don't believe there's anything more reprehensible than gaming the system to access $77 million of federal money by accepting it and then labeling schools that two months ago you just celebrated in terms of the educational opportunities going on in those schools,” he said.

Schools on the list are eligible for a total of $17 million in grants, but there probably will only be enough money to serve schools with the greatest need of improvement. As a result, many of the districts with schools listed won't have to make difficult decisions on whether to remove principals or take other drastic measures.

Schools that accept federal School Improvement Grants would have to implement one of four models. The models range in severity from removing the principal to closing the school.

Nebraska sought and received a waiver in the federal rules allowing use of a graduation rate of 75 percent instead of the 60 percent called for by the federal government.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed said no Nebraska high schools except for Native American schools would have qualified for funding at 60 percent.


Mackiel called it “a curious Alice-in-Wonderland contradiction” that in February, the Nebraska Department of Education performed an annual assessment of the district and issued a “glowing” report commending the leadership at South, North, Central and Benson high schools.

In the next 10 days, Mackiel said, graduating seniors at the four high schools will be awarded more than $25 million in scholarships, “but to see the list today you wouldn't know that.”
MACKIEL is right. Both Central and North, to name just two, are excellent schools. Both feature first-rate facilities, and Omaha North also is a magnet school.

What all Omaha's "failing" schools also happen to be are smack-dab in the inner city. What all Omaha's "failing" schools happen to be charged with is educating most of the offspring of the city's underclass.

These are the young victims of a failed culture, one which values many things, just not education, responsibility, achievement or familial stability. Back when I was taking just enough college sociology courses to be dangerous, one term of art for such was "deviant." Another was "dysfunctional."

As in "deviant behavior." Within a "dysfunctional environment."

According to the state -- and to the feds, eager to remedy a crisis, just not the right one -- the likes of Benson, North, South and Central are "persistently lowest achieving" schools because they graduate only 75 percent of the children who wander through their doors. According to the real world, Jesus Christ never performed a bigger miracle when he caused Peter to walk on water or fed more than 5,000 with five loaves and two fish.

Verily, I say unto thee if North, South, Central and Benson were more white, less underclass and a lot more suburban, the quality of teaching going on there would have the world beating a path unto them as the new MIT, if not the new Jerusalem.

But you cannot say that in America, because that would be impolitic.

IT IS BETTER for state and federal officials to ignore that Omaha, for example, has the third-highest black poverty rate in the nation. Ignore that its percentage of African-American children in poverty is atop the American hit parade of suck.

No, it is much more expedient to pretend that none of these things stack the deck against even the best educators and the best-resourced schools. It's a lot easier to downplay the fact that this kind of endemic poverty breeds real cultural deviance -- as opposed to America's everyday, middling cultural deviance -- and that a deviant hip-hop subculture glorifying Every Wrong Thing takes real cultural deviance and supersizes it.

Why, oh why, open up that can of racially-charged Whoop-Ass when you can just blame the schools instead?

Not acknowledging plain facts does not make them any less plain. Or factual.

It certainly doesn't make stigmatizing certain schools and punishing the educators formerly known as "excellent" any less of an insanely stupid starting point for embarking on the Sisyphean task of trying to fix broken people and a deviant culture.

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