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Friday, July 23, 2010

Nothing Personal, Just Money and Politics

In an article headlined, A Popular Principal, Wounded by Government’s Good Intentions, the New York Times tells the appalling story of a highly effective principal dismissed from her position so that her school could qualify for millions of Federal dollars.

Ms. Irvine's job woes serve as a cautionary tale of the perils of top-down, one-size solutions in a country without a tradition of nationally centralized education oversight. By all accounts, Ms. Irvine is a great principal. Her accomplishments at the school are legion: she rolled out many enrichment programs, developed a new arts curriculum, created community partnerships, and reinvented the school as an arts magnet. None of it counts in the face of the school's low test scores. What is more, it is not like her raw material started out with advantages.

The New York Times used the wrong adjective in their headline. It should read, “A Highly Effective Principal, Wounded by Government's Good Intentions.” That she is also popular is beside the point.

At the heart of things is whether the testing system under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 can fairly assess schools full of middle-class children, as well as a school like Wheeler, with a 97 percent poverty rate and large numbers of refugees, many with little previous education.


About half the 230 students are foreign-born, collectively speaking 30 languages. Many have been traumatized; a third see one of the school’s three caseworkers. During Ms. Irvine’s tenure, suspensions were reduced to 7 last year, from 100.

Japan's education system must surely be one of the most rigid of nationally centralized systems. The Ministry of Education has policies for everything. It has been said every student, no matter where in the country, is on the same page of the textbook on any particular school day. That assertion only slightly overstates the case. Every teacher in every school hews closely to the national curriculum, using one of a handful of nationally approved textbooks. For example, only six textbooks are approved for use in middle school English classes. Nevertheless, Japanese administrators may make discretionary judgments on a “ke-subaike-su” (case-by-case) basis. How did the supposedly more creative and individualistic American officials respond?

Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the United States Department of Education, noted that districts don’t have to apply for the grants, that the rules are clear and that federal officials do not remove principals.

A school with as many immigrants as Ms. Irvine's requires a customized assessment. By definition, a standardized test normed to an American population will be unable to capture the knowledge and experience of immigrants. I have a true story about an American boy born to middle-class parents living in Japan. He went to Japanese pre-school and kindergarten. His mother wanted to enroll him into first grade at an American school. The first grade teacher gave the boy a readiness “test” which consisted of asking him questions about an American fairy tale.

The boy “failed” because he did not know who Rumpelstiltskin was. Never mind that the teacher had never heard of Momotaro, a famous character from a Japanese fairy tale. Never mind the boy was reading and doing math at higher levels than his peers. Because the Japanese and American academic calendars are very different, there was only two months left to the American school year. She admitted the boy conditionally into the first grade with the caveat that he would probably be starting first grade over in September. Imagine her surprise when this same boy scored in the 99th percentile on every section of the first grade Stanford 9 test just a month later.

So often reading tests can become experience tests when given to students outside the intended population -- like immigrants.

Students take the reading test after one year in the country. Ms. Irvine tells a story about Mr. Mudasigana’s son Oscar and the fifth-grade test.
Oscar needed 20 minutes to read a passage on Neil Armstrong landing his Eagle spacecraft on the moon; it should have taken 5 minutes, she said, but Oscar was determined, reading out loud to himself.

The first question asked whether the passage was fact or fiction. “He said, ‘Oh, Mrs. Irvine, man don’t go on the moon, man don’t go on the back of eagles, this is not true,’ ” she recalled. “So he got the five follow-up questions wrong — penalized for a lack of experience.”

Meanwhile, the community is deeply impressed with the school, regardless of its test scores. Many middle class parents have enrolled their children, so many that half the children in the early grades will be middle class. Even if the school does nothing more, when these kids take the standardized test, the results will show dramatic improvement. Will Ms. Irvine get her job back then? Does she have a job now?

The district has replaced Ms. Irvine with an interim principal and will conduct a search for a replacement.

And Ms. Irvine, who hoped to finish her career on the front lines, working with children, will be Burlington’s new school improvement administrator.

On the other hand, if Ms. Irvine has successfully set her school on a sustainable growth path, perhaps she should go and work the same magic on other schools in dire need of her skills. Furthermore, she should spare not a moment's thought about the opinions of some segments of education society who seem bent on belittling achievement.

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