Wednesday Reading List: School Principals, Reaching Off-Track Kids, and Vouchers

I'm a few days late to the party on this, but David Leonhardt has a great piece in The New York Times about the power of the school principal:

To be clear, teachers matter enormously. Rigorous research has found that high-performing teachers don’t only help their students do better on the standardized tests everyone loves to hate; their students also graduate from college at a higher rate and earn more money as adults. Great teachers, quite simply, change lives. On the other end of the spectrum, struggling teachers do not get enough support, and it’s too hard to fire those who fail to improve. Principals are so important because they offer one of the most effective means to improve teaching ... Tom Boasberg, Denver’s superintendent, put it this way: “Your ability to attract and keep good teachers and your ability to develop good teachers, in an unbelievably challenging and complex profession, is so dependent on your principals.”

This isn't an either/or conversation; education policy should focus on the quality of both the principal and the teacher. That said, I sense that most Americans have a picayune, outdated view of the school principal ... in the meantime, that school leader manages a multi-million dollar budget, has a staff of dozens, and bears the ultimate responsibility for the educational health of a community. The gap between the perceived importance of the job, and the actual magnitude of the role, is vast.

The more adverse the circumstances, the harder the job. Monica Disare interviewed Tim Lisante for The Atlantic; Lisante oversees all of the schools that serve children who have fallen behind in high school in New York City, including the school at the jail on Rikers Island:

New York has come under scrutiny for how it treats youth in the criminal-justice system. It is one of two states nationwide that still prosecutes all youth as adults when they turn 16, though legislators are engaged in a battle this year to change that. A 2014 report by the former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara found a “deep-seated culture of violence” at the adolescent facilities on Rikers Island, and the city proposed a plan to move 16- and 17-year olds from the island to a facility in the Bronx. Against that backdrop, Lisante is working to restore hope. He said the worst part of his job is seeing teenagers who seem to have given up, but the best part is watching those same young adults turn a corner.

While the children who struggle the most are an afterthought in most school systems, this interview hits you over the head with the consequences of not attending to the educational, and socioemotional, needs of the most challenging students. The criminal justice system in America has become the placement-of-last-resort for off-track children, and nothing makes that point in so devastating a way as the fact that there are 16- and 17-year olds at Rikers Island.

In other news, Laura Faith Kebede of Chalkbeat looks at the tension emerging from the push for school vouchers in Tennessee:

The strongest voices against Tennessee’s leading school voucher proposal this year are coming from the very community it’s supposed to help. Public school advocates in Memphis say the bill that advanced last week in the state legislature is more about establishing a voucher toehold in Tennessee than helping children in their city’s lowest-performing schools ... Their bill, which breezed through two legislative panels last week in Nashville, is to be debated next in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee. Sponsors have offered an alternative bill to the legislation that died on the House floor last year, and the goal is to get vouchers passed this time. That means singling out the city with one of the state’s highest poverty rates.

There's a lot of subtext here, so I want to excerpt a second section from the very end of the article:

Knowing the failures of previous statewide voucher proposals, [Memphis resident Feroza] Freeland said she is skeptical of the intentions behind the Memphis bill. “Lawmakers from rural areas across the state were like, ‘No, we don’t want this,’” she said. “But now, they think if they just target it to Shelby County, all those lawmakers who voted no before are going to say, ‘Well, it doesn’t affect my county. I don’t care, I’ll vote yes,’ and I really think that’s a sneaky way to go about that.”

Instances like this do a nice job of revealing the incoherence of the conservative position on vouchers. It's very hard to argue that we ought to "make educational decisions locally," when the Tennessee legislature passes laws that only apply to the city of Memphis.

Finally, Damon Young at VSB has a helpful list of the most dangerous kind of "'Good' White People." For example:

10. The Self-Flagellating And Lazy Liberal ... Won’t actually do any social justice work in their own lives and won’t actually examine themselves to see how they contribute to and take advantage of bias and privilege, but will definitely share the shit out of piece from The Atlantic about racism on their social media platforms; ultimately believing that feeling really, really, really, really, really bad about racism is enough to replace actually doing something about it.

I found elements of myself that I'm not proud of in at least three of the ten archetypes on this list, in particular the one above and "The Point Seeking Progressive," a version of the character I once called "Wokey McWokerson." If you're white, and you're not thinking about racism in a way that is both personal and that applies to your own behaviors, you're doing it wrong. Have a great day!