Mr. Petrilli Goes to Albany

Michael Petrilli is the President of the conservative education think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  As such, he is a major voice in support of much of today’s education reform agenda, notably The Common Core State Standards, opposing teacher unions, and the expansion of charter schools and their networks.  It was surprising to some when he turned up as the invited keynote speaker at the New York State Council of School Superintendents Winter Institute.  Mr. Petrilli was himself aware of the potential controversy in his invitation to speak, and abruptly changed the title of his talk from “How to End the Education Reform Wars” to “How to Survive the Education Reform Wars.”  Diane Ravitch of New York University notes the irony of this reframing due to Mr. Petrilli’s prominent role in fomenting the “education reform wars” in the first place (Think of Dick Cheney giving advice on how to survive political and military turmoil in the Middle East).

Interestingly enough, there are some bright spots in Mr. Petrilli’s talk. The most notable was his declaration of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to boost standardized testing to a full 50% of teacher evaluations as “insane” and citing that even other “reform leaders” are moving to using those measures less.  This is a positive statement from someone in Mr. Petrilli’s position, even if he gives it scant time in his speech, and hopefully it based on the body of research that plainly shows how value added measures of teacher effectiveness are pretty much bollocks.  It is also possible that someone sees the growing backlash against testing and the evaluation systems that encourage teaching to the test as threatening the entire reform agenda. Whatever his reason, it was notable that Mr. Petrilli chose this forum to condemn Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation plans. Mr. Petrilli also spent time critiquing some of his fellow reform-minded allies:

But on the other side, some of the reformers have equally extreme views. They say that public schools are failing unless each and everyone one of their graduates are college AND career ready. Each and every one.


Keep in mind that our highest performing state, Massachusetts, gets only fifty percent of students to that lofty standard. Should we aim to get more students college and career ready? Absolutely. Do I believe that the Common Core standards, if faithfully implemented, will help? Absolutely. Is a school failing if it doesn’t get every single student to that lofty standard? Of course not

I could spend time quibbling with Mr. Petrilli’s definition of “that lofty standard.” Massachusetts was using the MCAS in 2014, so I assume Mr. Petrilli is referring to the Bay State’s top in the nation National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results – which never mention “college and career readiness” because it is the NAEP, not Common Core.  Massachusetts was top of the nation in the 8th grade NAEP for 2013 with 48% of students reaching proficient and advanced in reading and 55% in mathematics — proficient represents solid academic performance and an ability to apply that knowledge in real world, analytic situations, so that is a heck on an accomplishment.  Given that 39.4% of Massachusetts adults over the age of 25 have a BA and that the Bay State economy seems to be picking up real momentum, it seems Massachusetts is poised to be a net exporter of college educated adults. Regardless, Mr. Petrilli is correct to note that reformers clinging to some kind of magical thinking that Common Core and a lofty enough set of expectations will get all kids ready to attend college are not playing in a world that resembles reality, so a sincere thanks for that.

Much of the rest of his address is complete bollocks, however.

Peter Greene does his usual indispensable review of the whole talk here, where he does an especially good job pointing out how Mr. Petrilli sets up some nice fantasy anti-reform activists who want to believe that poor kids cannot learn:

Petrilli uses the new fave talking point for reformsters in which he characterizes the pro-public-education folks (and name checks Diane Ravitch) as those who have given up, think that education is hopeless in the face of poverty, believe that schools cannot do any better. This is the new improved straw man version of dismissing reform critics because they “use poverty as an excuse.” It’s a snappy rhetorical point, but it’s a lie, a deliberate misreading of what folks in the pro-public-ed camp are saying.

It’s a particularly galling point coming from the man who has explained on more than one platform that the proper role of charters is to rescue those students who are deserving, snatching them from the midst of the undeserving mob. It’s galling from charter fans in general, as their whole point is that public schools are hopeless and we should not waste another cent trying to help them do better.

But it’s also insulting to the millions of teachers who are in the classroom day after day, doing the best they can with the resources they have. Hey, teachers– if you’re not succeeding with all of your students, it has nothing to do with obstacles and challenges in your path. You just don’t believe enough.

I can’t improve on that except to affirm how utterly disingenuous it is to take people who are trying to point out that our most most struggling schools typically try to work with populations that have heavy concentrations of poverty and that we have long known the lasting impacts of poverty and to portray that as saying “there is nothing schools can do.” Let’s clear this up:  Mr. Petrilli, when I and other critics of your version of education reform raise the issue of poverty and its demonstrable impact on children and the schools they attend, we do not do so to say that there is nothing that can be done.  We do so because if we as a society are truly concerned about whether a child in poverty can do her very best in school, then perhaps we should be concerned about whether or not she can EAT TODAY.  That means giving her school a lot more to work with in terms of special resources and staff, and that means the rest of society stepping up and taking responsibility for alleviating the deprivations she faces outside of school as well.  That’s why we resist your brand of “reform,” Mr. Petrilli.  It has to do with facts, not ideology.

Mr. Petrilli insists that Common Core is necessary because our standards were a joke before them:

Let me say a few words about this. As many of you know, I’m one of the strongest supporters of the Common Core out there. I’m the conservative they send to red states to testify and urge other Republicans not to drop these standards. And I support these standards because they are pegged to success for our young people—success in college or a good paying job.

That’s important because our earlier standards were set so low that they were sending false signals to kids and to parents that all was well, when it wasn’t. That kids were on track, when they weren’t. You know this. Those old standards and tests were set at such a low level that you could be reading or doing math at the 20th or 30th percentile nationally and be considered proficient.

The assertion that Common Core is “pegged to success” in terms of college and career readiness is one of the articles of faith among reformers, but it is also entirely unproven in practice as of today, and the opaque nature of their development does not provide evidence of how that confidence came about.  The statement also belies an odd faith in the seamlessness from standards to practice to achievement that is not so apparent in the world of education.  Consider Massachusetts again.  The top performing state on the 2013 NAEP was also recognized as having very high quality state standards before adopting the Common Core.  Now consider Texas.  According to Mr. Petrilli’s own organization, the Texas English standards from 2008 are of higher quality that the Common Core standards.  Yet in the 2013 NAEP, Texas, having remained with its own standards, was only above 7 other states in 8th grade reading.  Texas has made some improvement since the adoption of those standards, but it has hardly been dramatic.  Perhaps the teachers of Texas simply don’t believe enough, but my suspicion is that it takes a lot more than “high quality standards” to leverage change.

Mr. Petrilli pivoted his talk with a strangely insulting set of points for his audience:

But let me level with you: We’re frustrated with you too. For sure, we understand that your hands are often tied by union contracts, state regulations, and more. I’ll get to that in a bit. But we do see examples of areas where you are not taking advantage of the authority you DO have to do right by kids. My friend Rick Hess writes about Cage Busting Leaders. Some of those cages are of your own design.

The number-one example, of course, is around teacher evaluations. This whole national push for teacher evaluations came about because research showed that the vast majority of teachers were being given glowing evaluations. And it was clear that in many schools, those evaluations were not being treated seriously. Principals did a couple of fly-by observations a year, and that was it. It wasn’t enough to provide good feedback to teachers, and it sure wasn’t enough to identify teachers who might need to be encouraged to leave the classroom.

It is a fascinating approach to speak to an audience and tell them that they are essentially not doing their jobs, but perhaps the Superintendents were encouraged with the following words of sympathy:

Now, I have more sympathy for you than most reformers. As I see it, you’d have to be crazy as a principal in New York State to give your teachers bad evaluations. Because in New York State, it’s damn near impossible to actually fire a teacher. So if that’s the case, why make an enemy by giving a bad evaluation? It’s better to work the system to send that teacher somewhere else. Until and unless lawmakers here in Albany decide they want to make it significantly easier to fire a teacher, they better get used to seeing reports of lots of glowing evaluations.

Isn’t it nifty how this works out?  Superintendents and principals are not doing their jobs at all, but they get at least a little tea and sympathy because, after all, they may not be lazy — they may just be fearful of the mess that might happen if they did their jobs!


Let’s look at the claim that it is “impossible” to fire a teacher.  It is a common claim, one that anti-tenure activists like Campbell Brown like to repeat as if they are reading from the Gospel, but it is really true?  If your standard is the basic at will employment agreement that corporate managers and CEOs enjoy, then I suppose it is true.  Instead of simply calling an employee into the office and telling her to pack up her desk because security is escorting her off the property in ten minutes, school administrators actually have to employ a process and demonstrate cause to remove a tenured teacher.  That may take time and some effort, but it is hardly impossible.  Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn of Michigan State University examined Campbell Brown’s favorite claim that it takes over two calendar years to remove a tenured teacher in New York and found it wanting:

This statistic, which Ms. Brown peppers in all of her speeches, appears to be from a research brief of the New York State School Boards Association. This brief was based on the results of a self-report survey to which only 59% of districts responded and in which New York City (the largest district) was not even included. Jessica Glazer has written about whether or not the numbers are even accurate, and Bruce Baker points out, importantly, that quality may vary significantly between districts. Further, since the data was collected, after 2008, the state made efforts to reform tenure laws, changing the minimum years from two to three. Now, according to one report, only a slim majority of teachers receive tenure on the first attempt, and, in 2013, disciplinary cases took, on average, only 177 days statewide.

Considering the importance of teacher tenure for actually effective teachers — such as protecting them so they can speak out on behalf of their students and colleagues as documented in the link — the fact that removal takes effort should not be a point of contention, but Mr. Petrilli, and others like him, suffer from CEO envy in these matters.  CEOs have enormous power within the corporate world, overseen only by a board of directors.  So if you are the CEO of Apple, you can order everyone to focus like a laser on a handheld computer and release it even if the handwriting recognition software is not ready for prime time.  Then if you are the former CEO getting his job back, you can kill the whole project even though it has been greatly improved and will eventually provide you with the technology that will take over the phone market.  You can do all of this because you are the CEO and disruption by your will is in your tool kit.  School leaders work within organizations that are best characterized as “loosely coupled” which means that although organized hierarchically, schools allow significant autonomy among individuals, allow locally derived adaptations for changing conditions, and can have smaller parts of the system break down without damaging the entire system.  Leaders within such systems need different skill sets than corporate leaders, and simply imploring them to more aggressively remove ineffective probationary teachers, as Mr. Petrilli, does is insufficient to the task of being a real instructional leader within a school system, a role that requires significant rethinking of the role of principal from administrator to staff developer with resources coordinated and time allotted across the entire system.  “Fire them while they are young” just doesn’t cut it.

But is Mr. Petrilli’s contention even true?  Is it true that principals and superintendents don’t give tough evaluations because they know they cannot remove an ineffective teachers?  There’s a possible explanation that is left entirely unexplored in his talk: namely, the scoring bands for teacher evaluation in New York were set so that teachers who did not score as ineffective in any category could still be labeled as ineffective.  Principal Carol Burris explains that here as well as the different system that was imposed upon New York City by then Commissioner John King.  In the 2011-2013 scoring bands, it was possible for a teacher to get a low “developing” mark from the state test and the locally selected test measure, get 58 out of 60 points on the “other measures” and be labeled “ineffective.”  Not one score band in the ineffective range, but ineffective regardless.

So is it possible that principals and superintendents have not been vigorous enough in teacher evaluations because they dread the work of trying to remove an ineffective teacher as Mr. Petrilli contends?  Possibly – if you have a low opinion of their work ethic and professional pride.  It is equally possible that principals and superintendents know that the score bands are set up in a way that teachers can be found ineffective without having a single measure in a range that is labeled ineffective.  Cognizance of that inherent unfairness could easily skew observation scores upwards, especially for school leaders who have multiple and diverse other tasks to attend to.

Mr Petrilli’s biggest whopper comes near the end when he laments the assumed sea of red tape that holds back schools and claims the success of charter schools is attributable to their freedom from such requirements.  Then he tells superintendents to demand the same “freedom”:

The notion with charter schools is that the only way to cut this Gordian Knot is to start fresh, to opt out of the regulatory framework, and the union contract framework, entirely. And create a whole new paradigm.

And if you are frustrated by comparisons between your schools—your over regulated, hyper unionized schools,and the autonomous charter sector—you are right to be. But here’s my advice: Don’t fight em, join em. Ask for similar freedoms. Ask for similar autonomies. And if that fails, use chartering to advance your own goals. Stop fighting with one hand tied behind your back—tied up with red tape. Cut the ties. Come out swinging.

Here is CEO envy all over again, and it is wrong because someone’s (presumably, Petrilli’s) “red tape” is another person’s “Free And Appropriate Public Education” — just one of the many regulations that the “no excuses” brands of charter schools routinely opt themselves out of in pursuit of higher test scores.  Here we have Michael Petrilli, who has never been a teacher, a school administrator, or a qualified researcher, advising the superintendents of New York to push to free themselves from regulatory requirements that were put in place to protect vulnerable children in the first place.  And he tells them to seek this “freedom” to emulate a sector that he has openly and repeatedly said is right to restrict itself to “the strivers” and to rid itself of students who do not measure up.  We know what this looks like in practice — a Kindergarten child with manageable attention deficit throwing up in the morning because he is afraid he will be “fired” from school. 

Even without the emotional and ethical argument, we also know that charters as they are managed now in many urban areas make the local school system worse off for everyone else.  After the charter schools compete for space and other resources and after they effectively skim off the easiest to educate children and push out the ones who are not, you have district schools that have no say in how charters are managed and are left with demographics that are more disadvantaged, more disabled, and less able to speak English, all of whom need many more services from diminished remaining resources.

For Mr. Petrilli to come out and exhort his audience to demand allowance to act similarly and then to advocate, as he did on Twitter, that district public schools should be allowed to push out students as they see fit, is asking for a school system that is pathologically unwilling to work with anyone it doesn’t want to:

It would one thing for charter advocates like Mr. Petrilli to say the cream skimming is okay if he were to similarly advocate that the district public schools, working with the much higher needs students, had resources poured into them so they could accomplish the mission of educating the most needy.  Smaller class sizes, co-teaching, increased numbers of paraprofessionals, increased certified special education teachers, language programs, speech and physical therapy, social workers, health and nutrition programs, renovated facilities — tellingly, none of this made the list of things Mr. Petrilli told superintendents should go to bat for.

Because something else was missing from the speech — money.  Michael Petrilli was talking to a gathering of New York superintendents, a group of school system administrators who have seen their budgets plummet due to a state property tax cap and budget games in Albany that have cost the AVERAGE school district millions of dollars a year in state aid.  I do not know if the Superintendent of Hempstead was in the audience, but if she was, I do wonder if she feels like she needs to be a “cage busting” leader more than she needs Albany to not short her school district MORE THAN $6400 PER CHILD THIS YEAR.  It is something of a sick joke to talk to a group of district leaders about how to “survive the education reform wars” and offer no insight into how to fight to keep their school aid from being raided year after tedious year.  It is not remotely funny to advocate that they push for policies that, objectively, would require huge increases in local and state spending to make happen in a thoughtful and remotely helpful way and to still remain entirely mum about money.

I am sure Mr. Petrilli got polite applause. 

I would not be surprised if he got a significant number of eye rolls.