School reform as liposuction

Kilian Betlach, formerly of Teaching in the 408, is now assistant principal of Elmhurst Community Prep, an Oakland middle school that made California’s list of “persistently low-performing schools,” despite three years of improvement. After participating in the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) process, Betlach writes on The Educated Guess about the “liposuction approach to school reform.”

After the initial shock, Elmhurst’s staff rolled up its sleeves and developed “a compelling plan to raise the quality of education we provide.”  But he doesn’t think it’s enough.

Reform-by-grant-application asks small numbers of schools to make small changes over a short period of time, supported by temporary funding. Even if presented in a manner that does not discredit past improvement or spread disharmony and discord, such initiatives lack essential staying power and capacity building. Yes, we may have funding to extend the school day for the length of the grant, but then what? Yes, we may have funding for additional specialists to work with our kids, but how will we pay them after the grant expires?

The reform-by-grant ideology sees a school system in need of tweaks and temporary fixes — change, not reform. It’s the ideology of liposuction, not diet and exercise.

There may not even be any liposuction, adds an editor’s note. The California Education Department denied SIG grants for Elmhurst and two other Oakland schools (and gave nothing to Los Angeles Unified), though the state board of education postponed a final decision, conceding the rules were confusing and the situation is “a mess.”

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