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Desk of Herricks Superintendent Dr. John Bierwirth: June 26, 2009

Hopefully a Push to Improve Schools Across the Country

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal addressed the shortcomings of many business plans. One major shortcoming, a shortcoming more prevalent among companies with a new technology, is a plan based on the assumption that what that company has is the best in the business and that that fact is sufficient to overcome all challenges. The author of the article said that one should avoid companies with such plans because (1) they probably did not have “world beaten” technology and (b) anyone who assumed that that alone was a plan had not come to grips with the challenges of the market place.

I was reminded of this a few days later when I read reports on a major address by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Duncan’s speech was about charter schools. A recent study conducted by Stanford University indicates that charter schools, on average, perform at an achievement level slightly below comparable public schools. What Duncan focused on was not the average, but the wide variation in achievement levels in different charter schools. Some produce results which are better than their counterparts; others produce poorer results.
His message was that charter schools are not by definition superior, that poor charter schools are poor schools and that they need to face the same sanctions as poor schools of any kind.
Many years ago Al Shanker warned of the dangers of assuming that a “good” idea would automatically produce “good” results. He demanded that all ideas be rigorously assessed and held accountable for producing better results. He noted the all too human tendency to become wedded to the rightness of one’s philosophy or the seeming brilliance of one’s plans.
As encouraged as I was to see Secretary Duncan cutting through ideology to focus on the performance of various charter schools, I was even more encouraged by the fact that this speech is another step in what seems to be an increasingly, energetic campaign for practical, meaningful and immediate efforts to improve schools in this country.