The city of Worcester and its public schools have reached another of those crossroads that offers hope for a new direction, and perhaps a chance at excellence.
Tomorrow evening, Monday, March 14, the School Committee is expected to vote for the next superintendent of schools.
I say “perhaps a chance at excellence” because, by limiting candidates to those employed within the district, Worcester has ensured it will remain ignorant of whatever talent and leadership might have come here from elsewhere in these United States.
Mathematically speaking, there is a non-zero chance that leaving Worcester’s public education in the hands of those who currently exercise near-monopoly control over it will produce a learning paradise.
But that chance is very close to zero.
This is not because the four candidates for superintendent are bad candidates. Their interviews before the School Committee offered no real insight or surprises, but don’t blame them. In the absence of any outside competition, they had no need to raise their game.
So lay that one at the feet of the School Committee, which failed to stage a meaningful search and then doubled down on mediocrity by opposing public charter schools – the single most important force driving reform in Massachusetts public education for the last generation.
And yet, for all its shortcomings, the School Committee is hardly the only reason that Worcester’s schools won’t be much different a decade hence.
Another reason is union rules and tenure, which protect incompetent, lazy and ineffective teachers while discouraging and underpaying younger, talented ones.
Add administrators who, for all their caring and hard work, have spent so many years drawing within the lines that they no longer have the energy, courage and imagination needed to embrace anything truly new.
And consider parents. Most are decent enough, but some simply don’t care about the education of (or much else about) their children. Schools can labor until the end of time without ever repairing the damage that bad parents and dysfunctional families inflict upon children.
And then there are teachers unions, which are constructed upon philosophical principles antithetical to free inquiry and experimentation – the lifeblood of education – and interested in money and power more than students.
For example, in a recent “As I See It” commentary in the Telegram & Gazette, the president of the Educational Association of Worcester, Leonard A. Zalauskas, first asserts that many charter schools have been closed for underperformance – “…four charters were revoked, two charters were not renewed” – yet then claims “…when a charter school isn’t living up to its responsibilities under the law, there’s no mechanism for holding them accountable.”
Zalauskas charges that “charter schools take up taxpayer money,” but also urges that we “leave public school funds in public schools,” which reiterates the myth that charter schools are not public.
By their actions, members of the School Committee have shown they essentially agree with Zalauskas. But then, the differences between the school panel and the EAW are merely cosmetic.
On the most central issue of all – the deepest and truest meaning of education – these organizations, along with most parents, lawmakers and taxpayers, have inherited the 19th-century belief that district public schools are the only “proper” home for education.
No amount of evidence will persuade them that their tattered blueprint needs to be torn up and replaced by one that gives families the power to place their students – and the money that goes with them – with any institution they choose.
If you are satisfied with incremental gains, and believe there exists a linear relationship between money spent and results achieved, you’ll be OK with any of the four candidates who read their scripts last week. After all, any of them can preside over the coming years.
Those will be years of small advances and corresponding reverses. Scores will edge up and slide back. Curricula will be tweaked. Focus groups will be convened. Diversity will be celebrated.
But revolutionary change and world-class education will remain beyond the grasp of the Worcester Public Schools.
Because a committee unwilling to look beyond its own walls is a committee held captive by cowardice. And a learning community unwilling to demand excellence of its leaders is one that will never achieve excellence for itself.
With much effort and a bit of luck, Worcester may well remain among the better urban school districts in Massachusetts. But it is nothing short of tragic that Worcester refuses to embrace the freedom and choice that could someday place it among the very best districts nationwide.
More news, opinion and perspective on public schools from Worcester Sun:
Worcester schools fumble chance at anti-violence program [Dec. 16, 2015]