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Peter Greene Disagrees with Mike Petrilli

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For some reason, the New York Council of School Superintendents invited Mike Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute to attend their annual meeting in Albany and tell them how to end the war over school reform.


I say “for some reason,” because Mike is one of the most determined warriors in the war over school reform. His idea of ending the “war over school reform” is for people to share his views. He loves charters, he hates unions, he is a fierce advocate for the Common Core, he thinks that poverty doesn’t matter, and he believes that charters are for strivers, not for unmotivated students. I know Mike fairly well, or I did, since I used to be on the board of the Fordham Institute. I don’t think we have had a conversation since I left the board in 2009. So far as I know, he has never been a teacher or a principal or a superintendent. He is not a scholar of education; he has no experience as a researcher in any discipline. He has worked for a conservative think tank with a strongly partisan point of view, and he worked as a political appointee of the George W. Bush administration in charge of “innovation.” He is now president of the Fordham Institute, which makes him a big player inside the Beltway and in conservative circles.


Peter Greene read his speech (I have not) and called Mike out on a number of points. Mike dissed defenders of public education (like me) because we think that poverty is an obstacle for poor kids and affects their ability to attain high test scores. People like me think that schools that enroll high numbers of poor kids need smaller class sizes, and more of everything that is taken for granted in well-resourced suburban schools. He thinks we are making excuses, despite the fact that standardized tests everywhere serve as measures of family wealth–with children of the affluent at the top and children of the poor at the bottom. However, as Peter points out, Mike is quite willing to exclude kids from charters who don’t meet their expectations.


Peter Greene writes that Petrilli’s views are:


……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.


Then Petrilli pivots to criticize reformers, mostly for creating unrealistic definitions of success and failure. All students will not be ready to go to college, and not all schools labeled failing are, in fact, failing. 


He suggests that superintendents advocate for growth measures in evaluating schools. He calls on them to call out schools that are failing, because it will increase their credibility. He does not take any time explaining what standards the individual student growth should be measured against, nor why.


He also throws in a plug for vocational education, and on this I’m in complete agreement with him.


But in this section Petrilli has mapped out a “sensible center” that I do not recognize. On the one side, an extreme straw-man version of reform opponents, and on the other, a tiny concession that assumes the fundamentals of reform are sound. Petrilli’s sensible middle has nothing to say about the destructiveness of test-driven accountability, the warping of the system that comes from making schools accountable to the federal government, or the lack of full funding and support. On the one hand he dismisses anyone who wants to talk about the effects of poverty on education, but on the other, he acknowledges the unfairness of comparing schools where students arrive already behind on their first day. Petrilli’s sensible middle is a bit of a muddle….


Petrilli acknowledges that his charter love might be why eyebrows have been raised to ceiling height for his appearance at the supers’ gathering, but he says New York is charter territory because Albany leads the nation in production of education red tape. The awesome thing about charters is that they get to run without all that tapiness, and the superintendents should agitate for the same tapeless freedom. And if they can’t get it, they should get in on the charter fun.


This third point is brief, perhaps because there are no details to add to this. How does one elaborate on these points. Ask Albany for freedom that they won’t grant you in a zillion years? Join the charter game by finding millionaires to back you? Stop being so resentful that politicians, with the backing and encouragement of outfits like the Fordham Foundation, have been steadily stacking the deck against public schools and in favor of charteristas? Yes, it’s probably just as well that Petrilli didn’t dwell too long on this point.


I am sure Mike didn’t mention that two of Albany’s most celebrated charters–the Brighter Choice middle schools–were closed a day or so before Petrilli spoke to the superintendents–for poor performance.



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