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Eugene Weekly : Lead Story : 12.1.11

4J’s Super

Berman Balks at Privatization, High-Stakes Testing

Eugene School District 4J’s new Superintendent Sheldon Berman hasn’t seen Waiting for Superman, the recent film that advocates for public school privatization.

“Charter schools are not the answer,” he says. 

He has read The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch’s book last year that slams billionaires’ efforts to privatize schools and increase high-stakes standardized testing.

“I thought it was a brilliant book. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone. I think she’s actually right on,” the former social studies teacher says. 

Replacing the retired George Russell, who had a background in human resources, Berman has hung his office with diplomas from Harvard and pictures of himself with Bill Clinton and with Muhammad Ali. His shelves are stuffed with education books, including some Berman himself wrote on critical thinking, innovation and the development of social responsibility. 

Near Berman’s busy desk, an abstract print of two children running into each others’ arms states: “Our Children, Our Life.” The balding, affable educator in a tie is not much taller than a middle schooler.

After his first five months at the helm of a Eugene school district that just suffered budget cuts that laid off 60 teachers, crowding many classrooms beyond 40 children, Berman spoke with EW about his vision for education and 4J. Here’s the Q&A, edited for length.

Most of the work is done by teachers. Do superintendents matter?

Do superintendents matter? (laughs) The superintendent as I see it is sort of the hub of looking at resources, looking at policy, being a bridge to the community, being a spokesperson for the district, helping to listen to what is going on in the district and being able to articulate it to others, looking at systemic strategies to advance the performance of students across the system. It’s the connector to resources. Not only the fiscal resources, but the intellectual resources, the university resources, the partnerships with the research and development system, the vision to seek particular grants. I see it as a connective network kind of role and as a facilitator kind of role. I see it as one that provides leadership in terms of moving the system forward.

Oregon is going to apply for a No Child Left Behind Act waiver. What do you think they should propose?

The waiver is essentially an effort to get out of a punitive and a not very functional assessment system. When I was in Massachusetts (as superintendent for 14 years outside Boston), we had identified that by 2014, because of the way the analytical system worked, over about 90 percent of the schools in Massachusetts would be “failing” schools. Now that’s just not realistic. That’s a failed assessment system, because the schools had ever increasing performance. Actually, they were the top schools in the country. 

The waiver allows us to create a much better assessment system — to take on the work of transforming the schools that are persistently low-achieving and design a system of support so that you move them out of that classification. It also allows you to give credibility to progress that schools are making.

I don’t think that the federal “Race to the Top” grants (which Oregon didn’t get) were directed to the kinds of changes that were the most productive.

Your predecessor had a report that said the Eugene choice system had left schools “poorer and browner.” Do we have an issue there still?

The whole choice issue is one that we are looking into right now. We are exploring a number of things. One is how choice works within the system and, because of the new legislation (allowing students to attend other school districts), what impact inter-district choice could have and whether we should participate or not. 

To some degree it (transfers) would have a positive impact. Eugene is a very appealing district. We have a declining enrollment. There is a sense we could serve more students. One of the things we are looking at is, will this enhance our resource base or not or will it compromise our current student body.

Politically, could it undermine the voting base for a bond measure if people say the district is just educating people from Junction City?

Right. Exactly right. But on the other hand, if we could say that we are bringing additional revenue into the district that offsets the requirements of the taxpayers here, that might be a positive.

Is there too much testing or is there too little testing?

I’m not one that opposes testing. We need to have assessment systems that track what we do. I’ve been in favor of high quality assessment systems, though, that enable us to really track students’ performance, that gives us feedback on how students are doing in particular areas so we can address individual student needs. I don’t think the current Oregon assessment system does that well for us. I think that is why people are looking at how do we change that system. 

We should have one test a year, not three chances of taking it. That takes too much time. The best assessments are the assessments that are done in teachers’ classrooms, that tell a teacher what skills they need to address.

Education needs to be accountable to the public. But the best accountability systems are accountability systems that give us the information to advance student learning. They are not just a number that you post. It’s moving away from saying the test scores are the goal to saying that graduation is the goal, and college and career readiness is the goal.

We’ve made a commitment in this district that by 2021 we want to have 100 percent of our students graduate and be college or career ready. 

If you did that, does that put pressure to graduate people that aren’t ready to graduate?

No, that’s why I said college and career ready. The diploma has to mean something.

Obviously, we need a diversity of routes to a degree.  I have a Down syndrome son, and he would not have passed the math or the English reading test here. But he will develop the career-ready skills to get him into a position where he can contribute to society. That’s the kind of emphasis that we have to have. It’s not just about getting kids into college, it’s about getting kids ready to launch into a career with the skills necessary to be successful.

Should student tests be used to fire or move teachers?

We’re working on a new teacher evaluation system. You have to be rigorous in your evaluations, but I don’t think you can link test results to individual (teacher) performance. There are too many nuances. Almost everybody will say it just doesn’t work to link specific test results to specific performance. If a student scores a 4 or 5 on an advanced placement biology test, is that the responsibility of a teacher? To some degree it was. Well, also it was the responsibility of the first bio teacher and the chemistry and physics teacher who gave that student an incredible grounding in science. So it’s not just the result of one individual. 

I believe we need to work as a team. It’s not like this is our class or your class, we need to focus on them (students) as a team. What I’d like to see is there is a third grade, and all of them see those four teachers as their teachers. I might take your students, and you might take a small group of my students and work with them in an individual way while I was working with the rest of the group. 

With classes with 40 kids in them, how do you take the time to collaborate or give that individual attention?

That’s the challenge. One of the key challenges we face is finance. We’ve learned a lot about education in the past few years, and in fact we’ve learned that class size matters. We’ve learned that teachers planning together matters. There’s a lot that we do not have the resources for.

I’ll give you one way that we can immediately do that (extra work). We have a number of students from Pacific University. We may change the way that we think of them not as student teachers but as co-teachers. Those four student teachers may take over all of those four classes while the four teachers plan and work together and review data on students. 

Can we do it with more finances? Absolutely, but we have to begin now. The kids that are in front of us need our services. 

So you disagree with Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that class size doesn’t matter?

Class size matters. Class size doesn’t matter if you take a teacher-centered, lecture-oriented approach. However, if we really want to get all kids to proficiency, that’s the exact wrong approach. The evidence that I’ve seen is that class size matters and it matters at every level.

If we are really saying let’s get all kids to be proficient in algebra, there’s going to be a lot more individual attention that needs to be paid. You don’t do that through lecture and teacher direction and sending the kids home and say work harder. You have to do it through understanding what the student doesn’t understand, by helping them see things a little bit differently and grasp things that may be really challenging for them. 

Do you think that a teacher can teach writing to 40 kids as well as they can teach writing to 20 kids? No student should leave high school without having written at least a 15-page research paper. I don’t know that teachers have the time. 

Some people think we need more accountability others say we need more funding, which is more important?

Mark Tucker, the director of the National Center on Education and the Economy, said you can’t fire your way to greatness. I think that is absolutely true.

If you have poor performing teachers, you have to address that. But the real way to advance this profession is to invest in the quality of teaching. Teacher evaluation has to serve the purpose of promoting professional growth. Every single evaluation has to say what is your next step.

That would take time for administrators, and 4J has lost a lot of administrators ... 

Right. But that’s critical in the design of the system. It is a core responsibility. They are really the personnel leader in that school. They have to set goals, they have to talk to the teacher about where that teacher is going, and then they have to observe for that. That’s the core of what leadership means. It means that for my work with the key directors here. I do the same thing.

We need a better growth-oriented accountability system, but we have the accountability system. I think that people need to invest the resources. Democracy is dependent on public education. If we don’t invest in public education, we undermine the very foundation of our government. I’m pretty strongly opposed to the privatization of public education. 

Are charter schools better?

The charter schools here are different than they are in other parts of the country, and that’s fine. But in fact the research on charter schools is pretty definitive. There’s a study at Stanford that came out that only 17 percent of charter schools out-perform the public schools from which they drew students. In fact, the vast majority of charter schools actually under-perform the public schools. In some communities they tend to resegregate the community. In other communities they draw resources from the school district that are disproportionate to the resources of the district. To some degree the system benefits the few at the cost of the many. 

What do you think of the idea that schools should be run like a business?

We do a very efficient job of management. There’s a lot of difference between business and education. We have a job to serve all students. There isn’t a business that doesn’t have a niche. We have to serve all niches. 

Where can you find more money now?

That’s a dialogue we’re going to have with our Legislature and our community. 

In every community I’ve been in, people have had the ability to say we want to invest more in the education of our children. Here, the local option levy is very limited. Eugene is a community that has a strong investment in education, and I’m sure would invest much more if they could. We have to look at the funding system in Oregon. 

Oregon has the second largest class size in the country and some of the lowest per pupil spending. If adults are providing less to their children than they receive themselves, I believe that is very problematic. Our goal is to offer our children a better life than the one we had. 

Probably when you went to school, you had an art teacher, a music teacher, physical education teacher, librarian — none of those exist at the elementary level now. We have essentially told the classroom teacher, you’re it. 

Should the best teachers be put in the hardest schools?

Some of our best teachers are already in our hardest schools. Schools attract teachers when there’s a strong professional community and attractive leadership. That’s our goal for the schools that have the most at-risk students. Take a look at Chavez, you’ve got a great principal there, you’ve got a great faculty. It’s a highly attractive building, it has all the elements, and people feel very satisfied and kids are doing well. The commitment of the faculty is pretty extraordinary. 

But their scores are lower ...

Their scores are lower, but those students are making extraordinary growth. They are actually probably making greater growth than other students. 

It seems like there’s a morale issue with teachers now. How do you make them happier?

Sometimes the profession gets painted by the very few, very problematic teachers. The vast majority of our teachers are very high performing and very talented. I’ve been telling our teachers, you have to hold your head up high. The work you do is vitally important, and you are making a terrific contribution with children.