Everybody Loves Lawrence

But do they love her for the right reasons?

lawrenceOh Lawrence, you city by the Spicket, you. It seems like only yesteryear that everyone who was anyone was writing the damndest things about your poorest-burg-in-Massachusetts self. And here you are – not just grown up, but blown up. The edupreneurial set suddenly can’t get enough of you. Your story is even bandied about across the pond. And who’s that I see checking you out from a few states over, Lawrence? Why if that isn’t New York looking you up and down…

Whose turnaround scheme will reign supreme?
First, a trip down memory lane. Alas, a brief trip it must be, Lawrence, as all of your lanes, including those of the memory variety, are be-choked with snow these days. Our story starts a few years back when the state set out to determine what on earth had gone wrong with your schools. The answer, as you still recall but few others do, was that you were a district in utter chaos with leadership either lacking, completely inept or just plain corrupt. But what to do with your struggling self? Some, like this gentlemen, wanted to see you blown up and turned into a northern version of New Orleans. Still others wanted to see you set a float on a raft of edu-jargon. Still others–was it possible that were still other, others?–had other ideas. But whose turnaround scheme would reign supreme and become *the Lawrence model*???

Chartertown, USA
Is a trick subhead, dear reader. You see, despite the fiercely urgent pleadings of the Pioneers, Lawrence was not to become Chartertown, USA. In fact, rarely mentioned in the many mentions of the *Lawrence model* is that the charters now operating within the school district are subject to the same rules that govern all schools: like serving all students in their neighborhoods and *backfilling* empty seats when said seats become empty. The teachers who teach in these charters even belong to the still-existing Lawrence Teachers Union. In other words, this is confusing and not what New York was expecting when he swiped *like* on Lawrence’s profile.

[Insert fave edu-jargon here]
open architectureAll right, so we’re not exactly talking about the new New Orleans, but the new Lawrence is still a system of choice for choosy choosers, right? Or a system of schools instead of a school system? Or a portfolio district? Come on–at least it has cool new open architecture, whatever that is… Um, actually, upon closer inspection the *Lawrence model* still looks a lot like a traditional urban school district, complete with a central office, albeit sans the fancy green leather chairs and illicit printing press of the Laboy era. In fact, here’s a fun edu-insider drinking game. Next time you find yourself in close proximity to a *disruptor* (note: be sure to wear protective gear), see if you can get him (note: he will inevitably be a he) to relinquish a few choice words about what he really thinks of the man at the center of the *Lawrence model,* Superintendent Jeffrey C. Riley. If the term *traditionalist* is uttered, drink for two.

Is it time to kick the union in the teeth yet?
I don’t know about you, New York, but I’m starting to feel a little sleepy. This is not the kind of transformative change that we would have read about in Joel Klein’s book if we had read Joel Klein’s book. At least we get to crush the union, right? What???? The *Lawrence model* isn’t built upon the bedrock of crushed union sediment? What do you mean Superintendent Jeffrey C. Riley has been spotted around town sporting an AFT pin? And the local union runs an elementary school, and quite effectively at that? OK–so the relationship hasn’t always been bread and roses (and we can argue into the wee hours over the precise definition of the word *crush,*) but somehow me thinks that this isn’t what New York’s school reformer-in-chief had in mind when he started chatting up Lawrence last week…

Good money after bad
So maybe this *Lawrence model* thing isn’t quite what New York had in mind, but at least it’s cheap, right? Because I distinctly recall hearing NY’s Governor Cuomo saying something about no more money for bad schools unless they stop being bad – or something like that. Or maybe he said that spending more money on schools actually causes kids to do worse. Alas, in Lawrence as everywhere, money matters, as my fave Massachusetts school finance expert, Tracy Novick, shows here. And then of course there is the *edupreneurial elixir* of federal money and foundation grants in which Lawrence is currently a-sloshing.

That contract looks great on you 
lawrenceladderOK–so it’s not cheap, the union remains at least somewhat un-crushethed, in-district charter schools are constrained and a traditionalist rules the kingdom. There must be SOMETHING about the *Lawrence model* that appeals to the reform-minded, near and far. At last! You see, in addition to being, literally, a district-wide testing ground for test-score boosting, Lawrence is also a bold laboratory of highly-aligned innovation in which the very future of the teaching profession in Massachusetts is being petri-d as I type. Appealingly *thin* union contract? Check. Partnership with Teach for America in order to *infuse the district with new talent*? Check. Sleek new *career ladders* based on performance-based advancement? Check. Extra hyphens so that *teacher* and *leader* and their close cousins *highly* and *effective* need never be apart again? Check.

Adios amiga
Except that a growing number of Lawrence teachers are *leading* with their feet–25% of the district’s teachers left last year alone, including many who’ve departed for neighboring districts where contracts are less slim, career ladders less sleek, and teaching is still defined as something broader than the ability to raise math and English test scores. Who is leaving also matters. Lawrence is losing teachers AND leaders who are from Lawrence–Latino/as who grew up in the city, graduated from its schools and returned to teach in them because they believe in the city and its future. Teachers like Lorena German, who taught at Lawrence High, served in the district’s teacher-leader cabinet, and received a National Council of Teachers of English Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Award in 2014. She’s in Austin, TX now, along with her husband, another Lawrence native, who was an assistant principal at one of the city’s elementary schools. Lorena has a list of reasons why she decided to leave: a lack of transparency among district leaders, the overwhelming emphasis on test prep, and too many inexperienced people with no knowledge of Lawrence in positions of leadership.

And a final question that really is fiercely urgent
Which brings us to today’s final question, and for once it really is fiercely urgent. Does it matter that so many education reform efforts, including the one currently underway in Lawrence, are being led by people with no direct connection to the communities they’re in? Lorena German thinks it does. In fact, she gives that disconnect as one of her main reasons for leaving. *When you’re emotionally invested in the future of a place, you have a different measure of what success means. This is about so much more than test scores and high school graduation rates. This is about whether students in Lawrence are being equipped to succeed or whether they’re being set up for failure. Student success directly impacts the success of the community. If students leave, do well and then come back here, that shows up in the city. I’m not sure that people who are disconnected from the community really care about that.*

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7 Comments

  1. I’m interested in knowing how Ms. German and her husband are helping the city of Lawrence by decamping to Austin, TX. If she’s so emotionally invested in the kids of Lawrence that she can’t bear the thought of them not succeeding, why is she leaving for another state?

    And I’m interested in knowing how she thinks she can help the city of Austin since she’s not from there and isn’t connected to the city and the people there. (sarcasm) You can’t be pissed about carpetbaggers not understanding a place and then go off and carpetbag elsewhere. It’s just logically inconsistent.

    Look, I don’t begrudge her the flexibility to proverbially “take her talents to South Beach.” (ES, that’s a LeBron James quote.) Teachers have long been trapped in jobs by the way that pay has been so tightly linked to years of service within a particular district. And I can’t know why she actually chose to leave – whether higher pay, more job security, better career prospects for herself and/or her husband, family, friends, etc. But if she left because the plight of students in Lawrence was going to get worse under this new “regime,” then I think she’s really misguided in her attempt to fix that problem via protest resignation.

    1. Sometimes, there is nothing else that can be done. It’s talking to a brick wall. Colleagues are too scared or tired to support you, and administration is in the back pocket of the powers that be. Your health begins to suffer. You have to leave. I don’t know if that’s the situation in this case, but it’s the situation with me.

  2. I love how you weave in the “bread and roses”; also, Tracy Novick has great respect here in Massachusetts and I appreciate that you cite her work here; she is on the Worcester school committee and an excellent spokesperson. There is a piece of art work that shows the bread and roses strike that illustrates how the students from Boston came into Lawrence and took the side of the factory workers against the people on strike… there is still some of that (I’m pretty sure the art work is at Zinn Institute and I’ll try to find it )

      1. Math teacher! As you know from my previous comments (helpfully included here…) my single biggest complaint about the #edreform vision is that it starts from the perspective that the communities that are being turned around have nothing of any value to offer. Full disclosure: I think there are lots of positive things happening in Lawrence – and I even like Jeff Riley. But it’s a problem that people like Lorena, who are part of a long-term, grassroots effort to lift that city up, feel like there’s no place for them. It’s an even bigger problem in a place like Lawrence where you have an overwhelmingly immigrant population that is full of people who were professionals in the Dominican Republic (but now drive cabs and cut hair) who could be tapped to lead but aren’t. If you read the analysis of the edupreneurs who are increasingly appending themselves to Lawrence it’s all about outside human capital – bringing in “excellence” from other places to turn the city around. I suspect that the current leadership in Lawrence understands this and will adjust accordingly.

  3. math teacher: I know people still in Lawrence who would like to speak out but they would be harassed in some way; it’s safer to say something when you move far away (you can’t be fired or re-assigned or intimidated)…. even in Staples I talk to the teachers who are working in the city of Lawrence and I have a friend who is a librarian in the city school (charter) but not everyone can say what they think; it is safer if you’ve already moved. The Commissioner of Ed is on TV today touting that Lawrence is already making up the snow days (schools lost a lot of time in the 6 + feet of snow) and Arne Duncan spotlighted Lawrence on national media to show he is making miracles happen. There is an article by Greg Sullivan from Pioneer Institute that we read locally and it gives a different picture from what Duncan said when he did his photo opportunity in Lawrence.

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