My Response to “The risks of forcing out Jean-Claude Brizard”
This last Tuesday I read an article by Mary Anna Towler in Rochester’s City Newspaper about what the Rochester City School District stands to “lose” if our Broad-trained Superintendent, Jean-Claude Brizard, is forced out. Given that Brizard’s name has been floating around Newark, NJ, Boston, and Chicago as a future possible leader, this article was timed interestingly. For those of us observing this revolving door of educational leaders who jump from city to city (sounds a lot like the ‘dance of the lemons’ scenario used by pro-deform leaders when inaccurately describing how they can never fire experienced teachers, left only to wait impatiently or force the
more expensive ‘bad’ teachers to transfer between schools) it will be interesting to observe and learn from this situation.
Towler wrote in the article,
Once again, the rumors (or reports, depending on whom you’re talking to) are flying, that Rochester Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard is looking for another job.
Brizard makes an attractive candidate, so it wouldn’t be a surprise that other districts would take a look at him. (What do we want, a superintendent with such a lackluster reputation that he’s not on anybody’s radar?)
And given the controversy in this district, and the push from teachers and from some parents to get rid of him, he’d be pretty dumb to not be considering his options.
I’ve cited my own concern about Brizard – his communications and leadership skills – but I’ve been clear that I think he’s an exceptionally good superintendent, with enormous potential.
So let me pass on this warning:
The last thing the Rochester school district needs right now is a change in superintendents. It’s not that it would be hard to get another good superintendent; driving Brizard out – which is what this would look like – wouldn’t dissuade strong candidates from applying. Anybody administrator in urban education is familiar with the contentiousness of managing a city school district: the pressure from parents and unions, the divisions on school boards. Offsetting them are the exciting challenges and rewards of educating the nation’s neediest students. (And for superintendents, the pay’s not bad.)
So whenever Brizard leaves, we’ll find another superintendent. For many people, the sooner he leaves, the better. I disagree. I think some of his reforms are essential. They aren’t popular, but they’re important. If he’s forced out, we can say goodbye to changes in things like teacher evaluation and seniority. I think the district can come up with reforms in those areas that protect teachers’ right to due process. I also think if Brizard leaves soon, we won’t hear any talk about those reforms for quite a while.
And for some segments of the community – including, notably, City Hall – letting Brizard be forced out will reinforce the sense that the School Board doesn’t have a clue about what it’s doing. The board renewed Brizard’s contract only five months ago, with only two of the seven members voting “no.”
Unless School Board members know something about Brizard’s performance that the public doesn’t know, they ought to be supporting him a lot more vocally than they have been so far. Much more than their own reputation is at stake.
And by the way, want to see a renewed push among some state legislators for mayoral control? Force Brizard out. That’ll do it; I’d bet on it.
As I read the article, I grew increasingly frustrated. I’ve grown tired of the wide array of media sources, ranging from mainstream corporate media to self-proclaimed ‘alternative media’ news, who support corporate, pro-privatization forces’ onslaught against meaningful change and progress in public education. Partially out of frustration and partially out of recognizing the opportunity to educate others, I wrote the following response:
This is one of the most intellectually dishonest assessments of Brizard’s tenure I’ve heard yet. I’m a teacher in the Rochester City School District and I organize as a member of the Community Education Task Force and the Parent and Community Coalition for Educational Change. I’ve heard my fair share of arguments on Brizard and his reforms as well as what will supposedly happen if he leaves. There are several glaring inaccuracies and flat-out mistruths in your argument that require investigation, interrogation, and scrutiny.
This appears to be part of another round of political gamesmanship being hustled on our community regarding Brizard’s value and worth so as to protect the pro-privatization business elites, partisan media slicksters, and self-interested School Board members who have chosen to hedge their bets on Brizard’s political fate.
You state, “Brizard makes an attractive candidate, so it wouldn’t be a surprise that other districts would take a look at him.” Brizard’s name has been floating in other areas for the same misguided reasons why many without a critical analysis of where Brizard comes from (Broad Foundation) continued to support him here. While it is certainly true that other districts may be eyeing Brizard, I personally can attest to the fact that educators and community members in many school districts throughout the country recognize, rather than minimize, exactly how toxic Brizard’s philosophies and style of leadership are for a district. As the growing frustration with Brizard from the community has built up, more and more people in other places have identified Brizard and his baggage as an unwanted liability, not an asset to be fought after. That we have School Board members who hold more of a vested interest in Brizard’s reputation and public relation skills instead of the reality of his initiatives, programs and stewardship of our district is deeply concerning. As you know, protective egos and political reputations run thick in this town and we seem to have elected officials, media figures, and others struggling to prop up this crumbling deck of cards rather than honestly assess their gross errors in judgement and be real with the people about a better direction in terms of leadership.
False dichotomies also do your argument little justice. You state, “What do we want, a superintendent with such a lackluster reputation that he’s not on anybody’s radar?”. Our choice is not between a superintendent that no one pays attention to and a rising rock star in ill-informed corporate education reform who knows how to spin public relations together with his colleagues in corporate media. How about a progressive, community-centered superintendent who knows how to cooperatively work together with schools, parents, students, labor and community? Before you jump and say, “who would that be?” or “do we even have viable options like that locally?” we all should look closer within schools and within our community for potential leaders who respond to community needs and are willing to share decision-making with others.
Your suggestion that any changes to teacher evaluation and seniority will not occur if Brizard leaves represents a truly ahistorical and irresponsible assessment on your part. We know that conversations surrounding teacher evaluation will still occur regardless of whether Brizard is present or not. If we work to secure a more progressive, competent leader the conversation will be less likely to focus on placing increased weight, consequence, and value on high-stakes standardized test scores. Such a leader would work together with grassroots parents and community in order to advocate for changes on the state level that more appropriately fit our students’ needs.
In the future, before you make arguments you should seriously consult sound educational research. Close to no sound research supports the notion that teacher evaluation, pay or job security should be based on standardized test scores, especially at the rate that Brizard and his Broad Foundation colleagues are attempting to force. Doing so shows a reckless disregard for what research supports as a more trustworthy gauge of true student growth and achievement: project-based learning, performance based tasks, and research skills to name a few. Brizard has consistently rejected such proposals in favor of using high-stakes standardized test scores as a primary marker of student learning as well as teacher effectiveness. Brizard leaving does not mean that “…we won’t hear any talk about those reforms for quite a while” it just means that we can work towards a more reasonable conversation about systemic issues in education without bullying, manipulative rhetoric, and dishonest misuse of data.
I don’t doubt that mayoral control advocates will leap upon the opportunity to point out the current School Board’s incompetency (let us not forget that you entered into and advocated for mayoral control as well in these opinion pages) In fact, I agree that “…the School Board doesn’t have a clue about what it’s doing.” However, the School Board should not continue to make excuses for Brizard’s utter disregard for anything but what his wealthy circles inform him to do. A truly responsible School Board would lead him out and would have begun a search within our district for a more responsible, progressive match to student, parent and grassroots community needs.
As far as School Board commissioners not advocating for Brizard vocally, I’m not sure what that would look like given the majority of the individuals on the board that we have now who either directly, explicit support Brizard or support him behind the scenes in other ways. Whether “School Board members know something about Brizard’s performance that the public doesn’t know” is a worthy question, which we can’t necessarily answer here. However, we can based on evidence in district and at the board, say that Board members have shielded Brizard from true scrutiny, transparency, and ultimately accountability for him and his administration’s actions.
State legislators are likely going to push for mayoral control regardless at this point, given that Richard’s bought the mayoral election together with your papers’ endorsement. It seems Machiavellian and insincere to falsely incite fear that if our community rightfully stands up together and rejects Brizard’s agenda, that we will aid the push for mayoral control. Whether Brizard is here or not, the proponents of mayoral control want control of district finance, contracts, and patronage positions by eliminating the main vehicle in education by which there is any possibility of democratic mobilization of community rights.
Finally, I suggest you come over to Central Park, Scio, N Clinton, Joseph, Jefferson, Genesee, Columbia in order to ask parents and community what they really think about Brizard. You should know that a sizable chunk of our community has legitimate and serious doubts about Brizard and his agenda, especially given the events of the last few months. The sooner you stop dismissing that and understand that we can secure much better leadership without you and others attempting to leverage the supposed political consequences of Brizard’s likely upcoming departure, the better. Until then, it would be intelligent for you to research your arguments and stop regurgitating the local political machines’ talking points, smugly wrapped up in camouflaged rhetoric.
Community Education Task Force
I posted as a comment and emailed the response to Mary Anna Towler. She responded “thanking me for my thoughtful response” and encouraging more comments, dialogue etc. She also offered to have an agreed-upon version in the print edition for next week. I accepted and edited the piece, which should come out next week in print. After Towler asked if I was a teacher in district, I stated that I am a Rochester City School District teacher and fired back an email, “If I don’t have a job shortly after this gets printed, I’d like to do an interview if possible.”
This brings me to a teachable moment in which I have to make important decisions. I’ve made what many might consider increasingly risky choices in my efforts to advocate and struggle for progressive, community-based, grassroots public education. My activities have become rapidly more public and more widely known among interested parties. While I’m certainly not a household name nor a celebrity in education organizing, I’ve willingly and knowingly assumed a heightened level of risk that any conscious person would be concerned about. I’ve painstakingly deliberated over how to be as intelligent and strategic as possible while continuing my work in the struggle. I’m finding that being prepared for any number of outcomes to scenarios is both challenging and necessary. I’ll continue to build and grow together with allies while doing everything I can to mount defenses against the very real potential consequences for my political actions.