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July 20, 2010

Wheeler Principal Removal Makes New York Times

“You can buy a lot of help for children with that money.”

That's what Joyce Irvine told a New York Times reporter after she was dismissed from her job as principal of the H.O. Wheeler Elementary School in Burlington's Old North End. The school, renamed the Integrated Arts Academy this year, has been deemed an "underperforming school" by the Obama administration.

Her ouster has raised hackles locally, but the national attention is giving new fuel to critics of federal education policies that punish schools even when they are showing improvement.

Wheeler students performed below federal standards on tests. The Burlington School District could qualify for $3 million in federal money to help its students -- provided it removed the principal of the underperforming school.

Never mind that Irvine was well liked by students and parents. Never mind that the district had nothing but positive things to say in her job evaluation. Never mind that most of the school's students are refugees, who had to take the test even if they arrived at the school just days before. Never mind that Wheeler's year-old identity as an "arts magnet" attracted students from all over the city, and the average poverty rate was dropping as a result.

Rules are rules, and the federal ones state that if Burlington was to qualify for that money, Irvine had to go.

The story provoked a major outcry among national readers of the New York Times. Many of the 292 comments included harsh words for both Bush- and Obama-era education policies responsible for creating the high-stakes testing that created the situation Wheeler now faces. One reader wrote:

The wrong people are being punished. It is sad so many states are willing to prostitute themselves to the federal government for a little money.

Another wrote:

Race to the Top, like No Child Left Behind, is a program designed by bureaucrats with little or no real interest in actually educating children.

And one more:

This is obscene. NCLB should have been scrapped years ago. Instead, the Obama administration, for whom I enthusiastically voted, has perpetuated the fallacy that if you test 'em enough, you'll get a true picture of a school's success. Throw out NCLB. Start over. Spend more wisely. Figure out what ails preexisting schools, then fix them...

Irvine now acts as a school improvement coordinator for the district, making $93,000 a year. But it's still apparent that she was punished for doing good work, all because it didn't fit into the federal template of what good work ought to be.

Plenty of critics said No Child Left Behind wasn't working for middle- and working-class students. Now Obama's policies appear to not be working, either. What next?

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Irvine's firing is an example of why federal rules need to change.

The committee will be working on revisions to No Child Left Behind. “It’s my intention to talk to Arne Duncan and say, hey, if this is the way you think you are going to improve low income schools, you are very mistaken," Sanders said.

Sanders needs to do more than talk to Duncan. He needs to talk to Vermont educators who can tell him many stories about the nonsense of NCLB. Just one more Bush era junk law being carried forward. I am not getting what I voted for at all. Remember in Novemnber 2012!!

On a somewhat related note, has anyone reading this sent your kid(s) to Wheeler even though you're outside the district, specifically because of the "arts" angle? Can you explain what it was that convinced you to do this? Do you intend to leave them at Wheeler for the duration, or is it just a kindergarten thing? I'm honestly curious as to why some parents who have other options have (reportedly) been sending their kids to Wheeler.

I was right on board until I hit the sentence - "Irvine now acts as a school improvement coordinator for the district, making $93,000 a year." What was she making as principal? How much punishment really is a $93K a year job? Especially these days.

The punishment isn't about money or a job - trust me, people don't get into education for the money! (Every administrator or experienced teacher who makes a decent salary spent many years scraping to get by, including taking second jobs or living off the benefit of their spouse's income.)
The punishment is having to leave a job where she has worked hard to help children and where she has established relationships with the children and community. I am glad that the district did not let her go completely.

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