Figuring out how to improve student performance in the city’s schools is arguably the biggest challenge facing Rochester. Like many cities across the country, Rochester has pursued multiple avenues to increase student achievement with little success.
John Bliss, the co-founder and former head of Urban Choice Charter School, is concerned about the trend among state and local school officials to look outside the district to one of the many education foundations or firms for prescriptions for troubled schools. He compares it to buying a franchise. These organizations sell packaged reform models to school officials, who are often under enormous pressure from parents, business and community leaders, and government officials to turn schools around rapidly, he says. The packaged approach gets pushed down through a school from top administrators, but doesn’t usually garner great results, Bliss says.
He argues instead that teachers and parents frequently know the reasons why schools fail, and how to fix them. But they are typically sidelined even though they are perhaps the most essential ingredient to turning around a failing school or creating a new school.
And the school’s principal needs to have some autonomy from administration, Bliss says, a view often espoused by charter school leaders.
Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski agrees with some of Bliss’s ideas, and he says that the teachers contract allows for this kind of approach within Rochester’s schools.
But critics argue that schools wouldn’t be failing if teachers and parents really did have the solutions to student achievement problems. Bliss says that’s an oversimplification of the problems with urban education.
Bliss doesn’t fall neatly into one of the usual camps concerned with urban education. He’s a strong supporter of traditional public schools even though he started a charter school. He’s not a fan of high-stakes standardized testing, but he doesn’t demonize tests, either.
And even though teachers at Urban Choice — like most charters — are not unionized, Bliss doesn’t believe that teachers or unions are to blame for low student performance.
Bliss, who is no longer with Urban Choice, says he is in the process of creating another charter school. And this one may have a union.