Monday, September 27, 2010

An Opportunity to Really Improve Public Education

The new documentary movie on public education in the U.S., Waiting For Superman, is seen by many educators as inaccurate in many of its assumptions about the problems and possible solutions for education. (See the article in the Washington Post pointing out  inaccuracies in Superman)The biggest legitimate criticism of the documentary is that it incorrectly seems to offer charter schools as a magic solution to all the ills of public education. I believe that if we allow politicians and education policy makers to swallow this blatant misconception whole, public education could suffer irreparable harm. In addition, the recent "discovery" by the media that approximately one third of all U.S. students do not graduate from high school and that a relatively small percentage of our students pursue higher education, have combined with the hype over the Superman documentary to make education reform a bigger issue than ever before. The NBC networks are devoting this entire week to special news programs titled Education Nation promoting various ideas about improving our schools. With all this attention, education reform is going to happen for better or for worse whether educators are involved or not.

Both the federal government and state legislatures seem ready to adopt massive reforms which include major expansions of charter school programs whether proven or untested, a major overhaul to firing procedures for teachers and principals, and changes that put even more emphasis on student test scores.

Almost everything about public education is under attack. Some believe our colleges of education have been made irrelevant by the introduction of Teach for America wiz kids from Harvard and other high status universities who are moving into teaching positions with barely 6 weeks of education training and who quickly move on to manage charter schools. (The truth is that most of these young people quit teaching before their 2 year commitment expires) Others advocate for the abolition of all teacher tenure, with establishment of instant firing power in the hands of school principals who themselves would be subject to dismissal based on student scores. In addition, our State Department of Education is pushing for site based budgeting on the theory that if principals get more flexibility in budgeting they can produce better results in student test scores.

While we all can agree that there are many pitfalls to this latest education reform movement, educators would be well advised to try to chanel this increased public awareness to make real improvements in public education. First of all we need to make sure that the truth about public education is told and acted upon rationally. For example, it needs to be pointed out that the biggest advances in school performance in the past several years in Louisiana have occurred in traditional public schools (see my analyisis and letter to BESE comparing regular public schools to the Recovery District) run under the direction of experienced superintendents and governed by local school boards. It has also been shown that in almost all public schools, students who are serious about and engaged in their education are succeeding no matter what public school they attend. The top U.S. students are quite competitive with the top students from other industrialized countries. Teachers who seem to be failures when they teach in high poverty schools somehow miraculously become great teachers when they move to schools serving more advantaged students.

The truth is that the main reason for failing schools is that we have failing communities both urban and rural where children are not prepared for school with the proper guidance and motivation from a healthy home environment. I have yet to see convincing evidence that schools can compensate for lack of positive parental support. Many of the schools serving impoverished or crime and drug affected communities also experience problems with class disruptions caused by unruly students. School principals and even classroom teachers must be given the authority to remove disruptive students from the regular classroom when they are interfering with the educational process. Like it or not, we must invest the necessary resources to prevent a few students from denying a good educational environment to the students who want to learn.

In summary, we can beat up on teachers and principals who are assigned to struggling schools until they are convinced to change to another profession or we can give them the support and even financial rewards for the extra work that is needed in difficult schools. If we really care about improving student performance we need longer school days and a longer school year. But most of all, we need to have parents become more accountable for the positive educational involvement of their children. No teacher can effectively teach students who skip school or who show up without sufficient sleep or who never read a book or who never do homework. It is up to the true practitioners of education to set the record straight and demand that everyone be accountable for education. Educators must utilize the increased awareness of education issues in our country to inform the public about what reforms would really make a positive difference in our schools. We must then take the lead with concrete proposals to make those necessary reforms.

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