Archive for May, 2010
We know there are hundreds of underperforming schools in California. The state named its list of 188 in March but there are many more. The superintendents and district leaders we’ve talked to have expressed almost universal desire to collect the significant federal dollars (up to $2 million a year) that would flow to these schools. But interestingly, many also expressed confusion about the list and informed us that they had expected to see other schools in their districts on it. In fact, several had made plans for massive changes at dysfunctional, low performing schools that they had to set aside because those schools didn’t make the list.
That’s too bad. Clearly, future efforts to identify persistently underperforming schools should look at a broader set of criteria for defining low performance. The parents and students attending our state’s other drop-out factories should have an opporunity to benefit from reforms that will hopefully transform the 188 schools that were on the list.
For our students and parents in the 188 schools, the benefits of the federal school improvement grants won’t come from the dollars they receive but from the reforms that these schools and their districts implement. Our state has spent billions of dollars on half-baked reform strategies like HPSG and QEIA over the years. Most of these reforms have fallen flat because the schools that received the dollars never actually implemented reforms that would transform the conditions under which teaching and learning can succeed. To truly turnaround, our highest need schools would need to be exempted from the irrationalities of district budget and HR policies. The one thing we have never been able to guarantee schools attempting to turnaround their performance is the one thing that is fundamental to improving the quality of education for the Latino, African-American and poor students who attend them - making sure that they have the best teachers and leaders and keeping them there over time. Of course, that would mean exempting these high need schools from the most ridiculous provisions of collective bargaining agreements such as last hired, first fired policies, must-place teachers, etc., compensating folks for great work, and extending school years and days.
There’s been a lot of talk about improving working conditions for teachers in high need schools but I think the most important working condition is being able to work with a great group of like-minded colleagues under the leadership of a good principal. It’s amazing how quickly that working condition can transform some of the other dysfunctions associated with student behavior and community disconnection. We have plenty of examples of what happens when even students with the most difficult behaviors have high quality, caring teachers and a great principal. If we focus our attention on that working condition, we really could transform our toughest to turnaround schools. If we don’t, we will once again be throwing our school improvement dollars into a money pit.
I always find it odd when I hear certain folks complain about the intrusiveness of the federal government. I was watching a television special on the civil rights struggle and listening to the langauge that southern politicians used to oppose desegregation. Their language echoed the state’s right rhetoric used to oppose abolition (Having grown up in the deep south and with a very personal experience of racism, I very clearly remember getting pummeled for having the temerity to suggest that the civil war was about ending slavery. According to those pummeling me it was about state’s rights and local control).
On the show, the segregationists railed about federal intrusions, states rights and local control. And as I listened to them, I couldn’t help thinking about the rhetoric used by members of the educational establishment against federal efforts to force states and school districts to make a set of basic commitments to improving the education of children of color and children with disabilities.
Let’s take a look at these commitments. You must educate all your students. You must provide them with the same quality education. You must eliminate the achievement gap and ensure that all students are taught to read at grade level. If they have additional educational needs, you must address them. And you must hold folks accountable if they don’t do the job they’re paid for. Good lord, what horrible federal intrusions.
There’s a set of policymakers without a memory of education history or recent experience in the education trenches who make assumptions about the will of local leaders to confront the educational injustices that plague our communities of color. For anyone who has spent anytime working with systems like Los Angeles Unified or San Diego Unified, this assumption is laughable. For every great man and woman working to eliminate achievement gaps and address issues of educational equity, there’s a glad-handling longtime bureaucrat who helped create the system and whose primary interest is their next court or tee time. For every leader willing to spend the their dollars on improving the education of their highest need students, there’s another leader willing to give the same dollars in raises and benefits to their buddies in the unions.
That’s why we need these federal and state intrusions. In fact, there’s one being proposed right now that I think will be particularly wonderful. There’s been a lot of talk in Congress about the need for the federal government to send the state’s dollars to prevent another round of teacher layoffs. Senator Harkin has been sponsoring a bill to send billions of dollars to the states based on that premise. Initially, the idea was to send the money with no strings attached. But by adding a single, tiny federal intrusion, these dollars could have a huge benefit beyond the jobs they save. That string would be to require states to eliminate laws requiring districts to pursue the last hired, first fired seniority based layoff policies that disproportionately damage our highest need schools. Personally, I think that’s a pretty good string to attach to the other strings that our federal government has attached as a condition of receiving federal aid.
We teach children the difference between black and white at a very early age. In fact, it is one of the first things they learn. As adults, we begin to see shades of grey. If we become a lawyer or a university researcher, sometimes that’s all we see.
Some adults practice a different skill. They are able to turn black into white and vice versa. This skill is well developed in certain industries. For example, lobbyists for cigarette companies can argue that a certain brand of cigarette is good for the health – when it is actually guaranteed to kill you. A lawyer for the government can argue that waterboarding isn’t torture – when the person being waterboarded is tied to a table and forced to experience simulated drowning. An electric company can run a ballot initiative purporting to save people money when it is more likely to increase the company’s profits.
Granted, these examples are very different. But there’s a skill to this process. People get paid a lot of money for their magical ability to bend the laws of reality.
In my time in education, I have witnessed many moments of reality bending. I remember a group of facilities managers telling me with a straight face that they needed a huge investment of state dollars to build schools - in a district which had declined to far in student enrollment that it needed to close schools. They showed me their plans for a school district of 160,000 students when the school district had only 120,000 students and was losing another 2000 a year. Not only had they bent reality but they had come to live in an alternative universe.
I remember a school staff asking for additional adult support for students with disabilities being included their classrooms. Based on the angry words and impassioned pleas of the staff, I imagined they were children with severe behavior issues. I found soon after that the children had speech and langauge impairments and few if any behavior problems. Not only had the school staff bent reality, they had used a label to transform young children who simply wanted the affection and interest of their teachers into objects of fear.
One of my favorites though is when people bash the use of testing. It’s quite remarkable to me because the educators who bash tests are often the very same educators who have no compunctions using tests to determine the intelligence of children; identify their eligibility for gifted and talented or special education programs, entrance into AP courses, or admission into universities. If it serves their interests – for example, to get a child out of their class – they are gung ho about tests. But if it actually can determine whether they are doing their job as an educator and imparting the knowledge they were supposedly trained to deliver – then testing is invalid. They are more than willing to allow the accountability for learning to fall on our students. But when it comes to accountability for educating those self-same students, they become masters at bending reality.