Friday, November 23, 2007

K-12 Public Education

We should be proud of the fact that our country's public and private colleges and universities are among the finest in the world and generally provide our high school graduates and thousands of foreign students with outstanding educational opportunities. As almost everyone will agree, that is not the case with our public K-12 system as a whole, especially in our larger urban centers and lower income communities. In fact, many knowledgeable critics are loudly proclaiming that we have an educational crisis in America, and we have to do something about it now! It should be a national priority, they say! Where are these views coming from? What's the evidence? If correct, what should be done?

Two years ago California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed a bipartisan 15 member Committee on Education Excellence to study the issue. According to an article in today's Los Angeles Times, the committee has concluded that our K-12 public schools are "hobbled in red tape, riddled with inefficiencies, and impossible for parents and students to understand." The committee also stated in their 40 page report that "California's K-12 education system is broken. It is not close to helping each student become proficient in mastering the state's clear curricular standards." For the 2003-2004 school year the dropout rate at Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the country's largest, was an incredible 33%! My understanding is that the rate hasn't improved markedly since then. The same L. A. Times article indicated that on a state-wide basis fewer than half of all ninth-graders currently end up with a high school diploma! That's ridiculous and unacceptable.

Another highly troublesome fact is that 75-80% of the 2.2 million people in our federal, state and local prisons and jails nationally are high school dropouts! Further concern is that roughly 600,000 prisoners are released into our communities annually, and 40-50% are reconvicted and back in prison again within three years. The costs involved to capture, prosecute, house , and monitor these prisoners on parole are enormous. They are also one of the several factors that makes it difficult to provide adequate funding for our schools.

This is not just a major issue in California. Similar concerns and challenges are facing mayors and school officials in most of our larger cities and governors and department of education officials in most of our other states. Aside from the excessive and untenable dropout rates and the very poor graduation rates, too many of the graduates just don't have the knowledge, skills and test-taking abilities to get into college or find good jobs. What happens to them? Many of them join gangs, remain unemployed, or, probably the majority, get low-paying entry level jobs with limited employee benefits and only mediocre chances for advancement. A few somehow are probably able to become a member of our military forces. However, for the most part, these people have great difficulty becoming productive members of our communities.

What's to be done? There is, of course, no simple, single solution that will adequately solve the problem. There is no quick fix. Even education experts disagree on proposed corrective measures. I've thought a lot about this and have many specific recommendations, based on a fair amount of research, my graduate school education, and conversations with a number of teachers in our family and circle of friends. Here is a partial list, some of which no doubt are controversial:

1. School principals and other school leaders need to meet with parents before the school term begins and make them clearly understand that they must be accountable for preparing their children for school, following for homework completion, and meeting with teachers to discuss the children's progress. Schools cannot educate children without reasonable parent support.
2. We need to streamline the current education bureaucracy (saving significant education budget dollars that can be better spent on teacher salaries and school supplies) and give principals much more authority to manage their schools, similar to a corporate CEO, and hold them accountable for results.
3. We need to make sure that each school has an appropriate code of conduct for students, shared with parents, to minimize unacceptable student behavior disrupting classrooms, restoring a good learning environment, enforce the code, and also end social promotions of unworthy students with prior notification to parents.
4. Establish an effective county-wide or state-wide system of sharing "best practices" employed by successful principals and teachers with other schools and school districts.
5. Seriously consider stricter credentialing of new teachers and stronger efforts to retain the best younger teachers, many of whom apparently leave their schools within two years of being hired to find better paying jobs in other schools and the private sector in more attractive working environments. The objective of these two initiatives is to improve the quality of the teachers on staff in each school, which, in turn, with the other recommendations, should lead to better education of the students.
6. 15-20% increase in starting teacher salaries over a one or two year period are warranted with appropriate adjustments in the salaries of the majority of other good-performing teachers. I also favor merit pay for outstanding teacher performance as judged by the school principal or a panel of local principals, even though I know the teachers unions are strongly opposed to that .
7. We need to finally deal more effectively with our huge illegal immigration problem, to greatly limit the inflow of this source of new children coming into our public schools speaking virtually no English. We should also seriously consider eliminating bilingual education to induce immigrant students to learn English more quickly, thereby making them better prepared for college and more attractive job markets. (I came to this country in the third grade speaking virtually no English. There was no bilingual education. I had to learn fast and did, even though we primarily spoke our native language at home the first several years.)

As I said earlier, this is only a partial list. There are many more I could add. Perhaps I should pass these on to the Governor's committee, though I suspect they have already received more input from the public than they can handle.

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