Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Public Education

Understandably, President-Elect Obama's top priority during the current transition, aside from putting together his White House team and his Cabinet, and the first weeks and months of his administration beginning on January 20th, is working urgently with the Congress to try to fix our dismal economy. Given its great impact on virtually all of us, most Americans would agree with this prioritization. From what we can understand from his recent speeches and interview comments from his newly selected Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, Obama's other senior priorities for at least the first several months of his term include review and probable revision of our military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, healthcare, energy policy, and public education. I want to dedicate this post to the latter.

It is very hard to argue that our public education system, primarily for K-12 schools, should not be a senior priority for our next president. In February 2005 Microsoft founder Bill Gates at a conference of the National Governor's Association went so far as to say that "Training the workforce of tomorrow with today's high schools is like trying to teach kids about computers on a 50 year old mainframe." Strong words, but given his stature they deserve serious reflection. I don't know, but suspect he thinks the same comment would still apply today.

What's the main evidence that we have major problems with our about 95,000 K-12 public schools in this country, especially in our larger urban schools? To start with, we have high drop-out and unacceptably low graduation rates in too many schools. In a recent year only 48% of students in one of the country's largest school districts, Los Angeles Unified, graduated within four years of starting as freshmen! That's terrible. My research indicated that 75-80% of the 2.2 million people in our federal, state and local prisons a few years ago were high school drop-outs! That's costing us a fortune in cprison and other related criminal justice expenses. Our students are in general doing poorly in critically important math and science classes and, reportedly, are doing worse in test results than students in many of the other industrialized nations we are competing against in the current global economy. Apparently as many as 44% of 9th graders in L. A. Unified a few years ago flunked beginning algebra classes! We should be very concerned with that.

What's causing these very poor and unacceptable results in many of our schools? As a great many administrators, teachers and parents know, the causes are many and they have been widely discussed and written about. Some of the main causes include overcrowded classes, inadequate school facilities, teachers who are not fully qualified, starting teacher salaries which are too low, unmotivated students, negative impact of inner city gangs, poor classroom and schoolyard discipline, and insufficient student fluency in English. However, in my opinion, equally important causes include poor parenting and expectations for student achievement by parents, administrators, and teachers which are too low. Funding inadequacy may be a factor to some extent, but I'm not yet convinced it's really a major factor relative to most of the others mentioned.

What should be done to correct the situation we have? As one would expect, there are many different opinions. Some sincere people believe the primary need is just to fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. Others say eliminate the U. S. Department of Education and leave education up to the states and local administrators. Neither of those would really accomplish much of what is needed. President-Elect Obama made a rather compelling speech on education in Dayton, Ohio on 9/9/08. I support many of his ideas. Here is my partial take as a former student in California public schools many years ago, parent of two children and grandparent of two children, all of whom have attended public schools in California, one who has family members and close friends who are teachers in K-12 public and private schools, and who has done a fair amount of research on the subject:

1. Determine how we can save a great deal of money and make our current system much more efficient and streamlined by examining whether we really need all the bureaucratic layers we now have in place and giving more authority and accountability to school principals and teachers.
2. Make an investment in quality early childhood education, initially at no cost to low income parents and partially subsidized for middle income parents. (I believe high income parents to a significant degree already provide this to their young children.) This should give all children a much better start as they enter K-12 schools.
3. Make sure that all math, science and technology teachers have the appropriate educational and training qualifications to effectively teach these subjects. Right now too many teachers apparently do not have the right qualifications. For example, many majored in English, history or sociology in college, yet are teaching high school math without an adequate math educational background.
4. Increase starting salaries for teachers, now averaging $30,000 to $35,000, excluding $10,000 to $12,000 in value of benefits granted, by 15-20%, especially for fully qualified and experienced math, science and technology teachers. One of the reasons for this is to attract better teachers who can make much more money in the private sector in many cases. Another reason is to reduce high teacher attrition, which is very costly for the school system. Also seriously consider instituting a reasonable merit compensation system for high performing teachers to be administered by the school principal, with awards perhaps subject to concurrence of one or two school board members.
5. End the current still common practice of social promotions under which undeserving students graduate or are promoted to the next higher grade, misleading parents and diluting the value of a diploma.
6. Establish a clear written code of conduct for students to be posted on school bulletin boards and distributed to parents or guardians at the beginning of each school year. Code violators should be subject to suspensions from classes, school activities or school for a short, longer, or permanent term, depending on the gravity of the offense and the number of prior violations.
7. Parents should also be provided with a letter from the school principal advising specifically what is expected and recommended of them to help their children get a good education. Issues to be covered should include such as homework completion, adequate studying, getting adequate sleep, limiting time watching TV and playing video games, participation in parent/teacher meetings, and communicating their educational expectations.
8. Extend school hours by 1-2 hours daily to provide more time for teaching, using the school or public library, and study/homework completion at school, where there probably are fewer distractions.
9. Try to set up week-end and summer internships with local companies and non-profit agencies to provide work experience, income, and career planning opportunities for students in good standing.
10. In concert with parents and local city officials try to identify mentoring and tutoring resources for needy students, especially those with one-parent and recent immigrant families.

Schools should also work with parents, city officials and the local police to see what more can be done to minimize gang and criminal activities in or near the schools and residential neighborhoods. This is usually not a problem in most suburbs and smaller towns, but it's definitely a big problem in most larger cities, especially where there are sizable minority and recent immigrant populations. Once most, if not all, of the above steps have been taken and allowed to work, we should determine what additional funding, if any, might be needed and what sources might potentially be available.

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