Thursday, October 21, 2010

Education Reform Revisited

Despite stubborn resistance from the two large teachers unions, public K-12 education reform in this country seems to be slowly moving forward in the right direction, but there's definitely a great deal still to be done, and one has to expect that it will take many more years to complete what is needed.

I published two posts on education reform on my blog before which discussed most of the key problems and challenges and offered a long list of solutions. The first was titled "K-12 Public Education" published on 11/23/07 and the second was "Public Education" on 11/12/08, nearly two years ago. Certainly I agree with those who maintain that this issue should be one of America's top priorities, right behind national security and rebuilding our nation's economy.

Some of the key concerns cited were that in too many schools, especially in many of our larger urban areas, there are unacceptably high drop-out rates, disgraceful 40-50% graduation rates, poor test scores, clear evidence that a disturbing percentage of these students were not mastering the material taught, with the result that they had no chance to go to college and little chance to get any good-paying jobs. In fact, a great many of them in recent years have turned to crime and ended up in our crowded prisons. As I mentioned in my first post in 2007 as many as 75-80% of the 2.2 million people in our federal, state and local prisons and jails were high school drop-outs! Embarrassing, shameful and sad!

Just from an economic point of view, how much better off would our country and society be if our educational system, supported perhaps in many cases by better parenting and more effective community organizations, could get more of these kids to stay in school, graduate and obtain better jobs and staying out of trouble. The income and sales taxes they would pay, added to the large savings from not bearing the substantial costs of having many of them in jail or prison, could be quite substantial.

Why has this been happening? What and who are to blame? There are many different opinions. However, most knowledgeable educators, politicians and parents place much of the blame on poor performing and ineffective teachers and principals in many of our schools. This has been exacerbated by the difficulty and high expense generally involved in removing these people as result of terms in negotiated labor union contracts, particularly teachers and principals who have tenure, often achieved after just two years of employment.

The labor unions, primarily the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), have been effective in obtaining attractive benefits and job security for teachers and principals. But they have been unreasonably opposed to any significant education reforms, including meaningful objective teacher and principal evaluations and renegotiating the sensitive issue of tenure. Union leaders see their prime job as protecting their members, not providing a high quality education to their students, though, to be fair, they are of course also interested in that. These leaders don't want to see even justified lay-offs of their members because it would adversely impact the dues they receive which pays for their personal high levels of compensation and benefits. This is not acceptable and must be addressed in future contract negotiations.

Other reasons for the poor education results include, as most readers know, overcrowded classes, inadequate school facilities, starting teacher salaries that are often too low to attract more qualified personnel, schoolyard discipline, insufficient student fluency in English, negative impact of inner city gangs, unmotivated students, unsatisfactory parenting, and learning expectations for students by parents, administrators and teachers that are too low. There are two other reasons I want to add: insufficient affordable pre-K educational facilities and a bloated bureaucracy among federal, state and local education officials with overlapping responsibilities and unclear accountabilities. Obviously many schools are performing very well and these reasons don't apply to them. And, of course, the above conditions vary greatly among low performing schools.

The solutions to these problems are largely self-evident, especially: removing poor and ineffective teachers and principals, replacing them with higher salaried, higher qualified educators, more effective sharing of "best practices" by successful districts and schools, improving inadequate facilities, working with local police forces and community organizations to better combat gang interference, setting much higher expectations for student achievement, and getting rid of bloated educational bureaucracy and sharpen accountabilities. In most cases removing poor and ineffective teachers and principals will require tough negotiations and cooperation, backed by increased public pressure, with the relative labor unions.

Additional important and challenging solutions include better parenting and significantly increasing student motivation to get a good education, which clearly are closely related. Schools can contribute to better parenting by communicating effectively with parents at the beginning of each school year what the school expects of them and what parents have a right to expect from the school. This can be done by letter or by an orientation meeting for parents at school. Strengthening student motivation are responsibilities of both the school, primarily teachers and principals, and students' family, primarily the parents.

To my surprise, frankly, noted Newsweek columnist, Robert Samuelson, in his 9/13/10 column "Why School 'Reform' Fails", believes that frequently shrunken student motivation, especially in high schools, is the main reason why attempts at education reforms have largely failed in recent years. Motivation has weakened, he wrote, because more students "don't like school, don't work hard, and don't do well". I don't disagree with the latter, but the more important question is why. Parenting must be a big part of the equation in the majority of cases.

I should mention the "Race to the Top" competition initiative of President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to distribute a total of $4.3 billion of federal money to selected states deemed most successful in implementing innovative and necessary reforms. In August Duncan announced ten winners including Washington, D. C., New York, Florida and Ohio, but excluding California. It seems to be a good initiative, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, but I'm concerned about the concept of spending that much taxpayer money to incent innovation and reform. It gets the attention of states to act, but is the process completely fair and is it necessary to spend that much money, considering the widespread concern with our budget deficit and national debt?

At the outset I said I felt that reform was slowly moving in the right direction. Why? The answer is in innovative recent reform initiatives by a small group of dedicated individuals that have gotten a great deal of favorable publicity:

1. The recently released movie, "Waiting for Superman", a very compelling public education documentary film by Davis Guggenheim, whose main point is that our future depends to a large extent on good teachers and that the coddling of bad teachers by their powerful unions virtually insures mediocrity, at best, in both teachers and the students in their care.

2. Innovative educator and reformer, blunt talking Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone school in Central Harlem, New York, who was a major commentator in Guggenheim's film and a guest on one of Oprah Winfrey's highly popular recent TV programs. A former teacher and consultant, Canada became very frustrated by the bureaucracy in our education system and the difficulty of effecting change. He has provided a pipeline for his students to follow from birth to college, giving them a safety net, so they would never fall of track. President Obama has described Harlem Children's Zone as a miracle and plans to try and replicate its success in cities across the country.

3. The new partnership among the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, the Democratic mayor of Newark, Corey Booker, and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, to completely reform Newark's very troubled school system. Christie is a native of Newark who won the election for governor last November on a strong promise to fix a "failed state". The three of them also were guests last month on one of Winfrey's TV programs. Christie said on the program that he will empower Booker to be in charge of the reform project and together they will choose the right new superintendent for the school system and discuss the major objectives and priorities of the project. The wealthy Zuckerberg announced he will provide a $100 million challenge grant to support the project! When asked why he would do that, Zuckerberg said he wants other children to have the same educational opportunities that he has had, and he really believes in Christie and Booker's commitment and abilities to accomplish the reform that is needed.

4. The popularity and success of the growing KIPP ("Knowledge is Power Program") of 99 schools in 20 states plus Washington, D. C., the nation-wide network of free open-enrollment college prep public charter schools in under-resourced communities. KIPP was founded in Houston, Texas in 1994 by two teachers, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, based on the following key education principles: outstanding teachers, more student time in school, rigorous college-prep curriculum, and a strong culture of achievement and support. In 2000 the co-founders of Gap, Inc., the large apparel retailer, Doris and Donald Fisher, gave KIPP a $15 million grant to help them finance expansion of the network. It's noteworthy that 95% of KIPP students are African-American or Latino/Hispanic.

5. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of Microsoft fame is the biggest private player in the school reform movement providing a highly impressive $200 million annually in grants to elementary and high school education where innovation and reform are high priorities of its leaders!

Despite the substantial grants mentioned above, and their importance in providing needed funding for attracting top teachers and building quality school facilities, it's not always a requirement for education reform. A lot can be done by strong leadership, as was evident by what Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the school system, and Mayor Adrian Fenty, accomplished in initiating drastic reforms in Washington, D. C. Another example is demonstrated by the recently premiered "School Pride" TV program which shows what can be done by community volunteers, including teachers, parents and students, supported by local small business contributions of equipment and supplies, in renovating dilapidated schools, such as Enterprise Middle School in Compton, California.

The needed reforms will obviously not be achieved if it's left to the labor unions or even the politicians. It requires continuing public pressure and the active involvement on a sustained basis for years by tens of millions of parents and voters, supported by the local and national media. This clear conclusion is a no-brainer!!

No comments: