Thursday, December 27, 2007

Ask the people if you want the answers to public education

Everyone else seems to be on the Jay Mathews article bandwagon so I might as well chime in.

If you don't know, Jay Mathews is the Education Columnist from the Washington Post. His posts are focused on making high schools better, but not necessarily using current methods (he pretty much thinks Advanced Placement is a joke). Mathews also recognized this blog as one of his Top 10 favorites.

In dealing with a local high school, Mathews decided to ask his readers how to fix the problems of public education. This article from the Washington Post is the response he got summarized into 7 bullets. Before I address them let's understand that this article is like asking the public to solve the national budget or create an outline for Middle East peace. The answers are simple and fairly uninformed.

1. Train teachers better: training must be "intense, disciplined, research-based, and result-directed. Require it, and a lot of it".
-You can only learn so much in a college program, and I consider the one I did at Chico State to be quite rigorous and worthwhile. However, nothing beats classroom experience. So, how do we accomplish this? I don't have the answer because I don't see classroom teachers wanting to take on the task of teaching other teachers without reasonable compensation. First, teaching teachers takes time, paperwork, and energy on top of the fact that they still need to teach classes. Take me. If I was asked to teach teachers, I would ask for the following: that the student-teacher be required to teach at least two classes all year, that the student-teacher spend the entire school day with the instructor, that the college work directly with the instructor, and that the instructor get paid at least a $10,000 stipend for the extra work. Want good teachers? Better pay people to do it. As for professional development, yeah, better get rid of the fad crap and actually train teachers as professionals. I've been to terrible workshops (put on by Sonoma County Office of Ed) and excellent workshops (Bellevue AP Workshop) and the simple difference is one treated people like professionals while the other was thousands of dollars on trendy crap presented by rookies.

2. Let principals hire and fire staff: "Principals need the ability to clean house and hire teachers that will continually strive for progress and not give up hope on our children."
-You make an interesting assumption that the leadership of our schools is consistently good. I've been through both good and not so good leadership, and it makes a huge difference. However, let's remember that principals are hired not by invested shareholders, but by politically elected school boards that that often know nothing about schools and simply like to hold power over something. And principals, like teachers, and hell......Supers.....are underpaid for their job. Our Super oversees thousands of employees in an immensely important job and is paid nothing like a CEO of a company. Therefore, you ask for cheap and often you get cheap. This can have a major impact on the ability to hire and fire good employees. Saying this, I also agree that the teacher's union often protects bad employees, and in some cases, I mean really bad.

3. Remove disruptive students: "Get them into more extracurricular activities, upgrade cafeteria food and require school uniforms......if troubled students interfere with the learning of conscientious kids, they had to be put somewhere else."
-Wow, why didn't I think of that? This is my seventh year teaching at my school and the first year that I didn't teach at least two classes of the 'disruptive students'. This is obviously a wonderful idea, except that you have this little issue of disruptive students being much more difficult to teach. We are talking about students with very challenging behaviors, IEP's that must be followed (and increased legal risk to the teacher), often much more challenging parents, and an environment that can often be demoralizing to young teachers. Saying all that, teaching these kids can be very, very rewarding. It does take a different method, but with the right tools and support, a teacher can get a whole lot accomplished with these kids. I took a group of them to the FED in San Francisco a few years back. Best field trip ever. But what we are talking about regarding separation will take a lot of money and even more administrative support. Are you willing to fork over more tax dollars for 'disruptive students'?

4. Make high schools smaller: "Only when students are attended to in ways similar to independent schools will the necessary positive relationships between students and teachers be established".
-I am all for smaller schools. In fact, I'm all for smaller schools that direct kids into a field of interests (magnet schools). Seriously, I don't need Pre-Calc if I'm going into the field of teaching Government (sorry Darren from Right on Left), so put me in a magnet school for Liberal Arts or Social Studies. Of course, this creates a couple of interesting problems. First, and once again, are you the Taxpayer willing to put out the extra to create new schools and hire more teachers? Right now many of the existing schools are not up to standard, yet you ask for smaller ones? And California reduced class sizes years ago only to realize that they had to hire a ton of emergency credential teachers (mostly in troubled districts) to fill the need for employees. Once again, the American Taxpayer will have to make a choice.

5. Get parents more involved: "More communication is essential, which is one more reason why many educators prefer smaller schools, where principal, teachers, students and parents find it easier to get to know each other."
-Two things. First, parents need to do more parenting at home and stop looking to the schools to do it for them. This means that parents need to do a much better job teaching kids about what successful priorities are. Going on a cruise during Finals Week is not a priority. Neither is going skiing every other Friday all winter. Nor a starting spot on the basketball team or being a head cheerleader. Second, schools need the authority to tell parents to go jump in the lake without having to worry about political repercussions. Positive parental contributions to a school can make education a spectacular experience. Negative parental contributions make academics a nightmare. I was once told by a credential professor that parents will lie and cheat for their children, and in our profession, the teachers get to deal with it. It should not be that way. There are parents that simply need to be told off. "Your habitually tardy daughter was 20 minutes late for the Final. The teacher would not let her take it. We support that. Get out."

6. Make buildings look nice: "Schools which are kept neat and clean and painted, with the bathrooms in good shape, send a message. The student is valued and education is valued."
-This fundamentally correct and true. However, once again, are taxpayers willing to fork out the cash to hire more custodial staff? And remember that kids are often the culprits of trashing a campus. Are parents going to stand by while Johnny is suspended for constantly littering on campus? Parents like to blame the school when gum is everywhere. They might want to look at their kids.

7. Involve the community: "Only the best-organized schools seem to have good access to community resources."
-This is a two way street. Why assume that it is school organization that impacts community involvement? In a town like Ukiah, the school is trying the beat back a horrid drug culture that much of the community actually promotes. Many schools don't have access to the money that somewhere like Interlake in Bellevue, Washington has. You have Microsoft and Nintendo down the road and all the equipment is top-of-the-line, plus the community actively promotes learning. Many schools are islands that promote learning in a sea of a chaotic community.
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