Educational Reform – Is Separate But Equal Back?

July 22, 2013 at 11:27 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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A couple of years ago I ran for the Washington State Board of Education because school board members throughout the state were beside themselves with a newly minted requirement that 24 credits be required for HS graduation.  At the time, the SBE noted that 90% of school districts required 22 or more credits.  Nonetheless, the point was made – and the SBE understood it – that there was no money to support requiring 2-4 more credits for HS graduation.  And the SBE said that additional credits shouldn’t be required until money was available.

One member of the SBE commented at the time that raising standards without financial support would make things more difficult for at-risk youth, but he decided to vote for the increased requirements anyway.  The public testimony and written comments overwhelmingly were against the SBE doing this.  The supporting voices were from the Partnership for Learning (Washington Roundtable education group), Stand for Children and the League of Education Voters.  Their concern being for “higher standards” that included an additional year of English and mathematics for students so that our young people would be more ready to embrace STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) careers.  This is the same group – along with their deep-pocket philanthropists and backers – that successfully passed the charter schools initiative in November of 2012. In fairness, the Legislature forced the additional year of math (typically in lieu of a student elective) and had cosponsors for the charter initiative.

I have made the point again and again that this effort at so-called educational reform is nothing new – in fact, it’s all contained in “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 report that recommended more English, science, math, computer science and foreign language. . . along with a 7-period school day!  The last three decades since the report was published has seen uneven implementation of these recommendations because as a nation or as states, we’ve never come to the table to discuss how to fund this.  Of course, Congress never got past Hurricane Camille and the plaintiff cry from New Orleans to have the Army Corps of Engineers rebuild the city’s dike to withstand an F-5 hurricane which, ultimately, resulted in Katrina coming in and its aftermath 36 years later.  Granted, it is difficult to get Congress to agree on spending $30-40 billion on one city’s needs, so one couldn’t realistically expect that public education funding would or should come from them.  However, even in Washington state where education is the primary role of government, it also gets the short end of the funding stick.

So, what’s the point here?  First, the obvious one of money to fulfill these comprehensive requirements outlined in “A Nation at Risk.”  Second, and likely more important, the lack of a consensus on how to improve the educational process for all students – commonly referred to as equity.  Students from middle to affluent households consistently outperform their peers in low-income schools.  So, we find ourselves pointing fingers at school district inefficiencies, parents who can’t provide the same level of support that middle class and above parents typically expect for their children and schools, incompetent teachers and anything else that seems to define “the problem.”

It continues to amaze me that people who have never had to spend a day teaching in a K-12 classroom, managing parental expectations, responding to federal and state requirements (money or not), keeping the doors open and lights on or helping the student who in no way shape or form can graduate from high school on time.  This disconnect in reform-minded experience and the real world of schools runs up against the public education enterprise and its resistance to change.  This resistance can, at times, be those in power digging in their heels, but most of the time it is because seemingly everyone has a better idea about educating children.  This is why a change in curriculum or educational process that directly affects children and instruction takes three years to realize.  Year one is planning; year two is developing, training and piloting; and, year three is where full-blown implementation takes place if warranted.

To some degree, this cautious approach by public education to new ideas is reasonable; in some cases, however, it can be seen as resistance to needed change that doesn’t require a three-year window – at least as seen from the outside.  Educational reform means different things to each of us, but the constant drumbeat for accountability, innovation and radical reinvention has to be tempered with the understanding that these are our children, not abstractions on a spreadsheet that fill a cell with data.

Public education reform may be returning us to separate but equal schools.  That is to say, charter schools may be seen as the biggest boon to improving the results for at-risk, low-income students.  Why?  Because they have few of the constraints of public schools and, to my way of looking at things, are successful when they remain small (which the overwhelming majority are) and can address a highly student-centered pedagogy.  Although it would be great to have this available to the 75% of students who can make their way through the traditional system, it may be necessary to assure the success of the underperforming 25%.

If we are committed to having all students reaching their potential, this may be where we’ll find ourselves – public charter schools that basically serve as an incubator for children who desperately need to have the opportunity for the future the other 75% typically get.

I’m interested in your thoughts. . .




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