Which Path to Excellence in Education? by David Cohen

This blog was created by David B. Cohen and posted on InterACT. It was so good that I am posting it in full here rather than try to say the same thing in another way. Thanks David for this great post. Sounds like Louisiana to me!!

October 13, 2011

by David B. Cohen

This blog post was co-authored with Rachel Norton, a school board member for San Francisco Unified School District. Earlier this year she also contributed to this site by sharing her thoughts about school turnaround models. A slightly shorter revision of this blog post was also posted at Beyond Chron, a progressive alternative media site. [Note: on that version, we stated that the Foundation for Excellence in Education had only three board members, a statement based on the contents of their website at the time we wrote that draft. Their website has since been updated to reflect a board of eight members].

It’s not often San Francisco hosts Jeb Bush and Rupert Murdoch, let alone on the same day, but it’s happening this week. Bush is Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. The Foundation brings its National Summit for Education Reform to San Francisco on October 13-14, with Bush and Murdoch among the keynote speakers (agenda here).

We hope they enjoy their stay, but reject their approach to education reform. Will their speeches include disclosures of their personal and family financial stakes in charter schools, educational publishing, and testing and data systems they champion in the name of education reform? As a San Francisco school board member and as a California teacher leader, we believe the Foundation misidentifies the most pressing problems in education, and offers solutions that are not in the best interests of Californians.

Their agenda asks, “How do you turn around a school or school district that has fundamentally institutionalized failure?” Those of us working daily at the school and district level reject that over-generalization, and suggest failure begins higher up. California has slashed funding necessary for adequate staffing and a well-rounded curriculum. Nationally, we rank at or near the bottom in staffing for high school teachers, counselors, administrators, nurses and librarians – but we have not reduced our testing budget. The conference contains no hint of support for distressed public school systems, but celebrates charter schools. Instead of relentlessly promoting privately-managed charter schools, reformers should acknowledge that charters are not a magic bullet; research on their effectiveness mixed at best, as is their commitment to educating all students.

Another speaker, Chester Finn, Jr., advocates eliminating local school boards. We think local control enhances innovation and support for schools. In 2004, San Francisco voters approved the Public Education Enrichment Fund to support preschool, sports, libraries, and the arts. In 2008, voters passed The Quality Teachers and Education Act, focusing on retaining teachers and improving teacher evaluation. Teachers in hard-to-staff subjects and schools receive additional compensation.

We also disagree with supposedly pro-parent reform strategies like the “parent trigger” – another conference agenda item. In California, the parent trigger has meant outside organizers making choices in private, then using questionable tactics to gather signatures for charter conversions. This approach has been used in the Los Angeles Unified School District, though recent analysis showed LAUSD’s privately-managed schools performed worse than those under district management. We prefer authentic parent engagement. San Francisco Unified recently passed a parent engagement policy that calls for the district to move parents away from a “dependency” model and towards an “empowerment” model. Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento has a “Parent University” to educate parents about expectations for their children in high school and college.

The conference addresses the need to improve teaching, but not in ways that will help California teachers. Conference speakers include officials from Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Illinois – states that have put aggressive anti-teacher and anti-union “reforms” in place, though strongly unionized states and nations come out on top in comparisons of student learning. Instead of attacking unions, reformers should look at California’s Quality Education Investment Act, spearheaded by the California Teachers Association, and the National Education Association’s Priority Schools Campaign. These efforts show that union-management partnerships can reform schools without creating labor conflicts.

Conference speakers will tout the use student test scores and “value-added” measurement for teacher evaluation and pay, but all three leading educational research organizations reject that evaluation approach, and test-based performance-pay has a consistently dismal record of waste and failure. Still, evaluations do need improvement. Accomplished California Teachers has published teacher evaluation reform proposals that have the backing of teachers and researchers, and shared this report with lawmakers and school districts. In coming months we will publish recommendations for additional reforms to the profession.

Jeb Bush and Rupert Murdoch’s brand of “reform” is about weakening unions, shifting money from public education to private companies, and increasing standardized testing to the detriment of non-tested curriculum. We reject their vision, in favor of an educational program that empowers local communities with the authority and funding to provide quality schools and a well-rounded education for all students.

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