Sunday, September 13, 2009

Searching for leaders of school reform

I was fortunate tonight to catch Bill Moyer’s Journal on PBS. Among his guests were Dr. Jim Young Kim. Born in the U.S. and raised in Iowa. He has spent the last twenty-five years delivering health care to some the world’s poorest people including those of Haiti, Africa, and Asia. He will now take a position as President of Dartmouth University.
His discussion pointed out that improving health care delivery required the participation of the doctors, nurses, and medical workers, and community members in their communities- it does not come from the hospital/health care industry. His talk reminded me of the argument made here before about school reform.
Democratic school reform will come when we can engage teachers, students and families. We need to engage the teachers in the classroom. It will not come from consultant class nor from universities not working closely with teachers. My 35 + years of experience in working with schools convinces me that the consultants and the researchers may receive the research funds, but the solutions will come from dialogues with the teachers and community activists.

As has been argued here before, the most essential problem with the politicians approaches to school reform is that they listen to promoters and not to teachers.
Arne Duncan, Kevin Johnson , Michelle Rhee, Joe Klein and others well represent the promoters view of school reform Both Duncan and Johnson, along with Sarah Palin, like to use basketball metaphors. So, lets try one out.
Arne Duncan and Kevin Johnson are cheerleaders for an ideology of how school reform should work. They chant and cheer and show a little flash. But, they are cheerleaders.
The players who make school reform work are teachers and students. If you want to win the game, you need to practice and improve the fundamentals – not watch the cheerleaders. Lets look at some fundamentals. Some schools have 17 students per class, some have 34 students per class, and some have as many as 42 per class- particularly in California. Then, all the students are measured on the same test. That would be like having one team field 12 players while another could only field 5 players.
The most basic decisions on class size in schools are made by the Governor, the legislature, and the voters. In last year’s budget deal, the legislature and the Governor cut some $6 billion from the k-12 schools forcing lay offs of teachers and increasing class sizes. California now has the largest class sizes in the nation. Our Senators and our Assemblypersons voted for this. They argue that they had no choice.
The legislature, enjoys a 16% approval rating from voters. They listened to Arne Duncan, the coach of the cheerleaders. In particular Senator Gloria Romero has introduced legislation to change the way California uses student test scores to comply with the demands of the Obama/Duncan administration. This particular coach has $10 Billion dollars to distribute. But, the federal competition is a distraction from the more basic issues. Until the schools are adequately funded, and class sizes reduced to at least the national average- no amount of cheerleading will improve test scores. You can’t win the game by only putting half of the team of teachers on the floor. Senators Romero and Steinberg, and the Assemblypersons know this.
At his recent Town Hall meeting in Sacramento Duncan was asked a couple of strong questions, polite, but firm, about the lack of resources for schools due to the California economic crisis. He cited the additional aid provided by the stimulus bill and the $10 billion available through the Race to the Top and other competitive grants. This is, of course, a very limited response. The economic crisis of school funding in California is beyond any investment provided by federal funds.
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