School Beat: It’s Time for New Strategies

by Lisa Schiff on August 18, 2011

San Francisco’s public schools school swung back into session this week. This year as in years past, we’re faced with great possibilities and great challenges, the most critical of which is dramatically improving the quality of all of our schools. Our next step in this campaign must be to recognize that our efforts to make our schools excellent places for all kids have reached a plateau. The gains we have made can only be held onto by fighting tooth and nail, not all of our schools are equally strong and many children are missing out on a quality education. It’s time for something radically different.

The arrival of California’s latest standardized test scores for schools, district and the state overall drives this message home. While test data by definition can only provide a partial picture, that picture has been the same for years and clearlys show that achievement gap experienced by African-American and Latino students is as persistent as ever. The recent report on drop-out rates in California only confirms the severity of this crisis.

Along with the above challenges are those generated from the hemorrhage of education resources that began with Proposition 13, such as large class sizes; the absence of counselors, librarians, nurses, and physical education teachers (especially outside of San Francisco where communities have not dedicated resources just for these purposes); and limited access to foreign language instruction. All of these have been tackled locally in San Francisco with some impressive measures of success, though those victories have been quite difficult to achieve.

For instance, our current federal education policy, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), was in theory meant to empower families and educators in order to identify and clarify how schools were not meeting the needs of students. But in the many years that this legislation has been in place, from Bush Jr. through Obama, we’ve discovered that nothing in this policy was what it really claimed to be. NCLB located education in a political, social and economic vacuum, where primary contributors to poor achievement (such as insufficient access to food and healthcare), remained unacknowledged, as did funding inadequacy. The data and the tests that continue to be at the heart of NCLB are deeply flawed and have to a great degree contributed to the further failing of schools for all students including those most vulnerable children it claimed to prioritize.

President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has actually made the grim reality of NCLB even worse by introducing a “market” approach to education with his Race To The Top (RTTT) program. Doling out resources through a competitive application process, he has established that by definition there will be winners and losers. In Duncan’s world, the losers get doubly hit, as they are required to enact expensive, questionable changes across entire starts just in order to be “eligible.” Continuing with this corrupt philosophy, Duncan is aggressively expanding the privatization of schools, slowly but surely shifting the responsibility for educating students from society to the whim of entrepreneurs.

But the grave failings of NCLB, RTTT and other policies are only part of the story. Public education activists and supporters have been working hard for years to challenge these policies, while simultaneously attempting to put forward better approaches to a complete, rigorous curriculum offering and more meaningful, useful forms of assessment and testing. Over time, communities across the country have been able to provide compelling examples of alternative models for teaching and evaluation. Some states and districts have had their own data to back up the advantages of these alternatives and many have had at the very least a compelling analysis to show that what we were being forced to accept was not constructive. Just last week Tom Torlakson, California’s newly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, released his own plan for educational success, A Blueprint For Great Schools, which is a state level example of just this kind of thinking.

Ultimately though, we have been running hard but going nowhere fast. Our efforts for creating a stronger educational system are moving along worn grooves, with the same back and forth between administrators and education activists keeping us in predictable patterns of engagement. Parent activists and educators have been walking in a downward spiral in which we’ve been slowly led to accept less as more, restrictions as progress, and competition as expansion.

It’s a maddening situation with only one real explanation — the federal government has no interest in ensuring that all children receive a quality education. Though disturbing, this is the most straightforward explanation that accounts for all of the facts in front of us. An honest look at the many years struggling against and/or trying to work constructively with the existing federal department of education and our state departments of education reveals that our progress has been quite modest, and that for our most disenfranchised students, it has been much too little.

At any individual school this may not feel like an accurate assessment, because individual communities are often able to come together and make great strides. But this type of change is not scalable or systemic in the way it needs to be if we are really serious about ensuring that all children graduate from high school with a solid education. An experienced, successful high school principal in New York expressed very similar sentiments just this week in his letter of resignation: “Many of you recognize that our current educational system is not designed to support these children nor the educators who work with them.” Too many of the changes we’ve been able to make in our children’s schools are relatively fragile, temporal victories, not reflected in any larger policies that will have a sustained impact.

This is a hard statement to read — or write — for any of us involved in the ongoing effort to provide a rich and rigorous educational experience for all children. The basis for such a view lies in all too obvious weakening of our national promise to educate the country’s youth that we’ve seen over the past decades. From a relatively high point of the civil rights struggles that led to a legal call for integration, we have been in a low slump for many years, despite the enormous increases in knowledge about child development, educational practices, and an increased base of wealth. Our society thinks in the short term and places greatest value on individual gain. This destructive worldview is only exacerbated by the current economic crisis and the ever expanding cheap labor pool. There is no need or desire to spend money for a vast, well-educated populous, much less one that is empowered to critically engage with the world.

NCLB and RTTT do not ensure that all children are academically well-equipped. Instead our nation’s education policies have more in common with deregulation and privatization efforts that swept through the public sphere and redefined a vast array of publicly provided or regulated social goods, from air traffic control to energy to banking. The lack of resources in public schools and the increasing ability for private entities to carve out lucrative sectors of students to “educate” is another variant of the S&L crisis and the Enron scandal. What were once considered shared social obligations and benefits have been turned inside out, mined for their profit-making components, and then cast aside.

If this assessment is true, then we are having the wrong conversations and speaking to the wrong people. It’s time to change the dialogue and connect with the millions of others who have hit that same wall on other issues. The Save Our Schools March on Washington this summer was a wonderful thing, but not because anyone in Washington really cares what we do, but because it was a huge step at establishing a tighter coalition between teachers, parents and students. The next move is to connect with others in a larger network that includes people working on other basic needs, such as housing, jobs, health care, and food. Our struggle is the same — to reprioritize the value of these basic elements in all of our lives and to remember that we all live better when they are secured for everyone.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA.

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