School Beat: Which Path to Excellence in Education?

by David B. Cohen & Rachel Norton on October 13, 2011

On October 13, the Foundation for Excellence in Education will bring its National Summit for Education Reform to San Francisco. No one disputes that American schools need improvement, but many us engaged in the daily struggle to provide a quality education to every child feel the Foundation’s agenda of more testing, expanding charter schools and ending local control amounts to a deep misunderstanding of the source of and solution to the problems in our schools.

Teachers and parents in California’s schools are stressed and demoralized. Budget cuts have decimated staff, leaving us near the bottom of all states in per pupil spending, and staffing ratios for teachers, administrators, counselors, librarians, and nurses. Elementary classrooms are exceeding thirty students each, high schools going over forty. The challenges mount, yet schools carry on.

Meanwhile, conference speakers are pushing reforms such as eliminating local school boards, increasing vouchers and charter schools, pulling the “parent trigger”, attacking unions, and evaluating teachers based on standardized test scores. Support for the vast majority of public schools and their teachers is nowhere in the agenda. Jeb Bush (chair of the Foundation) and Rupert Murdoch are scheduled as keynote speakers. Will they disclose in those speeches the nature of their personal and family financial stakes in charter schools, textbook publishing, and testing and data systems they champion in the name of reform?

Instead of abandoning local control of schools, San Franciscans have repeatedly shown the importance of joining together to support all schools and students. In 2004, San Francisco voters approved the Public Education Enrichment Fund, which provides millions of dollars for preschool, sports, libraries, and the arts in public schools. In 2008, they passed a parcel tax to fund improved teacher retention, compensation, and evaluation.

Instead of a “parent trigger”, 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.

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.

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.

The conference speakers will tout using student test scores 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.

On October 13, at 4 p.m., supporters of public education will rally outside conference headquarters (the Palace Hotel, at 2 Montgomery St.). We will stand up in favor of reforms that truly empower local communities and invest in quality public schools providing a well-rounded education for all students.

David B. Cohen is a public high school teacher in California, and Associate Director of Accomplished California Teachers, a teacher leadership network. Rachel Powell Norton is a member of the Board of Education of the San Francisco Unified School District.

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