Archive for May 3rd, 2009

Think that’s a crazy question to ask?

Read this detailed report from the LA Times.

Among the findings:

* Building a case for dismissal is so time-consuming, costly and draining for principals and administrators that many say they don’t make the effort except in the most egregious cases. The vast majority of firings stem from blatant misconduct, including sexual abuse, other immoral or illegal behavior, insubordination or repeated violation of rules such as showing up on time.

* Although districts generally press ahead with only the strongest cases, even these get knocked down more than a third of the time by the specially convened review panels, which have the discretion to restore teachers’ jobs even when grounds for dismissal are proved.

* Jettisoning a teacher solely because he or she can’t teach is rare. In 80% of the dismissals that were upheld, classroom performance was not even a factor.

When teaching is at issue, years of effort — and thousands of dollars — sometimes go into rehabilitating the teacher as students suffer. Over the three years before he was fired, one struggling math teacher in Stockton was observed 13 times by school officials, failed three year-end evaluations, was offered a more desirable assignment and joined a mentoring program as most of his ninth-grade students flunked his courses.

As a case winds its way through the system, legal costs can soar into the six figures.

Not convinced?  Just dig through the numbers reported by the California Department of Education.  (ala 67% graduation rate district wide through high school vs 80% statewide…) Or perhaps check out this study and write up from 3 years ago.

Slightly more than 44% of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District graduated from high school in four years, according to the study, which was conducted by the research arm of the nonpartisan publication Education Week. Of the country’s 50 largest public school districts, only five placed lower than Los Angeles, the study determined. […] The Education Week study found that New York City has a graduation rate of 39% and put Chicago, the nation’s third largest district, at 52%.

Is this correctable?  Probably a little, but at what cost?  That’s the issue.  Do you want to spend 10-30 years and continue to have a less optimal experience for generations of children while we let the slow grind system try to improve it? or do we just blow the whole thing over and try something new?

The contingencies regarding performance are messed up in these big city school districts.  The performance is so far removed from the paycheck that you have no hope of really impacting teacher/student/admin performance.  The hope of every parent in these school districts is that you draw a good straw with your local school and the teachers.  i.e. the teacher has to be good as the system can’t train them or course correct.

Outside of teacher performance the current framework of mass public education is flawed.  Schools teach out of date behaviors, skills and knowledge.  The environment for learning is outdated and terribly inefficient. The way students are evaluated doesn’t match up with the actual learning taking place or lack thereof.

Forget the big education theory questions.  These big city school districts simply get crushed under their own weight.  Too many students.  Too many uncommitted parents.  Broken buildings.  Out dated technology.  District wide curriculum is too vanilla.  Constant need to “beat the numbers” to get budget overtakes all other goals. Terrible nutrition in school food.

Here are some of my own experiences to back up my claims:

  • All food on campus is pre packaged.  It is no longer cooked on the spot.  It usually is some sugary, preservative filled something
  • Most campuses are very insecure.  As long as you talk and look like a parent, you can get in.  I’ve only had to show an ID once.
  • There are no classroom assistants.  1 teacher 20-24 students and occasionally a room parent/helper
  • The computers are very old, using very old software and not in the least bit focused on the Internet
  • Without the constant donation of time, money and supplies from parents the classrooms would go without printer paper, Kleenex, a vacuum…
  • Earthquake drills are only run at the END of the year
  • There is no consequence for tardiness and the most schools do not have automated alert system for notifying parents
  • Teachers are responsible for finding their own subs and when the sub doesn’t show, it’s not clear what the remedy is
  • and so much more…

I’m not complaining nor blaming anyone in particular.  I grew up on public schools and I’m doing just fine.  The point is you can’t  implement a better education program when the core of teacher performance, school environment and daily operations are fundamentally broken.  And, no, throwing money at this has not helped.

It’s time to face the facts – the system doesn’t scale.  Trying to get more students into worse aging buildings with ever decreasing resources and under trained teachers doesn’t work.  Vouchers, charters, after school programs… all of that is a band aid or a smoke screen to save a job or two.

Scale?  How can the public school systems scale?

  • Technology
  • New focus on the skills that matter
  • Put it on the parents and provide the resources


For curriculum – By using the Internet and online curriculum huge amounts of budget can be freed up.  Stop printing all this stuff.  Stop buying out of date books from publishers.  Even kindergarten’s can use a computer or a Kindle and these devices cost far less than books in the long haul, as they are multi purpose, can be updated, etc. etc.

For physical space – There is no reason to have these clunky school buildings with oversized lunch rooms and pretty little libraries.  Why not build an efficient community center that has the main focus of technology and community rooms?  Don’t build another library.  Don’t get me wrong. I’m a bibliophile and I still think the little school library or regional branches are doomed because they don’t provide you the materials you or your child needs any faster / better than you could get them via the Internet or Barnes and Noble.  The less space we waste on books and materials, the more space we have for learning or the less space we need period.

For administration – Why do we have all this paperwork?  This is crazy making!  40 forms for enrollment. sign in, sign out.  Report cards.  Memos for fund raising.  Volunteer sign ups. Calendars.  Menus.  …  STOP!  Use technology.  and none of it would cost anything.  There is enough open source software to power all of these features or I’m sure the schools can find some enterprising students to help build it.

Skills that Matter

Teach computing early.  It’s the ol’ teach a man to fish thing.

Teach reading.

Teach figuring things out for yourself.

Teach listening.

Teach mathematical thinking (not rote arithmetic!)

Teach many languages

And teach it all in a way that isn’t about mimickry or regurgitation.  It should all be exploratory – theory making and testing.  Questions.  I’m not education theorist, that’s probably clear. However, based on my own experience with my children I think young children are very good at abstract thinking.  When we are too hasty to fill them with facts we clog up that very useful abstract thinking.  Most facts can be retrieved or computed quickly nowadays.  Learning how to talk about things and question and query and compute is way more important than the actual fact. (Oh and many facts we teach are usually outdated by the time they are learned!)

Parents and Resources

I have repeatedly given this advice to my friends preparing to put their children in school:  Your children will get the quality of education YOU provide.  Yup, don’t rely on the schools and community to give you what you think is needed.  Get involved and make it happen.

This needs to be amped up by the schools too.  Here’s a crazy idea… Test the parents and report those results with the students.  Really be hard on the parents for getting their kids to school on time, getting homework done, knowing the material themselves.

And, finally, as a way to let parents be even more involved… Provide distance learning to every student. Let any student elect into distance learning as long as they show they can keep up.  There should be a hybrid model.

and more!…

Public school systems in large cities are lost.  We can’t keep putting Humpty Dumpty back together.  Find a different model… now… the consequences of not doing that are really straight forward: some 50% of the population in a big city doesn’t graduate and isn’t able to earn more than 40k a year.  You do the math from there to see why waiting for reform is a less optimal strategy.

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