Newt Gingrich, experiencing a resurgence in national political interest, was asked in last week’s debate for his alternative plan to health care reform at which he with incredulity asked, “In 30 seconds?” I’m not sure what percent of the Cobb County budget is made up from educational costs, but I am sure it is larger than the 18 percent that health care makes up in the national economy. Education is so important it touches every single one of us. In our current presidential candidate debates very little attention is being given to the subject of education.
Today I want to back up a moment on our discussion of transiency to address education reform in general terms. Like Newt, I’d like to give the subject as much consideration as possible without losing your interest. I think to continue on transiency without some foundation of understanding is to continue in an attempt to display of words and wisdom without committed application.
I’ll only take a wee bit more than 30 seconds. But if you are short for time, jump directly to my “7 Recommendations for Local School Reform.’’
Part I - Creating Contracts with Parents
In our discussion of the "what" of transiency, we can lose sight of the “so what.” The so what begs the question of why it matters. It matters not only because migration from school to school within the same year decreases a school’s Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) success, but also because in America, we assert that all people have the right to an education. We enforce that right by requiring all people under the age of 16 to be schooled. My wife, trained as a school social worker, tells me that it's called the compulsory attendance law.
Compulsory school attendance laws demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. We believe it so important that even in times requiring great fiscal conservatism, sentiments exist that assert we can not spend too much in resources to provide education to all (Mitt Romney's remembrance that he'd cut the Federal Department of Education is for reasons not entirely fiscal). We believe, constitutionally, that a basic level of education is a right. We believe it so necessary that even our military depends on it as a measure for entry. Once upon a time, secondary education played a key role in teaching citizens their responsibilities to society, our government and how to relate to the world.
Like all others, schools with a high degree of transiency are very important to the future of America. Argyle Elementary is one of Smyrna’s least diverse school in that more than 95 percent of its students are ethnic minorities. National standards cite that less than 50 percent of minority students will graduate high school. Putting issues of citizenship aside, these students make up the future workforce and the Armed Forces of America. We cannot afford to sacrifice their education to politics or fear of discussing sensitive issues. We need to reform schools to work for all residents of Smyrna. But what we expect from parents of school aged children is key. Learning requires more attention than what many parents are willing to or feel able to give. For most parents, simply having their child graduate is the goal. Being schooled does not assure being learned. If you give careful attention to arguments our Cobb County School Board is having about the school calendar, you might be led to believe that providing childcare is the primary service some of us expect from schools.
Why don‘t we require more from students and parents in public schools? Our contract with parents ends at enrollment and attendance. Public schooling in America is like God’s unconditional covenant of Love. I’ll keep letting you in, regardless of what you do or even if you don't love yourself. The challenge here is that Lady Liberty guarantees you the right to go to school without condition. While in school, parents and students combined have “free will” to choose how much they will take from the educational setting. This reality creates a conundrum for school reform. We often know what works, but are hamstrung by parental rights and fear of bad public relations.
During the Smyrna candidate debates Councilwoman Melleny Pritchett said something I thought would certainly prick up some ears and stir up commentary. Speaking to Vinings Pointe residents alongside candidate John Miller, she pondered if Ward 1 was in need of a charter school as part of the solution to improving Argyle. Why charters? Well because charter schools are allowed to define and specialize their curriculum to the needs of the students targeted for enrollment. In Georgia, most charter schools are public schools and must follow state school laws, and local board of education policies. Public charter schools, like the Smyrna Academy of Excellence that is an effort now in feasibility planning, are tuition-free and are organized and operated according to the terms of a charter, or contract. They are managed independently of the local school system. They could be an answer for the problem of transiency for the following reasons:
- They allow specific learning contracts between parent and school.
- They allow fixed purpose education. (i.e. college prep) (science and technology)
- They allow individualized educational plans at a broader scale.
Charter schools all over the nation are proving successful stepping out of the conventional practices in educational policy. Low-income students, minority students, and middle class students all are seeing great benefit from more disciplined, focused, flexible, and committed systems charters allow. When I was a director of admissions in New York, I recruited scholars from an all African American and Hispanic school in Queens that had 100 percent college placement. Why aren't we having more discussion about the dichotomous standards between charter and traditional publics? In my cautious cynicism, I am reminded of this quote from Alexis De Tocqueville as he examined Democracy in America: “But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.” We need educational and political leaders not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom and assumptions of the masses.
Where we are in today’s public education digression lies within Tocqueville’s circa 1850 conclusions. In our American zeal for equality at all costs, we often bring the masses to one common standard. This common standard appears in the form of testing, measuring, and expecting. When we find that a group is not measuring equally with a historical standard, we often resort to two options,
1. Change the standard, or
2. Change the group.
And thus my skepticism about proposals some states, including Georgia, are pitching to the federal government to change the standards of measure now applied. Georgia is asking for a massive overhaul of how it measures student achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind law, according to documents released Monday.
According to the Times Union, our state is requesting that it be allowed to include science, social studies and foreign languages — rather than just math and reading — in its calculation of AYP. Put Spanish comprehension and the mix and our school scores will soar!!
Certainly, aspects of the no child left behind law hamstrings innovative strategies that improve teaching and learning and should be modified. However, we must not lose sight of the original intent of the law. Like in 2004 when the law was established, American education continues to be least competitive with other nations in science and math. While social studies and foreign languages are important, we mustn’t forget that Apple founder the late Steve Jobs and Microsoft's Bill Gates specifically want to invest in math and science as they are key to the future of American technological advantage, if we are to have any. Gains in fourth grader math proficiency actually decreased between 2007 and 09. (see NAEP Mathematics 2009.
Cobb County high schools like Campbell High here in Smyrna actually fair pretty well on current performance measures. It is in middle and elementary schools where we are primarily challenged. As such, counting "AP, SAT and ACT" scores won't matter for much of a difference in our overall standards. We are not losing parents to other cities because of high schools, we lose them because of elementary and middle schools.
I am convinced we can do better than toying with the standards. When I was in the seventh grade my mother came to a parent teacher conference to hear that I had an 80 IQ. Fact is, my school sucked! Years later, at the urging of my band director, my mother moved from my pig and peanut town, to Chesapeake, Va. The guidance counselor there once again attempted to put me in general studies coursework. Luckily my new orchestra director, at one of Virginia's most academically challenging schools, took interest and got me enrolled in academic coursework. I became an honor student. Although there is bias and other problems inherent in administering and interpreting test scores, they do have the benefit of providing a standard of achievement. I don't doubt that my level of knowledge, confidence, esteem, and test taking ability didn't warrant an 80 at that time. I wasn't prepared or exposed to the subject matter on the standard IQ tests. Mr. Gehrhardt, evidently had assessment skills other teachers did not. My new school had overall teaching systems and culture, foreign to me, yet more effective for me than my middle school. The new school allowed teachers to interact in their assessments to determine the best educational plans for each student. Being labeled as a "challenged" middle schooler actually motivated me to learn more about mainstream educational standards. Twenty years after being labeled unteachable, I was a university administrator.
Coming Sunday: Recommendations for Local Reform