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Schools, the government and appearances

I’ve thought about the relationship between school reform and public perception since 2008, when I watched Gov. Schwarzenegger push – and the California Board of Education approve – a middle school Algebra I requirement (which was halted in court, months later), over the protests of the state superintendent of schools.

The same questions came to mind last week, as I reported on the Obama/Duncan administration’s prescriptions for the country’s lowest-performing schools — remedies that lack research to show that they actually work, according to researchers quoted in Education Week.

Bruce FullerIs the government more concerned about public perception than anything else? Is it trying to look like it’s doing something to improve public schools, whether or not the desired outcomes follow? If so, is this an old phenomenon?

Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at UC Berkeley, is studying some related questions, though he frames them in a more sophisticated way and grounds them in more than just a hunch. His theory is that the American public (since the 1980s) has been so cynical about `big government,’ and so unwilling to pay new taxes, that the government “flailing” around, trying to look “efficacious” with fewer and fewer resources.

Main Entry: ef·fi·ca·cious
Pronunciation: \ˌe-fə-ˈkā-shəs\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin efficac-, efficax, from efficere
Date: 1528: having the power to produce a desired effect

To complicate matters, Fuller said, the government (he calls it the “central state”) has far fewer resources to work with than it did during the 1960s and 70s. As a result, he said, it appears to be increasingly turning to “market-based” strategies pushed by people on both sides of the aisle, such as charter schools and school choice, and rewarding or punishing individuals, rather than focusing on the collective whole.

These measures tend to cost less than a deeper, structural change would (for example: rewarding some teachers vs. raising the pay of teachers across the board).

Fuller said this strategy has its merits, such as the potential for innovation. He noted that neighborhood groups, such as Oakland Community Organizations, and nonprofits are gaining more power and influence in the public school system.

Do you agree with Fuller’s observations? Based on what you’ve experienced and read, who are the winners under this approach? Who are the losers? What’s the alternative?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Sounds like good research, and I completely agree with your “hunch” that the vast majority of political positions taken on public education are grandstanding or ignorance or both.

    The worst recent example to me is Arne Duncan’s support for the poverty-stricken Rhode Island district that fired all of its teachers because the union wouldn’t agree to making teachers work more hours for less money. This is “reconstitution,” a reform which continues to be one of the proscribed remedies under NCLB despite the fact it has never been proven to make things better for students — either that next year or in the long run — but certainly allows districts to axe anybody with seniority (and thus higher pay) to meet shrinking budgets.

    Meanwhile, Obama and Duncan’s administration celebrated another school — charter — that had just as low test scores, yet was seen to be doing “innovative” things.

    There are many problems with public education that aren’t about money, especially the burden of 150 years of “this is the way school is” that lock us into structures that have been outdated for a century. Yet most of the solutions to those problems do involve a carefully applied and potentially quite large investment of money and attention.

    One of my children now attends a private school and the experience has been eye-opening for somebody who never had set foot in one before. There are many benefits related to the school’s innovative educational philosophy, of course, and the actual humans running the school; but the effects of money are huge and clear — especially the fact that there is effectively one teacher for every eight students! To see elementary school kids designing bridges on laptops while my peers at work in OUSD are fighting to secure lab supplies and even a single working computer in high school classrooms is to realize, yes, money can make a difference.

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/ Sharon Higgins

    The escalating attacks on public school teachers, the ratcheting-up of forced public school system disruption, and all the forked tongue speech we hear from the top is explained by Michael Fiorillo:

    “The US is in the early stages of something very similar to the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that were imposed on developing countries over the past thirty years, as a result of credit crises. These SAPs entail huge cutbacks, reorganizations, layoffs and privatization in the public sector. They are an in-your-face form of class antagonism, and teacher unions are one of the few institutional barriers against the complete imposition of this economic regime (which, by the way, Barack Obama was hired years ago by Finance and its philanthropic appendages to help broker). [Just notice how entwined he is, and how soft he's been, with Goldman Sachs and Wall Street]

    Having first looted the economy, then engineered a bailout of their recklessness that has made them even more powerful, Finance is now going for strike three by manipulating the ensuing economic crisis to achieve some long cherished goals. Watch for escalating and intense attacks on public sector unions, their pensions, Social Security, Medicare, and all the vestiges of progressive 20th century struggle.”

    I say, run, don’t walk, to get a copy of Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” and read it NOW! Get wise to the mechanisms of neoliberalism (the push of market-based solutions which translates into the privatization of ALL public entities, etc.) before it crushes us all.

    The attacks on teachers are getting closer and closer to hitting a fevered pitch, as evidenced by Newsweek’s recent cover story pushing for the mass firings of teachers, by the proposed provisions of NCLB 2, and by what just happened at Central Falls High School in R.I., a move which was largely orchestrated by the state’s Eli Broad-trained Commissioner of Education (Deborah Gist). That decision, not surprisingly, was praised by Obama and Arne Duncan.

  • J.R.

    There are two sides to this, people are scapegoating teachers, that is true. What is also true is that some teachers should not be in front of a class(they don’t have the temperment or the willingness to do what it takes to teach effectively). I believe teachers have a special public trust(they teach the future) and that is the way they should conduct themselves on a day to day basis(the majority do), but there are some that you watch and wonder “why is this person even bothering with this profession”. The system has been rigged to keep these incompetents employed(we are no longer worried about top notch education, just a bigger union. The parent know that teachers are not the whole problem, just a part of it but it just seems bigger because its right out front(the teacher who wrote loser on that girls paper for instance). Parents are the biggest reason that kids fail, but again they are not they only reason. Bad parents can’t really be dealt with but bad teachers can and should be.If I was a teacher I wouldn’t want anyone making the profession look less than noble, but thats just me I guess.

    Yes there are procedures for getting rid of bad teachers, but it moves slower than cold molasses on ice and cost more than years of pay.I suspect that is done purposely(children are no longer the priority, jobs are).This is no small thing, one bad teacher can negatively affect a whole classroom full of kids, and set them back in their studies.

  • Bruce Fuller

    The Trib’s Katy Murphy has sparked an important dialogue.

    I should clarify that I’m not arguing against some of the education reforms proposed this month by the Obama Administration — experimenting more broadly with charter schools, linking teacher promotion to kids’ achievement, and even reconstituting ‘low performing schools’ (or, is it schools serving children beset by family poverty?). As the writers to the Trib suggest, some of these organizational changes might modestly lift school quality.

    My point is that these reforms are tinkering at the edges — in part given the public’s skepticism over whether government can be efficacious, can truly lift children’s lives on the ground, along with worries that educators aren’t spending taxpayer dollars effectively.

    So, rather that a strategy to rebuild civic enthusiasm over public education… and energize corporate leaders to seriously invest in the new workforce, our political leaders settle for tinkering at the edges.

    Now, this is NOT inevitable. We have seen President Obama come to life over extending health coverage to millions of Americans and containing excessive costs advanced by BMW-hugging MD’s. In health care, we may be on the verge of real structural reform, dramatically altering the mixed-market ways in which health care is provided.

    But in education, we’re fiddling on the margins — until civic leaders, neighborhood activists, and major employers push politicians to consider serious efforts to lift the schools.

  • J.R.

    Bruce,
    The edges(only) are being tinkered with because the powers that be in the overblown,amorphous,bloated,corporatist educational system don’t want to leave their cushy positions shining leather chairs with their collective butts. As I have stated before 8.5K+ per child per year(250K-300K per classroom)85K of that for the teachers(pay + bene’s)and where does the rest go(don’t say consumables because those are rationed out)parents also pay for class supplies. Where is that almost 200K per classroom? That money is not getting to the kids, it’s being siphoned off for land, yachts and heaven knows what else.

  • CarolineSF

    Professor Fuller — since you’re here reading and responding to this thread, can you explain how you viewed City Arts and Tech Charter in San Francisco as deserving of two articles praising it as an admirable model school in a Sunday Chronicle a couple of months ago? CAT’s API is one of SFUSD’s lower, it is far from serving the highest number of disadvantaged students (contrary to the misinformation in your articles), and its college acceptance rate is rendered meaningless by its practice of giving no grades lower than a C. This misleading policy is apparently in use in all Envision schools, by the way.

    Mischaracterizing a struggling and mediocre school as a success raises questions about the quality of research going on here. Can you clarify, please?

  • Debora

    Katy: We were just told by my daughter’s fourth grade teacher that OUSD will not administer the STAR writing test because of budgetary constraints. This is the test that is normally administered to all fourth and seventh grade students throughout the district.

    I have looked on the OUSD website and there is a schedule TO administer the test.

    Would you please try to find out the answer?

  • Steven Weinberg

    Debora: The State eliminated the 4th grade writing test to save money, see the following from the CDE website:
    Budget Act of 2009: Changes to the STAR Program
    The Budget Act of 2009 eliminated approximately $6.5 million from the STAR Program. The budget language stipulated that in implementing this reduction, the CDE shall not eliminate any state assessments funded by the budget act. In response, the CDE submitted an expenditure plan outlining proposed reductions to the STAR contract to the Department of Finance for approval. The expenditure plan was approved on August 28, 2009. That document, titled “Pupil Testing Program Fiscal Year 2009-10 Expenditure Plan,” is available on the SBE Information Memoranda Web page. The key eliminations and reductions for the STAR Program include the following:

    Elimination of the writing task as a part of the CST and CMA grade four English–language arts assessment
    Elimination of the development of an assessment for the fundamentals
    of algebra
    Elimination of future Web postings of released test questions
    Reduction of the number of test forms
    Elimination of the distribution of administration videos/DVDs
    Elimination of the production and distribution of audio CDs
    Reduction of the number of pre-test workshops
    Elimination of post-test workshops
    Elimination of the STAR Teacher Reports
    Elimination of annual analysis of mark discriminations
    Elimination of the use of security seals on directions for administration
    Reduction of interpretive support materials in languages other than English
    The amount of funding apportioned to school districts for the 2009 and subsequent STAR test administrations will not be impacted by the reductions made as a result of the Budget Act. Information regarding STAR apportionments can be found on the CDE Administrative Documents Web page.

  • Debora

    Thank you Steve:

    I just finished the book Making the Grade. Almost makes a person happy that my daughter will not be tested. However, my daughter’s teacher used the lack of a test as an excuse to eliminate the vocabulary, spelling and proofreading that would normally be done in fourth grade. Except for peer proofing and parent volunteers, not one piece of writing last year or this year – same teacher both years – has been proofread, corrected or otherwise had suggestions made by the teacher. All work is “Read for Content Only.”

    “No impact to the student” is the excuse.

    Just had a frustrating conversation with my daughter who is angry that she will have to spend time this summer in writing camp to learn sentence and paragraph structure, Greek and Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes, topic sentences and paragraph ending sentences that lead to the new paragraph. All of these are within the parameters and standards of what should have been taught this year.

    I would have loved to donate the money to the PTA again next year benefitting many students instead of spending it bringing up the educational level of just one student.

  • Hills mama

    Debora – which writing camp are you considering? Would love to know. Thank you!

  • Debora

    Lekha Writing – web address is http://www.lekhapublishers.com/

    The camp is held at Redwood Day School in the Glenview / Fruitvale area – great campus.

    We would have chosen the Bay Area Writing Project at Mills, but my daughter really, really needs the structure of the afternoon where the mechanics of writing are taught. We have looked at the methods of instruction at Lekha as well as the students’ interactions with the writing coaches and it is a great program. It’s rather expensive – about $350 per week for morning and afternoon sessions – a little more for before and after care.

    The Redwood Day School campus is beautiful. Not much parking as it is in a residential neighborhood and the majority of campus space is used for students rather than parking. Spaces in the camp are filling up fast.

    Good Luck – Maybe I’ll see you there!

  • TheTruthHurts

    Let’s say we agree with Cranky and Sharon that the vast, right wing, corporate conspiracy is out to make us all indentured servants.

    What do we do about it? Accept crappy teaching and mediocrity that proves their point? Put money into a system that won’t even let us measure if it’s being effective?

    I am willing to accept that there are incredibly strong forces that want to undue public rights like education. I don’t think our president is one of them or that there is evidence in his past (or the recent healthcare legislation) that he is one of them.

    Whatever the forces at play, we must still deal with REALITY. Voters must support taxation to maintain a public good. Do you know of any voters ready to pour their own cash into our public school systems in the form the schools are in? If yes, why haven’t we solved the problems already? If no, what are we going to do about it? Did you see what has been necessary to pass suboptimal healthcare reform?

    One course in education is to support innovation. Why? Because maybe it will prove a way to do things better that people will support.

    Another answer would be to simply say, we aren’t funded well enough. OK, I can accept that. How much would California have to spend to catch up with states that are doing well internationally? Get that number and figure out how much (proportionately) taxes would need to go up to fund it. While you’re at it, add California’s cost of living into the equation. Then take that to the ballot and see how far you get.

    For those of us on the sidelines, it seems that innovation is the path of least resistance and most probable of success. However, I’d love to hear an argument to the contrary. Show me why I should just open my wallet for the system as is and how it will fix 50 years high dropout rates and poorly prepared graduates. I’m all eyes.

    BTW, I agree with the original post that appearances are always important politically. However, I don’t think school administrators in California or nationally want children to continually fail.

    Politicians? That’s another story.