Education fixes, straight from the students

image from alyssalaurel’s site at flickr.com/creativecommons

Earlier this week, as many of you have been discussing, Michelle Rhee presented her ideas for improving public education in the United States.

Tonight, two high school debaters had their chance.

In a fancy office building in downtown Oakland, Bay Area Urban Debate League members Kwodwo Moore, 19, and William Hampton, 16, offered their fixes to a small group of elected officials (or representatives), lawyers, and others involved in educational programs.

Moore, a senior at Emery Secondary School, thinks some classrooms should have two fully trained teachers. He says students would take more of an interest in their schoolwork if their schools created more cross-curricular courses. Hampton, who attends Aspire’s California College Prep in Berkeley, proposed removing the A to G high school graduation requirement (in place for his school and this year’s OUSD freshmen) to allow kids to pursue their own career paths, beginning in 11th grade. He also made the case for student evaluations of teachers.

Both teenagers made persuasive arguments, and — as instructed — the other guests asked tough questions, sometimes poking holes in their proposals.

After it was over, I asked Hampton what he thought about education reform. (This year, the experienced debaters have spent most of their time researching space policy.) I half-expected him to say how impossibly complicated it all was, but he didn’t.

“I feel people make it more complex than it actually is,” he said.

Do you agree? (It’s funny; usually I hear people say the opposite of education proposals — that they’re too simplistic.) I plan to write a story about this group next week.

Katy Murphy

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

  • http://www.parentsacrossamerica.org CarolineSF

    I agree with young Mr. Hampton about the A-G requirements. Students need flexibility to succeed, not more rigidity. And they need career/vocational paths, not just a “you-must-go-to-college-or-you’re-a-failure” message.

    But I think it’s unlikely that he has had a chance to follow the variety of education policy debates — most adults don’t either — and until you really get into them, it’s hard to recognize how complex it really is.

    For example: If low achievement correlates directly with poverty, does it then make sense to blame teachers, when what they’re being blamed for is poverty?

    Another example: The corporate so-called “education reformers” and their supporters blame teachers’ unions for low achievement, claiming that if it were just easier to fire “bad teachers,” and if teachers had no seniority rights, achievement would improve.

    Yet around the nation, the nonunion states where teachers don’t have those rights are consistently the LOWEST academic achievers, and the strongest union states are the HIGHEST academic achievers. So that complicates that claim. (Or maybe just reveals it as a lie.)

    Another example: Certain charter schools and chains have very high achievement, including for low-income, at-risk students. But they also impose admissions hurdles that mean only highly motivated students with supportive families are admitted to the schools, and tend to have sky-high attrition rates, showing that insufficiently motivated and less-successful kids stampede en masse out the door — and are not replace, unlike at public schools. So, it is E-Z to just patly say that those charter schools are a success, if much (all?) of their success is attributable to enrolling and keeping the most-motivated students?

    Just three of many examples in the education debate.

  • http://www.parentsacrossamerica.org CarolineSF


  • CogInthe OUSDWheel

    Students, especially high school students, can make significant contributions to the discussion about education reform. However, I am, unfortunately, against students having a voice in teacher evaluations. It sounds like a good idea on the face of it, since they are the main reciepients/ participants of a teacher’s performance. But because we have a coercive situation, i.e. where students are compelled to attend school, and that already sets up a very unjust circumstance.

    Some kids love school, some hate it, most are in-between somewhere. Sometimes they’re mad at a teacher for legitimate reasons, but just as often, it is for no reason at all; they’re just mad at school in general. Some kids come from backgrounds where parents take an active role in their children’s upbringings; others are little more than sperm/egg donors.

    Would every kid be allowed to evaluate? If not, how do we choose? And at what age? As always, the devil is in the details. I also feel that unless I am allowed to simultaneously evaluate parents/guardians in how well THEY do THEIR jobs; i.e. raising children, I do not feel that student voice and/or that of their parents, can play a role in teacher evaluations. It’s already a fairly dubious system, and with kids, it would mostly be a popularity contest, because only a small percentage would really be prepared to assess teacher by any professional criteria, and it would be mostly about whether the teacher was “cool,” and the class was “fun.” Hard classes, classes with lots of homework, teachers who were very strict about rules, would be negatively evaluated by students. So, nope, not as long as we have compulsory education; students evals of teachers are just not a fair or reasonable option anytime soon.

  • http://www.aboutfigurines.com/brands/ Edward “Swarovski” James

    We have tried complex systems maybe it is time to get back to simple basic education. Teach reading, writing, basic math, and computer usage. We also need to teach basic social skills and ethics.

    Perhaps the best use of my time in high school was in a basic typing course. It has been the most useful course I ever took.


  • J.R.

    “Another example: The corporate so-called “education reformers” and their supporters blame teachers’ unions for low achievement, claiming that if it were just easier to fire “bad teachers,” and if teachers had no seniority rights, achievement would improve”.

    Actually Caroline the union issue, and seniority are just a few of the “broken spokes on the broken wheel of an education system” that need to be fixed(one issue at at time is being addressed because the unions are fighting every inch), so it’s either your lack of comprehension or you just don’t want to face truth.

    I also agree that kids should not evaluate teachers(popularity contest), but children’s progress from year to year with respect to the curriculum should be measured(gradebook inspection and relevance toward this end should be mandatory).

  • http://www.parentsacrossamerica.org CarolineSF

    But J.R., I do comprehend the actual reality that nonunion states correlate with low achievement and strongly unionized states correlated with high achievement. Defenders of the failed status quo — that is, the fads and slick nostrums of corporate education reform — refuse to acknowledge that reality, but it is reality.

  • J.R.

    You are actually attempting to correlate union membership with high achievement. Randi Weingarten tried to make that point in a debate, and got laughed at by the crowd. No relation or causation.


  • J.R.

    I am so flabbergasted that I forgot my question mark.

    “You are actually attempting to correlate union membership with high achievement”?

    There, now I feel better.

  • Cranky Teacher

    You feel better, but you didn’t make your case.

  • J.R.

    There is no convincing a dyed in the wool unionist that unions have (in and of themselves) anything to do with student performance, but are are vehicle to take care of the needs of its members at the exclusion of all else.Example: It makes as much sense as saying the majority of low scoring states are in the south, therefore the heat makes people stupid. That lack of causation should be obvious to anyone. The real proof here is the actual results over time, and the record speaks for itself(not good).

  • http://www.parentsacrossamerica.org CarolineSF

    J.R., strongly unionized states INDISPUTABLY correlate with high achievement, and nonunion states INDISPUTABLY correlate with low achievement. That is a rock-solid correlation that is beyond argument.

    Correlation doesn’t equal causation (this is where you are confused), so I acknowledge that strongly unionized states don’t necessarily CAUSE high achievement. In fact, more likely the correlation is with lower poverty and higher statewide education levels.

    However, that correlation conclusively discredits the so-called-“reformers'” efforts to blame teachers’ unions and teachers’ job security for low achievement. It disproves the link that is so often falsely and maliciously claimed to exist.

  • J.R.

    You are just going to have to deal with the consequences of your position(as wrong as it is). The unions will never change and insist on quality not longevity on their own, so the taxpayers will do it for them. If the teachers and their unions had done their jobs properly and educated the children beyond “functional illiteracy”(and of course there are many exceptions)no one would have ever heard of reformers.

  • http://www.parentsacrossamerica.org CarolineSF

    That’s not the point I was making, J.R., so you’re refuting something I wasn’t saying. (That’s another discussion.)

    You’re free to criticize unions, but you can’t claim that teachers’ unions lead to low achievement.

    That’s because the correlation between non-union/weak union states and low achievement, and the correlation between strongly unionized states and high achievement, conclusively disproves that claim.

    I would respond that if the U.S. had a social safety net and a culture of combating and reducing child poverty, our educational system wouldn’t face such challenges, and no one would ever have heard of the current brand of fad-pushing, snake-oil-peddling pseudo-reformers.

  • J.R.

    California has one of the strongest teachers unions in the country therefore should we not have the best students…… not even close. As a matter of fact we have two of the worst districts in the US in this state(LAUSD & OUSD). There is absolutely no correlation at all. You will find good districts in so called bad states, and bad districts in good states. The parents, teachers and students matter. The unions only matter to their members. The taxpayers are finally taking notice.

  • J.R.

    We have been drinking snake oil for the last 3-4-5 decades, only in the last decade and a half have we even begun to do anything about poor performance.

  • http://www.parentsacrossamerica.org CarolineSF
  • Kwodwo Moore

    @Edward “Swarovski” James

    I get the eerie feeling you were at the table, that’s almost exactly what I said on Thursday.