By Theresa Harrington
Thursday, April 21st, 2011 at 7:35 pm in Education.
Dissatisfaction with the current educational system’s failure to provide every student with a high quality education is driving reform efforts nationwide, as well as locally.
Reform pioneers Michelle Rhee (the former Washington DC schools chief who closed down schools and pushed for merit-based teacher pay) and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (who founded the St. HOPE nonprofit and charters in Sacramento) came to the San Francisco Commonwealth Club this week to beat the reform drum loudly, striking chords with parents and community members who believe many schools are failing to adequately educate kids.
Johnson challenged mayors to improve schools in their communities in one of five ways:
1) invest in joint facilities such as libraries, pools and gyms; provide out-of-school programs for kids; and contribute to school safety;
2) Use the bully pulpit to address school issues that affect the community, such as drop-out rates;
3) Take control of a subset of schools and negotiate collective bargaining agreements or authorize charters (if possible, under state law);
4) Take partial control of schools, by appointing some school board members (if possible);
5) Take full control of schools (if possible under state law).
Rhee has founded a nonprofit called Students First aimed at building a coalition of reform advocates that could rival powerful teachers’ unions, she said.
“The problem is: We don’t have an organized interest group with the same heft in this country that’s advocating for children,” she said. “So, we have lopsided policies and lopsided laws. We need to focus on: How are we going to organize and focus on the rights and interests of kids?”
The high-power couple engaged to be married often used anecdotes to illustrate their points about the need to think differently about education.
Rhee used her own daughters to make a candid point about the current trend to make kids feel good about themselves.
“My daughters do soccer,” she said. “They suck at soccer.”
Yet, she said, they have accumulated numerous medals from participating in sports.
“So,” she said, “I try to tell my kids, ‘You’re not so good at soccer. In fact, if you ever want to become good or great, you have to practice.’ But, it’s very hard for them to reconcile these two things, because they’ve got all these medals and trophies and people are telling them they’re great, when in fact they’re not great.”
She used a basketball example to explain why everyone who wants to teach should not be allowed in a classroom, simply because they have a credential.
Rhee said she would not be allowed to play professional basketball, no matter how much she practiced, because she’s not good at it. If the coach fired her, she could go to the owners and say, “It’s not fair.” They would reject her, saying their livelihood depends on getting people to watch the game. Then she could go to the players’ association, but they would reject her, saying: “It’s not good for us to have a player as bad as you in our ranks.”
Similarly, she said, schools should reject teachers who aren’t properly educating kids and who are doing a disservice to the teaching profession.
In pushing for higher standards, Johnson spoke about a girl who didn’t realize she was five grade levels behind until she entered 11th grade at a new school. Her parents were crying, saying, “How could my daughter have been promoted from sixth grade to seventh grade… and not understand that she was not prepared?”
He said strong national standards should be developed and local schools should be held accountable for meeting those standards.
The pair of Democrats also said they are willing to separate from the party line to do what’s best for kids.
Johnson said that even though he admired former Sen. Ted Kennedy as an education advocate, he was surprised when Kennedy told him he didn’t know how to fix problems in schools and was unsure whether charters were the answer. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, (whom Johnson said he had very little in common with aside from the color of his skin), told Johnson that he would support a charter if his daughter was trapped in a bad public school, so she would have the opportunity to go to college.
“My take-away was: you have to stick to your principals, but you have to abandon your assumptions, because we can limit ourselves,” Johnson said. “So, I’m supporting anything that will help our kids.”
Similarly, Rhee said she shocked the Washington DC community when she supported vouchers for parochial schools.
“As a Democrat, I didn’t like vouchers,” she said.
But, after speaking to mothers who were trying to find alternatives to dismal public schools, she changed her mind.
“I was not willing to say to parents: ‘Just work with me. Give me five years to fix the system. Your kid will get a crappy education in the meantime.’ I would never accept that for my children.”
Comparing the issue to religion, she said: “I’m agnostic as to the delivery system.”
She also strongly defended her right to speak out about what’s not working in education, after the moderator asked her to comment on this statement attributed to teachers’ union leader Randi Weingarten: “We wish Michelle Rhee well and we hope that she learns, as we have, that promoting education reform through conflict and division will not serve the interests of children and their educational needs.”
“This feeling that people have that: ‘Let’s not have any conflict’ is one that’s pervasive in the education reform movement,” she said. “And I actually think it’s one that stops us in the reform movement, because people are willing to turn a blind eye to what is happening in the classrooms everyday as long as we all get along.”
At a conference she recently attended, participants were urged to focus on what they agreed on, instead of their differences, she said.
“I said: ‘That is insane.’ That is like telling a dysfunctional married couple heading toward divorce: ‘Let’s just talk about the good times.’”
Instead, she said, problems need to be openly addressed.
Do you think the current education system should be reformed?