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Push for better teaching drives education reform

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.”

Rhee disagreed.

“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?

[You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.]

  • 4Students

    Agree with Michelle Rhee, and now her fiance too. Mayors and/or City Managers should be involved in the schools! A major dysfunction in the MDUSD system is that the cities have not been included in decision-making, and actually seem to be excluded.

  • g

    Can’t speak for other cities or districts, but the Mayor of Concord was essentially told to mind her own business when she questioned recent actions of MDUSD.

    It’s about time Education Department sovereignty is looked at a bit more closely—it isn’t working on behalf of the kids–or the town–or property owners–it’s just protecting their own inflated salaries!

  • Theresa Harrington

    The Mayor of Clayton is getting actively involved in the Clayton Valley HS charter movement.

  • Jim

    Dysfunctional school district monopolies have had incredibly damaging impacts on many cities across the country. It is one of the great untold stories of the latter half of the 20th Century. This system will change. It is changing already, despite fierce opposisition from educrats at the local, state, and national levels. We cannot spend spend billions and billions more, taking another two or three decades, losing another generation of students, while waiting to see improvements in these ossified institutions. People expect to make choices about the most important areas of their lives, and schools cannot remain the one exception, where choices are strictly prescribed by one central authority. People want accountability from this system, and as we see in virtually every other aspect of our lives, without choice, there is no accountability.

  • Tom Gilbert

    It is important to realize that unlike basketball, teachers must jump through a lot of hoops and put in many hours in the classroom before they are even admitted into the credential program. A potential teacher also is required to have maintained a 3.0 Undergrad GPA. President Bush would not qualify to teach in California.
    Education needs reform, part of it needs to start with better parenting. Teachers can only do so much. To tell a child they are not any good at something is not doing them any kind of service. To encourage them to do better is. Unlike just about any other subject on the planet,many people have opinions about teachers and the educational system. Very few know what they are talking about. There is a special interest group that advocates for the interests of the children. They are the teachers.No one listens more closely to what the kids have to say (other than perhaps the parents) then the teachers.
    There are more high school and college graduates at this time then any other time in history. If everyone obtained a high school diploma and went on to get a college degree, there would not be enough work for this over educated population and there would not be enough land for them all to place their houses on.
    This bogus concern that certain groups and ‘staunch advocates are showing for the educational system is nothing more than a thinly disguised method for making money off of the fears parents have for their children’s future. And another way for the corporations to use these pawns to further the weakening of unions and the working class.

  • Long-time Board Watcher

    Great, let’s get more politicians telling educators how and what to teach our children. How many federal and state legislators, county and city officials, and local school board members have had experience as classroom teachers? And yet they make the decisions the teachers and those much-maligned administrators must carry out.

    Most all politicians, including some on the MDUSD Board, campaign on promises that they will “fix” public education. And so we elect them and expect them to have better solutions than those who actually interact with students every day. The politicians and the union leaders, also distanced from the classroom, need to step aside and let educators have a say for a change.

    For a cogent perspective on the state of public education today, check out a retired teacher’s observation in the Readers’ Forum in last week’s Times. Here’s the link:

  • Doctor J

    @Long-Time BW, I respectfully disagree with heaping all the blame on the politicians/union leaders for MDUSD having more persistently underachieving schools than any other district in the East Bay — six — and ten schools listed as “Program Improvement” and the District on the verge of being named as a PI district. Why were the Board members and District office shocked when this happened — saying they had no idea ? It was all in the reports issued every year by the state. I do agree that we need the input of every stakeholder — including classroom teachers — which is why we need a Strategic Plan developed from the ground up, not top down. We just elected two educators on the Board — watching the rodeo has been interesting. One new member riding the bucking bronco holding on for dear life, and the other sitting in the stands. Until the Board gets to its primary mission of setting policy and holding the district and site administrations accountable, MDUSD will flop like a fish out of water.

  • Doctor J

    Grand Jury report slams MDUSD lack of transparency and Gang of Five raises.

  • anon

    I don’t read a slamming in the Grand Jury report at all.

  • Doctor J

    Anon 10:07 — Yes, they were slammed: (1) “No discussion of … financial ramifications took place at open Board meetings. . .”. (2) “The …General Counsel’s responsibilities has not resulted …in operational effectiveness and …cost savings.” (3) “further salary and benefit expense reductions”. Will the Board start cutting administrators salary and benefits ? Will the Board reverse the Gang of Five raises that they justified by the alleged reorganization, and specifically the lawyers $27,000 raise ? Where did the discussions of financial ramifications take place — Buttercup ?

  • anon

    Because that is how you “Want” to read things Doctor J. What I read were suggestions and nothing earth shattering at all.

  • 4Students

    The mayors of Concord and Clayton may be involved in the CVHS charter school movement, which will not benefit the entire school district and not even all the schools in their cities, but let’s not forget the Measure D $99 parcel tax campaign. I recall the Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill city councils passed resolutions endorsing the parcel tax, but Concord and Clayton did NOT. Did Concord and Clayton ever discuss a resolution to encourage voters to save their schools?

  • Doctor J

    Anon 7:51 You are clearly in denial of the truth. All the civil Grand Jury can do is validate the truth. The Board has to debate how to respond. This time, they cannot hide behind the Brown Act. It looks like it will be two against two with Linda Mayo deciding if she will tell the truth. The irony is that Greg Rolen will be advising them even though he got slammed by the Grand Jury and thus has a conflict of interest. Maybe all five will individually lawyer up at MDUSD expense since they don’t want to end up like Barry Bonds.

  • Anon

    Doctor J,

    Does this have anything to do with the statement Gary had made to Lynn Dennler to not keep notes because notes can be supenoed?

  • Doctor J

    It wouldn’t surprise me — of course I don’t know the timing but it sounds reasonable. The big question is whether they subpoened all of their emails and notes and whether they were all produced ?

  • anon

    The truth based on what? What facts, who testified? There is so much mis-information out there.

    Anon 11:11 am, when was this statement made? Was it at a BOE meeting, if so it would be in the minutes. Or is this one of those “I heard…..”

    Who in their right mind would want to be on the MDUSD BOE? I am so happy to be done with this community come June, my last graduate from the MDUSD and they are off to College. My kids have received a great education and I have been happy and involved. Yes there is always room for improvement but I focus on the positive and work on the rest.

    In my 19 years with this district I have learned some people and certainly some communities within the MDUSD are never happy. My question to them is this, why have you not moved?

  • Anon

    Anon @ 2:34,

    Which one are you? Gary, Sherry, or Paul?

    The statement was allegedly made at the “Let’s all break the ice and get to know eachother meeting”, which was originally illegally scheduled to be held at the San Ramon Marriot.

    The Grand Jury should also investigate that, apparently some donor wanted to step up and pay for the meeting to be held out of town. Why?

  • Doctor J

    Anon 2:34 The facts are stated in the Grand Jury report — read it. They don’t disclose who testified — I believe anyone who testified can come forward publicly and disclose it — which of the Board members testified and did Lawrence ? The Grand Jury’s findings are in the report too. The “Board” is required to respond to the Findings and Recommendations. That should be an interesting discussion since two of the current Board members are new, and the old ones don’t get a say in the response. The Grand Jury is saying the Board should give the public 6 months for discussion of any future taxing measures, for “full disclosure to the public of financial information”. That will certainly slow down any “shoot from the hip” bonds or parcel taxes.

  • 4Students

    @Anon 2:34,
    To answer your final question, the short answer is we’re stuck here for financial and other reasons.

    The long answer is that we saw problems with the status quo and we are pushing for change. You say your children received a “great education” and a few do, but the rest of us have seen too many students lost in the shuffle, too many teacher absences, too many movies in the high school classrooms, glaring inconsistencies between teachers and in grading, students wasting hours on buses, schools falling behind on API scores, reports of district wastefulness, and the district was completely in denial and out of touch!

    It’s not okay to live here as you do and then sit on your hands and not do anything to improve the schools for over 30,000 children! We teach our children about democracy and here we can show them a real-life example, and that change is possible. As a result of our pushing for the last few years, the district is not perfect but is better than before, and finally is preparing a strategic plan. The goal should be that every school is excellent for each of these 30,000 children, whatever it takes. Instead of excluding parents and community, the district needs us as partner to drive reform!

  • Another MDUSD Mom

    Anon 2:34

    4Students is absolutely right on point! To sit back and say this is okay is not fair to our kids or future generations of kids who will attend MDUSD schools.

  • Poseidon

    It’s ironic; all of these comments and who shows up at board meetings to provide input to the board regarding the decisions that are pending. That’s democracy, not blathering on a blog about how much you are influencing the system. Anonymous comments on a blog, some true, but many are not and you all latch on to them as if they were directly from a reliable source. Most of what I read on here is false. If you want to help, study the issues and take part in the debate. Doing that helps shape policy. Sitting behind a computer screen pretending to understand the issues and not taking part in the debate is not only unproductive, it actually hurts the district’s efforts to educate our children.

    Que Dr. J and his band of agitators to tell me I’m Paul and how much you all have influenced the system in 3..2..1..

    While you all sit here, the decisions are being made without your input. I don’t suppose that because you didn’t involve yourselves in the debate and the process to set policy for the district you’d consider not complaining about the outcomes? Nah, that would require you to take a commonsense approach. That’s too much to expect.

  • Linda

    Back on February 13 the MDUSD Board pulled out their calendars to schedule a strategic planning workshop. The first available date for all Board members was April 26. That meeting has now been cancelled. Has it been rescheduled? Will it be rescheduled? How long before MDUSD takes the next step in the strategic planning process?

  • Theresa Harrington

    Linda, The board canceled the strategic planning study session after Trustees Sherry Whitmarsh and Cheryl Hansen created the draft strategic plan and decided to hold several community meetings.
    Then, the board had planned to hold a study session focusing on “school climate” instead on April 26. That was also canceled because the board thought school climate should be addressed as part of the Equity Advisory Team meetings and strategic planning process.
    However, the board did hold a special meeting April 22 to approve its Local 1 contracts. Now, the psychologists’ union is the only bargaining unit that has not yet reached an agreement with the district.
    On another note, Mt. Diablo is has just provided compensation data to the Contra Costa Times, which will soon be included in our database:

  • g

    Reasons to cancel meetings and set back the timeline on some so-called goals—AKA– Shtuff hitting the fan and whispering work that may be going on (in the dark–again?):

    1) Newspaper FOI request for MDUSD payroll logs–why are they not willing/able to provide them?
    2) Grand Jury wants some answers (oops–again–so soon?)
    3) State says they think MDUSD may Discriminate and they want some answers?
    4) That (discrimination-or NIMBY?) brings up the problem of having closed two schools in the “I had to find it on a map”-Lawrence said same(oops)neighborhood, and now people are demanding to know how the hell we can show that we saved money–when we know we lost over a million on one school, and if we fire everyone at the other school, we’ll still save only a few hundred thousand, but we’ll be closing a school that we spent over 5 million of the people’s tax bond money on in just the last few years…? The people are going to think we don’t have a clue…

  • Doctor J

    @Poseidon Paul, Please don’t pull that lawyer denial on us. Commonsense is way above your IQ. Your political career is toast.

  • Doctor J

    @G Gary loved it when the Grand Jury critiqued McHenry, but wonder now how he feels that the Grand Jury blasted him ? Maybe he took the Fifth ? He sure went silent a few months ago and many of the posts on his blog suddenly disappeared — what’s with that ? He preached transparency — where is it ? Remember that old TV show, Car 54, where are you ? Well, Gary, where are you ?

  • g

    Poseidon: I guess it feels good to come on a Blog, right along with the rest of us, telling us what WE should do. How about telling us what YOU do to help. Coming here to put-down the public’s opinions, while giving blanket defense of every action the Board makes, pretty much negates your opinions as far as I’m concerned. One would tend to believe that since you are in such overwhelming defense of them, and in agreement with them, that you must be “in the dark, behind the wings” directing traffic…still…?

    When’s the last time you stood in front of this or any Board; gave a factual, and impassioned presentation; just to have the Chair say, “OK, Thanks, and the Next speaker is…?”

    Total disregard, Total disrespect, Total self-inflated self-indulgence!
    Total waste of the public’s time.

  • Linda


    REALLY? Take part in what debate? Did the CUES committee debate the cost of the bond? Did they debate the pros and cons of solar? Were they even informed of the exact structure of either the existing 2002 bond or the structure of the new 2010 bond before sending the idea off to the Board for a vote? And were they really sending it off for a vote or would the Board have approved going forward anyway? That was 10 months of meetings and trying to influence.

    Now let’s talk about PAC meetings. Is this where you influence change? Let me put my vote in now… the new sales tax idea floated out there is fraught with problems and is one more excuse to not do the hard work necessary to pass a parcel tax. Can I influence this idea by attending a board meeting? The answer is no and once again the question was simply rhetorical.

    As for studying the issues, I wish I would have testified to the Grand Jury because I would have pointed out the gross math errors in the “solar analysis”. I am also happy to discuss strategic planning, bond measures, parcel tax campaigns, the future of education, 21st century learning, charter schools, etc. What do you want to talk about? Better yet let’s talk about blogging and how effective that was for influencing change in 2008.

    If you think the people who comment on this blog don’t study the issues and don’t get involved then you are just as ignorant as you are arrogant. If you want to talk about the definition of democracy I would beg to differ with your ascertain that it is defined best by voicing an opinion at a Board meeting. In fact I would argue that there is far more opportunity for debate here than there is at ANY District meeting.

    Poseidon, I dare you to put your real name on your blog comment or will you just attack me because my name is there.

  • Doctor J

    Linda, Poseidon is gutless. He didn’t dare stand for re-election with his history.

  • Doctor J

    I said this months ago for MDUSD yet the Board failed to adopet it: “The governor says he will allow travel related to enforcement duties, audits and collecting revenue. Conferences and professional development courses will not be permitted.” Stop the overnight travel and airplane trave immediately !!!!

  • Theresa Harrington

    Also, board members are eligible to receive “family” health benefits equal to what full-time administrators receive. Part-time employees in the M&O and CSEA unions hired after April 1, on the other hand, will have their benefits pro-rated based on a seven-hour day, with those who work less than four hours a day receiving no benefits. Do you think board members should receive the same benefits as full-time employees?

  • g

    Oh, hell no! Not the school board, not the city board, not the CCTA board, not the hospital board, not the you-name-it board. You volunteer–you like the limelight–you like the power! You get a stipend to cover expenses. Period.

  • Doctor J

    I think Board members receiving non-taxable benefits like health care is hipocritical and self-serving. I recognize they put in part time hours as Board members but they are voluntary elected officials and should not have benefits that are not available to other part time employees. What is good for the gander should be good for the goose.

  • Doctor J

    The Governor’s travel ban: Meanwhile MDUSD administrators continue to travel in and out of state spending hundreds of thousands of tax dollars on planes, hotels, and meals.

  • MGG

    The other day, a 9th grader said to me,

    “Why don’t they pay 100,000 dollars a year. That would attract really good teachers.”

    How many words was that?

  • anon

    Can anyone state and provide links at what BOE members in surrounding districts are paid and any benefits? Let us use Walnut Creek, Acalanes, San Ramon, Pleasanton, Pittsburg and Antioch. I do know that at least 1 BOE member does not use the medical benefits and I don’t know about the other 4. I believe they also took a cut in pay and it might be $700 a month right now and we all know it is NOT part time, it’s another full time job on top of their already full time jobs.

  • Anon

    Anon @8:45pm,

    Which board member are you?

  • anon

    I am not a BOE member, I am a parent in the MDUSD. I am curious if anyone knows this information? I am a parent who attends just about every meeting possible and sees how hard people work, that is all. I also see how hard our teachers at our school site work too.

  • Theresa Harrington

    You can compare salary and benefits information for different school districts using the Bay Area News Group database at

  • Wait a Minute

    I think the reason that Strange didn’t run for re-elction is to protect his lawyer’s license from any possible negative consequences coming out of outside investigations into the MDUSD such as the recent Grand Jury report and anything else coming down the pike.