Where Does Reform Go From Here?

We have about as much chance of fixing public education in this country with the mass firing of teachers and administrators in Rhode Island and elsewhere as we would if we threw a virgin into a volcano. This type of post hoc fallacy thinking would rather create a causal relationship between teachers and student failure, then look at the immutable structure of all public education reform over the last 100 years that fails to address the underlying student problems and deficits that are brought to the system. In listening to President Obama's endorsing of Rhode Island's simplistic pogrom-like solution to solve its public education problem, he fails to take into account that the town of Central Falls, like many of our educational failing communities in Los Angeles, was "one of the poorest districts in Rhode Island" long before the teachers did their level best to try and fix it.

Following immutable and long failed policies of big city public education bureaucrats, like Education Secretary Arnie Duncan of Chicago that has his ear, seem to make it impossible to even pose the right question, let alone come up with reasonable and intelligent answers. Without addressing the underlying generational dysfunction -- mostly attributable to continuing endemic racism and/or poverty -- students cannot be given an honest remedial program given by qualified teachers that would pragmatically address their subjective deficits. Any decent teacher could tell Obama this, if he bothered to ask.

I remember at the beginning of Obama's presidency that he was very concerned about keeping his Blackberry, because he didn't want to be isolated by the Oval Office and the relatively few people and opinions that any president really is exposed to in their working day. Although he got to keep his Blackberry, much to our dismay, it seems like he has lost his battle not to be marginalized in the discussion concerning rational public education reform.

Diane Ravitch in The Death and Life of the Great American School System who refuses to be an ideologue captive of her prior beliefs, says what seems to be most difficult thing to do in looking at the failed policies Obama and Duncan are still blindly pursuing -- they don't work. Professor Ravitch says, "What should we think of someone who never admits error, never entertains doubt, but adheres unflinchingly to the same ideas all his life, regardless of new evidence." Sounds like a pretty accurate description of LAUSD administrative culture. This approach more reasonably explains the present inability to stop "1.2 million students [from] drop[ping] out of school each year."

Ironically, she goes on to make the same point by pointing out the genesis of big city school districts like New York City (1905) and Los Angeles (1903) was to address the problem of small charter-like school districts that were wildly corrupt.

In this context the Obama administration policy to throw good federal aid after bad with an ill-conceived four strategies program that we already know from history doesn't work, seems as likely to succeed as our heathcare, bank, and Wall St. "reforms" that do nothing to address the underlying failed structure. What can be accomplished by replacing a principal, a "turnaround" model that would require replacing half of a school's staff as a minimum, "Restart" schools would be transferred to the control of independent charter networks or other school management organizations, "Transformation' schools"  that would take steps to improve teacher effectiveness and increase learning time, among other measures, or the most draconian being the closing a school and dispersing its students. None of these approaches address the subjective needs of the failing student population where they are presently at academically.

AFT's President Randi Weingarten took exception with Obama's comments because they "don't reflect the reality on the ground and completely ignore the commitment teachers have made to turn things around." Like me, she was "profoundly disappointed by the comments" that "seem to be focused on . . . incomplete information."

When I was getting my teaching credential at California State University at Los Angeles, where I was the only future teacher in the class whose parents had gone to college, Dr. Santos said about teaching students in a district like LAUSD that has a 32% English language learning population, "What part of my body do I point to to explain a concept like democracy to students that have no foundational Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) to process what I am trying to teach them?" So far, this reality is utterly avoided by both federal and state reformers of public education. Physical presence in school does not ensure education. It only ensures that LAUSD will get paid by the state. Robo calls to parents who were themselves pushed through this failed system without now having knowledge to raise their own children does nothing to turn around this failed system.

"This is a problem we cannot afford to accept and we cannot afford to ignore," Obama said during the event, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters. I couldn't agree with him more, but in positing a solution we need to take into consideration what we have already learned as a society: We used to bleed people when science thought that it was bad blood that caused illness. We no longer do this because we know it doesn't work.

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