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Public education's threatened future


Dear Deborah,

You ended your last entry with the following comment:

"All this leads to my current worry: the threatened future of public education itself. I worry also about the ties that bind my colleagues together through their unions. These two powerful common concerns connect Diane's work and my own. That we still disagree on so many other matters fascinates me; hopefully it will interest others as well."

That is a succinct description of our common concerns. Over the years, we have disagreed—civilly—about curriculum and standards. I don't want to minimize our disagreements, which continue. I still believe in the value of a common (prescriptive, as you would put it) curriculum, one that assures that all children have a genuine education that includes not only reading and math but also science, history, literature, civics, and the arts. I don't mean to put "the arts" last, as I think they might just as well go first. I think you can state your position on these issues far better than I can. I am deeply disturbed, upset, concerned, outraged, that so many schools—under pressure to meet AYP for NCLB (see how easily the acronyms invade our lives?)—have turned into test-prep factories. I am sure you are too, so this is another of our common concerns.

But I want in this early blog to get us started on some of the current challenges to the future of public education. This is a huge field, and it covers many topics. As someone who benefited from the availability of decent (not great, but decent) public schools in Houston, I believe strongly that all children should have access to good public schools.

But I see a growing movement—composed in large part of business leaders and elected officials—that seems to be saying that public education is dispensable (one of their main gripes seems to be with the fact that the public schools are unionized); that we as a nation should replace our current public schools with charters, privately-managed contract schools, vouchers, and almost anything that removes them to some extent from public control.

That was a strong recommendation of the "Tough Choices" report—that all public schools should be managed in the future by independent contractors. Living in NYC, we see this movement gaining momentum as the Bloomberg administration sets up an "empowerment zone" where public schools are allegedly autonomous and managed by "network leaders" and where the administration has just issued a "request for proposals" for private managers of public schools. Since Chancellor Joel Klein was on the "Tough Choices" commission, it appears that he is taking decisive steps to implement its recommendation on independently managed (i.e., privately managed) schools.

By the way, did you see that Cory Booker, the new mayor of Newark, New Jersey, whose schools were taken over by the state, says he wants mayoral control and his model is the Bloomberg-Klein reforms? He is impressed by the empowerment zone, where principals sign a contract and agree that they can be fired if they don't raise test scores. I wonder who will want to be a principal in the future if the job turns out to have a trapdoor under the chair?

Well, let's see where we go with this conversation!



Your last point regarding principals with trapdoors under their chairs is something I've been thinking about with regard to teachers. The business leaders you reference also seem to think that without unions the "good" teachers can be deployed where needed. But we all know there is a shortage of highly skilled teachers and thinking that you can force the "good" ones (not to mention attract new teachers) to go into underresourced schools facing sanctions for underperformance, seems misguided at best.

Considering that most principals, at least in New Jersey, make six figures, I don't think it will be a very tough vacancy to fill. Having had experience in the public sector (but admittedly not in education), I can say that the empowerment zone accountability principle is not flawed. In state government, many high-level positions such as agency directors are not classified, and are thus free from many of the union restrictions preventing streamlined termination. Yet those positions are always filled because they
are paid the higher wages.

It is true that the public schools in any case need increased resources and teachers need more competitive pay. But I can't fathom why there's been such ferocious resistance to simultaneously
having better procedures for getting rid of bad teachers and administrators. Like in any profession, they exist. But
collective bargaining rules have become so ossified that even extreme cases of misconduct won't result in termination. This ultimately works against advocates of public education. If the public sees that the public system is unable to maintain quality within its ranks, they will continue to support privitization
schemes like vouchers. I've heard from many educators, some of them my friends, about how unfair it is for them to be negatively portrayed. It isn't fair, I agree. Most teachers do a great job.
But it only takes a minority of bad apples to spoil the entire system. When will it become acceptable to fire bad educators? When they compose ten percent of the teaching corps? Twenty?

Urban districts, which often need to use uncertified teachers to fill posts, more than most need better quality control mechanisms for staff. As a Newarker, I have seen firsthand far too many
incompetent teachers and principals retain lifetime employment because they are under the aegis of the Newark Teachers Union (whose president, Joseph Del Grosso, hasn't lived here for over
twenty years). What was once positive advocacy for teachers' benefits and rights has begun to negatively impact the quality of education here. One of the founding principles of the union movement was that having a well-cared for workforce would help create a better quality product. That contract, as far as I can see, is only being help up on one end.

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