Can this blueprint rebuild failing schools?

Can this blueprint rebuild failing schools?

Geneva Douma

This past Saturday, March 13, President Obama released his “Blueprint for Reform,” a plan to enact a long-awaited reform of No Child Left Behind, as well as a general reform plan for American schools.

Like health care reform and financial reform, the Blueprint definitely takes steps in the right direction. It envisions a broad, diversified education with high standards. Race to the Top, the flagship school achievement program, is a far better symbol for education than No Child Left Behind. However, like health care and financial reform, it does not attack all the systemic problems that hold back our educational system.

First the good: replacing the patchwork state education requirements with one national standard will prevent abuses by individual states seeking more funding. Under No Child Left Behind, school funding was distributed based on the percentage of students from that school who scored proficient or better in math and reading. However, each state set its own standard. States that set lower standards had a better chance of getting money for poor performance. States that set the bar higher risked their funding.

Underlying the distribution issue is the rewards system itself, which the Blueprint does not address. Why do we reward success with more school funding? Teacher bonuses are supportable, but overall, a school that is performing well at its existing funding level clearly doesn’t need additional funding (notwithstanding the current recession). The schools that need more funding are the ones struggling to measure up. Low-performing schools need to make changes, and that takes money.

Grants for low-performing schools are available to implement one of four steps, but that wasn’t enough in a high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island that has already tried it. In the funding scramble earlier this year, the Rhode Island School Board considered the Blueprint’s four options. The first two, closing the school and reconstituting it as a charter school were rejected.

The superintendent’s initial choice was the “transformation” model: to add 25 minutes to the school day, tutoring before and after school, eating lunch with students once a week, submitting to more rigorous evaluations, attending weekly after-school planning sessions with other teachers and participating in two weeks of training in the summer. But there was no money to pay for the extra work required. (Providence Journal)

Without a raise, the teachers’ union refused to support this option, and what finally happened was the “turnaround” model: every single teacher and administrator was fired, with the ability to hire up to 50% of them back after evaluation. The teachers and students of the school have protested the decision, but the firings are set for this June. This could have ended much differently if there was more money for struggling schools.

Obama also wants to replace the pass-fail system with three categories familiar to anyone who has ever attended school: Outstanding, Satisfactory, and Needs Improvement. What we really need to know is how to improve schools, and no one seems to know. The new plan is to see what good schools do and try to reproduce it: easier said than done.

Obama wants to expand the standard of competency beyond just math and reading, which is a great idea. The Blueprint mentions competitive grants to strengthen the arts, foreign languages, history and civics, financial literacy, and environmental education, so presumably these would also be areas of competency. The United States didn’t lead the world in innovation by stressing rote memorization. The best education teaches students to think and broadens their minds. Critical thinking skills should be recognized and rewarded.

Along with this, the Blueprint frequently uses the term “college ready” as the standard that high schools want to achieve and even suggests working with local colleges as a way to identify what that means. This is a long-overdue recognition of the importance of college and the idea that more people should go there.

The Blueprint focuses on teachers in particular and also administrators as agents of change. While it refreshingly recognizes that there are other factors within schools and within the community that make education more or less difficult, it offers grants to address problems. It is not clear how schools will be judged on these factors that are outside of their control. For example:

· There are schools that have over a dozen different “language spoken at home.” This means that the children are learning English as a second language, and test scores may reflect language barriers that have nothing to do with teaching. The population of the high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, is largely made up of low-income Hispanic immigrants that are English-language learners.

· Charter and magnet schools tend to siphon off a disproportionate number of better students. The test scores at the surrounding schools will thus be lower, and again, this has nothing to do with teaching. The Blueprint encourages charter schools, but does it take the reshuffling of the surrounding student population into account?

· Disadvantaged kids. The Blueprint mentions special attention to homeless students, migrant students, rural students, and neglected or delinquent students, but is a school with a disproportionate number of these students treated differently?

· Administrative problems: in Central Falls, teachers protested that many of their students moved before they finished their four years of high school but were still counted as students, thus artificially lowering the school’s graduation rate.

Foothill isn’t likely to face sweeping budget cuts or radical changes. It’s a high-performing magnet school and shining example of innovation. The teachers here are motivated, there’s a big focus on getting to college, and I’m not particularly afraid of physical fights breaking out around campus. But it also intimidates families, thus attracting a disproportionate number of high achievers who would have otherwise attended Buena and Ventura.

And Foothill is not indicative of the rest of society. What works here might not necessarily work in other places because we represent a specific segment of the population, not the American population as a whole. The statisticians and face-value intellectuals see high test scores like ours and think that it means charter schools are the solution. For most people here, Foothill seems like a good fit as a high school. But we can’t be considered the comprehensive solution for the population at large.

I personally believe we should still attempt to shift our public schools towards college and career readiness. Implementation questions aside, the goals of the Blueprint in this area are definitely spot on. In an increasingly competitive world, a degree is the only way to get ahead, or indeed, keep up. If we don’t try it, we’ll never know if it works, and we need something of this nature to push us out of this educational rut.

I also don’t believe in eliminating testing. While I tire of the endless bubble sheets, we can’t feasibly eliminate all standards or we won’t be able to stay competitive. However, we need to approach this logically. We need to fix the problems, not glut high-performing schools with extra funding. Rewards like the one Foothill is currently competing for – having the president speak at graduation – recognize high-performing schools and highlight what they’re doing well without spending excessive amounts of money that no one currently has.

This renewed interest in education reform is good, but it’s not a definitive answer. The only way to find solutions is to try various models, to see what works for various schools. There will be failures along the way, but as Edison said, “I haven’t failed; I’ve simply found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” He invented the light bulb because he persevered, he kept trying new things. This is the only way things will ever get done.

What do you think?