The traditional school year comes to a close; kids and parents alike get ready for a summer of no homework. There is a feeling of relaxation mixed with an excited anticipation of the joys of summer afternoons. Unhappily, that does not mean that the woes and worries of this past year have melted away, it just makes it harder to concentrate on them. California public schools are still in the same pickle that they have been during the previous several fiscal years—there is not enough money to go around, teachers have been laid off, and classrooms will be more crowded when school resumes in the fall. The financial crisis is not taking a holiday. Therefore the focus must remain on the effort to find solutions to the serious problems facing our state public education programs. Up in Sacramento the lawmakers are still struggling to come to an agreement on our state budget, which will impact schools no matter how it ends up. We have complained and rallied and written to our legislators. What happens now?
I believe that we have to keep discussing and researching alternatives to the system that is now in place because we simply cannot keep moving down this same path every fiscal year. Sometimes the budget has a surplus, sometimes the budget has a deficit, but education should not be held hostage to this process every school year. It is often said that change does come when we are at a crossroads, when things get critical. So let us take advantage of this moment in time and really try to make a difference.
I call on all school district administrators, board members, union leaders, parents, teachers and elected officials to come together and talk through differences, work through conflicts and make the best of dire conditions. This is what you were hired to do, what we elected you to do, what we signed up for, and it will be very, very hard. No question. But just because something is hard, we don’t get to turn our backs on the situation.
Here is what I think we need to do:
1) California Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, must adhere to the core purpose of the Department of Education, which states that “The Core Purpose of the California Department of Education is to lead and support the continuous improvement of student achievement, with a specific focus on closing achievement gaps. To do this he must champion changes to California Labor Law which require teacher contracts to be negotiated with the “last in—first out” clauses. These clauses have served to undermine any authority that a school administrator might have in the professional evaluation, promotion, and retention of professional educators. If teachers are to be treated as professionals, given the same respect and authority that other professionals enjoy, then they must embrace a system that inures them to similar responsibilities and burdens.
2) The California Teachers Association (CTA) and local unions must come to the table ready to work through objections to new ways of thinking about teacher evaluation. Can we just work towards a system where professionals are judged as professionals, using a variety of measures that the education community considers valid and valuable? Forget about state test results! Normalized testing was never the darling of the education community; it was always the beast of burden of policymakers and legislatures. In fact, let’s withhold all state test results at the district level until policymakers can agree on how to successfully support the education system. There’s your consequence for legislators. The state cannot use public education as it’s whipping boy, nor could legislators brag of successes if they don’t have those all-important test scores to show-off.
In May of this year the National Education Association (NEA) put out a proposal calling for “high quality teacher evaluation systems, high quality teacher accountability systems and defining the role of the Association in developing, implementing and enforcing such systems.” (http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/statement-on-teacher-evaluation-and-accountability.pdf) Nobody is saying that we want to dismantle unions. On the contrary, let us strengthen unions in their role as true advocates for teachers and their continuous improvement. Let unions become the ombudspersons for school districts, helping to mediate disputes involving any teacher issues. Let unions become the arbiters of benefits and services for teachers. And, of course, unions could continue to act as protectors against discrimination and abuses. But let teachers grow into the professionals that they always wanted to be by working in organizations with professional standards, created by them and for them.
3) School district officials must work with parents, municipalities and businesses to make the most of what each community has to offer. Right now there are after-school programs—by the way these are critical to keeping kids on the right track—funded by federal funds, state funds and district funds. Why not work with municipal parks and recreation programs to consolidate and maximize so that any and every kid can play after school sports, get homework help and nutritious snacks? This goes for other types of programs as well. The whole categorical funding issue is a headache. LB Unified Schools superintendent Chris Steinhauser has fought vociferously for flexibility and autonomy in deciding how funds can be spent, because who should know better where and how to spend the money than the professionals hired to make those decisions?! It is true that not everybody may be happy with budgetary decisions made locally, but there never is 100% consensus. At some point we have to trust that we hired the right people for the right job.
4) Citizens have to agree that education is one of the very foundation blocks of our society and that we prioritize it. I hear people say that they don’t want to pay for other kids’ education. The problem is that no matter how far you move out into the suburbs or the desert, you still need store clerks and maintenance workers and lawyers and mechanics and dentists. We are all connected in very basic ways so that if we don’t provide for educational opportunities, then we have to live in the uneducated, underserved society that we created. I don’t want to live there. I prefer a society where the clerk knows how to count change, the mechanic is a true problem solver, and the lawyer understands ethical considerations and the dentist maybe came from a first generation immigrant family that lived the American dream. We all benefit from that kind of society.