BY DR. ROSEMARY BOWLER - Education in our public schools has been widely criticized for many perceived failures, such as: Lack of clear direction; hazy, contradictory aims; deterioration of standards of instruction; failure to achieve democratic values; and over-permissiveness and lack of discipline.
These specific criticisms, however relevant they may be today, were in fact made over 50 years ago in a report of the National Society for the Study of Education. Last Friday, a group of panelists looked at the current condition of our schools, underscored the complexities of educational reform and warned against “silver bullet” solutions and “one-size-fits-all” answers.
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Friends of Boca Grande's second forum in their “See Something Worth Talking About” series opened the door a few inches on the problems inherent in reform movements. I was privileged to work with six experts who represented school administration and unions, charter schools, the business world, philanthropic foundations, and students with special learning needs, planning the forum. Given the complexity of the issues, the panel could only scratch the surface in their presentation of facts, figures, and viewpoints. Some of the lesser-known facts are: Public school teachers constitute close to 18% of the work force. This has implications for the goal of ensuring that excellent teachers will be placed in every classroom. Financial support of schools comes from states- 47%, local school districts- 44%, and the federal government (which mandates numerous programs but does not fully fund them) - 9%.
Most of the audience had attended two documentaries, “Waiting for Superman” and “American Teacher.” The producers of each of these selected situations and data to support their agendas. Thus, Waiting for Superman focused on those charter schools achieving significant results and placed blame for failures in other schools, largely on teachers’ unions. American Teacher used the stories of several high-performing teachers to demonstrate the physical, psychological, and financial conditions under which they work and refuted the belief that teachers have an easy job.
In my introductory comments, referring to the contradictory views of the two filmmakers, I noted that the panel had used the films as a starting point for a discussion. We hoped to cast a clearer light on the issues, rather than adding to the current acrimonious climate of charge and counter charge which show little promise for resolving the issues.
Bayne Stevenson caught everyone’s attention with his first slide - a picture of Sputnick taking off, the impetus for an earlier period of calls for reform. He provided information on the current position of US education compared to other nations, with particular emphasis on those countries that are highly selective in enrolling students in teacher education schools and who award their teachers considerable autonomy and respect. In Finland and several other nations, students do not take high stakes tests until their final year in secondary school.
Mark Pritchett of Gulf Coast Community Foundation discussed the important role foundations have in stimulating innovation in education. Foundation dollars are leveraged as drivers to encourage better teaching, better use of technology, and higher levels of student achievement. He cited Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s 5-year $2.5 million science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) initiative in Charlotte and Sarasota County schools as an example where Foundations are partners with schools to ensure success. Pritchett also recounted the role of Tallahassee policies and politics as major influences in how schools embrace innovation.
Chuck Richards and Marcia Louden provided insights into what is happening in our own backyard from the perspectives of a school administrator and a union leader. There was an audible gasp when Louden informed the audience that over 60% of the students in Charlotte County schools are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, which is based on the poverty level. Despite the severe economic needs of many families, the Charlotte County Schools have been “A” schools for a number years, based on the results of Florida Comprehensive Achievement Tests.
Of particular interest is the long-term collaborative relationship the union and the school district in Charlotte County have developed with a shared goal of Student Success. Richards provided documentation of the forward steps the union has initiated or supported and commented that unions, despite the largely-negative press of recent years, are actively engaged in problem-solving.
Because of this collaborative relationship between the union and CCPS leadership, a new form of school governance has emerged. From a legal standpoint, the buck still stops at the desk of the principal; however, the CCPS schools have developed a “shared leadership model.” A group of teacher leaders and the principal meet regularly to discuss and develop school goals, grapple with critical issues at the school level, and chart our course forward. Teachers are given considerable autonomy to make decisions affecting their students. This has changed the relationship between the union, schools, and district leadership from an adversarial to a cooperative one. Striving for Student Success, scores on state and national tests have trended up (see page 10 in the booklet provided at the Forum).
Richard noted that AFT President Randi Weingarten, portrayed as the villain in Waiting for Superman, is responsible for developing and implementing effective teacher evaluation processes in a number of cities, most recently in New Haven.
Dr. Douglas Whittaker, Charlotte County Superintendent of Schools, graciously stepped in to answer several questions regarding the process by which teachers are recruited, mentored, and, when necessary, either encouraged to seek other employment or dismissed. He has given permission to use the statement he made upon assuming the superintendency of the district. This reflects his vision and aspirations for our local schools.
Using the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” as the backbone of our cultural development has allowed us to use a shared, common language. It has helped us to “be proactive” while we “begin with the end in mind” and “put first things first.” Together, we “think win-win” and “seek first to understand then to be understood” which creates the possibility of creating “synergistic” solutions to complex problems. All of these efforts are held together by our practice of continually “sharpening the saw” which helps us maintain balance in our lives and keeps us renewed. The 7 Habits will continue as the core of our culture.
Emily Steffan clarified the distinctive characteristics of charter schools and shared data on the progress these schools have made in New Orleans. Charters schools there now enroll 80% of public school students, and in these schools there is an impressive record of academic progress. As a former Teach for America teacher and current dean in a New Orleans charter school, Steffan’s’ enthusiasm for teaching and for her students provided a strong ray of hope for the future.
Carolyn Cowen reviewed the role of special education as a catalyst in education reform and discussed the unintended consequences of even well designed reform. As one example, she cited the campaign to correct over enrollment of children with reading problems in special education-a top-down campaign emphasizing evidence-based reading in general education and a cornerstone of NCLB. This effort, she suggested, contributed to a grassroots backlash against testing and “narrowing of the curriculum.”
She illustrated vividly the difficulty in appreciating the complex nature of education issues with a series of slides. This difficulty, she said, helps explain education’s history of swinging between extremes and why even great solutions often create new problems. Appreciating education’s dynamic complexities and working from both the bottom up and from the top down are essential to making and sustaining improvements in education. Her final slide underscored the importance of that goal by reminding the audience that each year, three million youngsters enter the U.S. education system with high hopes. It is the job of everyone, she said, to ensure those hopes are fulfilled.
A full-house audience listened to the panelists present their views and answer questions for over two hours, leaving many with a desire for additional time to delve more deeply into the issues of special interest to them. Friends of Boca Grande encourages members of the community, as well as the distinguished panelists, to call or e-mail with ideas for further investigation of the various aspects of educational reform.
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