Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Better to work with the schools we have

By David Kirp

School board elections are usually placid affairs, but that wasn't the case in the recent Los Angeles election. Would-be kingmakers, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and media magnate Rupert Murdoch, spent nearly $4 million to defeat incumbent Steve Zimmer.

Steve Zimmer
L.A. school-board member Steve Zimmer

Zimmer's sin was to question the untrammeled growth of charter schools and the over-reliance on test scores in evaluating teachers. Faced with a tsunami of junk ads, he exhorted the voters not to "believe the lies of March." Despite being outspent 4-to-1, he won.

This tale represents a significant setback for the corporate-inspired school reformers, who treat education as if it were a commodity like smartphones or sports drinks. In their view, "failing" schools, like failing businesses, should be shuttered, and "failing" teachers and principals, like malingering employees, should be fired. And because they see public education as irretrievably broken, they believe charter schools provide the only viable option.

Despite a lack of evidence to back their claims, the market-minded have built a powerful movement. Among its stars is Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C. There, she used fear as a motivator, once firing a principal while a TV show was being filmed. Now she runs a well-bankrolled organization, StudentsFirst, which pushes legislation to end teacher tenure and expand charter schools. Rhee is a great self-promoter — the cover of her new book, Radical, is dominated by a photo of her, hand on hip, an odd choice for someone claiming to put students first.

"Radical" book cover

Also on board are heavy-hitters like billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad. Lamentably, so is the Obama administration, which obliges states seeking a share of the $4 billion-plus "Race to the Top" education money to ease the way for new charters and rely on high-stakes test scores in evaluating teachers.

Instead of going down this path, we can build a stronger public school system by reinvigorating the schools we have. That's what's happening in San Francisco, where Superintendent Richard Carranza has joined with teachers and parents to expand preschools, narrow racial and ethnic achievement gaps and link schools with their neighborhoods.

In Oakland, Tony Smith, one of the nation's most inspiring school leaders, has won grassroots support for his ambitious agenda, which includes strengthening academics, making community schools a district-wide priority and replacing wholesale suspensions with restorative justice that keeps kids in school.

While both districts have a considerable way to go, the uptick in achievement scores is a promising sign. The improbable success of Union City, N.J., a poor, predominantly Latino school district, provides the textbook example of how to revive our public schools. A quarter-century ago, the schools there were so awful that the state threatened to seize control. But today, the performance of Union City students on high-stakes reading and math tests approximates the statewide average. More importantly, 90 percent graduate - 10 percent more than the national average – and 75 percent enroll in college. The best graduates win free rides at Ivy League schools, while immigrant youngsters manage the double feat of learning a new language and mastering new subjects. Two students who came to the United States just four years ago, knowing no English, now rank in the Top 10 of the senior class.

I spent a year in Union City while writing a book and came away convinced that what's happening there has nationwide implications. The district hasn't discovered the magic formula. Every educator knows the value of its time-tested, high-impact strategies – maintaining a system-wide culture of high expectations and mutual respect; turning principals into educational leaders; offering full-day early education; developing a curriculum that stresses literature and writing; assessing students to pinpoint weaknesses and helping them do better; enabling immigrant youngsters to become fluent in their home language before transitioning to English; and supporting struggling teachers with coaches who can sharpen their skills while encouraging teachers to learn from one another.

book cover
An object lesson in school revival: Union City, NJ.

What you don't find also bears mention – no school closings, no wholesale teacher dismissals and no charter schools. When one of the architects of Union City's revival speaks to school chiefs elsewhere, he cautions them not to regard the district as achieving a miracle. "Miracles can't get duplicated, but the approach that we took can be used elsewhere." Indeed, it is being used across the country.

Districts that are using "old-school" approaches to boost achievement and narrow the achievement gap come in a host of configurations – big and small; generously funded and meagerly supported; predominantly Latino and African American and heterogeneous. In California, Long Beach and Garden Grove belong on this honor roll. Unless you live in one of these communities you probably haven't heard about their schools. Their seeming ordinariness partly explains what makes these districts so good – instead of courting attention, they're minding the store.

The next time you read that public education is going down the drain, bear in mind the accomplishments of school systems like Union City. You can boil down their philosophy to three short words: Do the work. While that's no headline-grabber, it's a promising way to give 50 million schoolchildren a real shot at a decent life.

Cross-posted from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy News Center website.