With every good intention, Washington governor Chris Gregoire and Detroit public schools financial manager Robert Bobb are leading a “Charge of the Light Brigade” into General Custer territory.
Both politicians present great ideas about improving upon public education. The governor’s ideas of putting veteran teachers with consistently poor evaluations back on probationary status and linking additional pay to teachers’ innovative spirit are worthy of implementation.
The Detroit schools’ financial manager’s establishing of a system-wide standard for which classes a student must pass in order to move up to the next grade level and reassigning of highly successful principals to needy campuses promise to bring some improvement.
But both leaders’ plans lack the catalyst which would guarantee the progress they seek. Neither speaks to the issues of student commitment or parent involvement and accountability.
Education is not something being done to the students or even for them. Education involves a partnership. It is a process which is best done with them.
Years ago as a fifth grade teacher concerned with working conditions in the district, I spoke before the Los Angeles Unified Schools Board of Education. At the time I was assigned to a mostly Caucasian west San Fernando Valley school. Our test scores were some of the highest in the city.
We had two major issues in our favor. First, our principal encouraged parent involvement. Parents assisted with everything from fundraisers to school programs. His door was always open to parents with concerns.
He would often take parent requests for specific teachers, strategy being that if ever an issue should arise regarding the teacher, the parent must share some responsibility for resolving the matter. Our school had a waiting list of students wanting to attend!
The second point in our favor was that not only the teachers, but the students themselves were keenly aware of the fine reputation of our school. They took pride in their school. In fact, whenever he could, the principal would allow students to attend even if they lived outside of the school’s boundaries. The parents had to promise to make sure their child arrived on time.
Being in the Valley, we were in the warmest region of the entire school district. I remember having to halt an art activity involving crayons because the room was so hot that the wax crayons were folding up in the students’ little hands!
And, the classrooms were over-crowded. We were often teaching elementary classrooms with 35 or more students. Basically it was whatever the fire marshal would allow.
School board member Rita Walters spoke in response to my expressed concerns. She referred to our school as a “country club school”. I will never forget this. I felt her resentment for what we were able to accomplish.
I had worked as a student teacher in a downtown elementary school which received additional government funding, as did all of the schools in that area. I remember the carpeted, air-conditioned classrooms with a 28 student cap, all thanks to the government money and requirements.
Back at our Valley school we could only dream of such working conditions.
Our leaders today lack plans which incorporate helping students make a commitment to their own education.
Our leaders today lack plans which incorporate parent involvement and responsibility, as well as plans which hold a parent accountable for their own child’s behavior and academic effort.
Back at our school a phone call home or a parent-teacher conference was a big deal. Parents, students, teachers, and administrators took these very seriously.
It was not money that made our school great. It was the dedication that students, teachers, administration, and parents shared together, the commitment we all felt in our hearts.
Without a change in strategy, without a policy which lays responsibility upon the parents and students, along with the schools – for all of the Great Effort, we already know the outcome.
As I read of the new plans our leaders propose to help schools improve – plans which ignore the key players, the students and their parents, and the committed role they must accept if we are to advance and be successful – I feel like one of the corporals, following the general, charging into the Valley of Death.