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A Better Way

An excerpt From an Open Letter to Arne Duncan from Herb Kohl

“…I discovered then, in my early teaching career, that learning is best driven by ideas, challenges, experiences, and activities that engage students. My experience over the past 45 years has confirmed this.We have come far from that time in the ’60s. Now the mantra is high expectations and high standards. Yet, with all that zeal to produce measurable learning outcomes we have lost sight of the essential motivations to learn that moved my students. Recently I asked a number of elementary school students what they were learning about and the reactions were consistently, “We are learning how to do good on the tests.” They did not say they were learning to read.It is hard for me to understand how educators can claim that they are creating high standards when the substance and content of learning is reduced to the mechanical task of getting a correct answer on a manufactured test.” (Summer 2009)

On this page we will explore options to allow for a better education for all of our children. This will include funding for public education as well as ideas on teaching, what has worked and ideas in different approaches to teaching based on the set of students and/or the subject.

If you have ideas or thoughts that you would like to share, this is your forum.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift; the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Albert Einstein

The following is a post that I wrote that begins to address the question of what is a better way for our children:

It Started With a Question

I participated in the PERY Conference last weekend at Nova which included a showing of The War on Kids. After lunch we broke into smaller discussion groups to discuss the rights and roles of youth and the direction that we should take in terms of education and schools. I chose to sit in on the discussion regarding the future of our schools.

I chose this subject because that is the question that’s been on my mind since last year when a parent, after reading our blog, stated that we were critical of the ed reform movement but had nothing to put in its’ place.

At the time I responded with the piece entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” and stated basically that first schools need to be adequately funded and secondly that we could look towards alternative education schools in Seattle and the successful programs that have developed within those laboratories of education as a starting point.

So, I went into this group hoping to find more answers to that question.

I sat and listened while students, parents and teachers were talking. I let my mind wander and started to consider the question of what kind of world are these students stepping into? It certainly would be far different from the one that I had entered as a high school graduate on the road to college and a career as, I thought at the time, a psychologist.

I started to think about the differences in those two worlds, my world as a high school graduate in 1970 and the one that our high school students are in today.

Even though we traveled a lot as a family when I was growing up, my world for the most part included my school and neighborhood and even though we lived in Los Angeles, my social and physical spheres were small. We had television and radio but there was no CNN or internet. We had the LA Times, Look and Life magazines to keep us “up to date” on what was going on. The term “diversity” was not in our vocabulary or words like “environmental” or “cutting edge”. Relative to now, our knowledge of the world was limited and yet my daughter goes to school in the same type of school system as I did forty years ago. As the world has changed, we still think that the model that was developed to answer the needs of educating the youth of the industrial age somehow sufficiently responds to the demands and expectations that will be placed on our children, as if time has stood still.

Well, time has not stood still but our educational system has. And ed reform as we know it now is just more of the same old approach but worse. Now instead of educational factories, we have more efficient, state of the art educational factories thanks to computers. There is enough data now on each student thanks to tests such as the MAP test that teachers can receive up to 90 pages of information on each student in terms of their knowledge, skill sets and where they should go from that point in time providing the teacher with predetermined lesson plans all with the click of a mouse.

Like I said, more of the same, but worse.

Now, let’s take a look at the world that our students will be stepping into in 2010.

Our world today is global. We can communicate with anyone anywhere in the world at any time. There are no longer any boundaries. My daughter is just as likely to work in another country as she is to work in the United States. Our world is far more fluid and connected than the one that I grew up in. Information flows from one subject to another and from one person to another. We have to almost instantaneously connect the dots to stay on top of information as it comes to us and then assimilate it and synthesize it so that we can then communicate to others.

This is not a world where you just fill in the dots in response to a one sentence question. This is a world with layers of information that need to be sifted through quickly, synthesized and then responded to intelligently.

So what tools do students need to face this new world? Because they will be crossing borders on many different levels they will need to have flexibility and the tools in place to receive information, synthesize it, make determinations and then decisions.

They will need to be creative with their solutions and they will have to be able to think on their feet. No one will be there to tell them what to say or do. There will be more than one answer to a question and 50 different solutions to a problem. They will need to be able to sift through those possible solutions to figure out the best one for that particular situation and all this will need to be done quickly.

They will also need to have the confidence to know that there are different answers to a question and that, because they have done it many times before, will be able to devise the correct response to that particular challenge or situation.

Now, how exactly does the educational system that we have in place today prepare our children in public school to meet these demands? By teaching them that there is only one answer to any particular question? By implying that questioning that answer is not part of the lesson plan for that day? By only looking at the provided material without making connections to other life experiences or areas of knowledge? By not having any time to explore options and areas of interest that might spark a child’s imagination? By not allowing a child to think for themselves or go at their own pace?

We have put a very inflexible system into place with RTTT. Four exams a year here in Seattle, a curriculum that is the same in all classes in all schools, “Coaches” to ensure that all teachers teach the same material from the same books and the threat of firing a teacher if they do not have all of their students “performing” at a certain level based on test scores. (1984 anyone?)

But our world, the one outside of this alternate reality that we call public education, is completely different and we as adults know that.

We know that we are all constantly challenged everyday with information coming at us at a fast pace and we are expected to respond on our own. There is no one there to tell us the “right” answer. There are jobs that do not demand the intellectual challenge that I have described but those are not the jobs that will be available. Factories are closing and there are only so many service jobs available. This is our brave new world and our children are ill-equipped to face it if we follow the model of more of the same but worse.

Creative thinking, synthesis of information, flexibility, being able to adjust to different cultures and ways of thinking, these are the skills that our students will need to succeed.

Based on my own experience I can say that my education in architecture prepared me for the real world in the sense where you learn how to think, how to synthesize and come up with a conclusion or solution. Other areas are the same, scientific research, engineering, mathematics, medical diagnosis, product design, to name a few. You learn the process of evaluation, bringing in other knowledge, synthesizing what you have, communicating with others your thoughts and ideas and then providing solutions.

And during my education in architecture, there were no multiple choice tests. Even the solutions in my math and science laden course of structures could come from many different directions. There was more than one way to solve a problem in structures.

We need the sort of courses that encourage and provoke thought and challenge students to solve problems from many different directions with a wide range of knowledge. Being successful with this, our children will go out into the world with the confidence that they need to face any challenge and succeed.


June 5, 2010

I came across a link to California Congresswoman Judy Chu’s website and was pleasantly surprised at a refreshing and far more realistic approach to education in public schools.

I would recommend looking at the report that her office put together.

Other thoughts on education presented at TED in 2010 by Sir Ken Robinson.

“The Creativity Crisis”

“What Went Wrong and How to Fix It”

A Newsweek article that would be of interest for anyone who wants to explore options in education

Where Do We Go From Here? (A previous post)

Privatization is about making a profit, whether it’s utilities, war or education. In states where access to  public water has been privatized, the average cost of water to the public is 30% higher. The cost of handling waste water is on average 60% higher in those states. No bid contracts or lack of contracts with private enterprise during the Iraq war and little or no oversight by the government caused cost overruns to soar. We have so little money for education in this country that I wonder sometimes what private companies are thinking when they establish charter schools. Do they honestly believe that there is a profit margin in public education to be garnered? Schools are underfunded as are all other institutions and agencies that are under the umbrella of the Federal government with the exception of the military/industrial/corporate complex. Funding for Federally mandated programs such as our public schools have dwindled over the last sixty years due to the fact that in the 1950’s, 80% of all taxes were paid by large corporations. Now, in 2009, that number has dwindled to 12-15%. For example, in 2008 Goldman Sachs paid an effective tax rate of 1% and yet $40M was paid in bonuses to the CEO.

The balance of public school funding is paid by the middle class and we can only pay so much. With every tax cut and credit provided to large corporations and wealthy individuals, we lose, our children lose, valuable dollars that are desperately needed. Meanwhile, there is a glut of money at the top and it has nowhere to go. All of those billions of dollars have instead gone to Wall Street and this phenomenon is partially to blame for the crisis that we have had to live through over the last 1 ½ years. Institutions that are part of the public domain such as schools do not enjoy the capitol that was available 40-50 years ago.

When I was attending public school in Los Angeles, we had new books every year, pleasant buildings that were clean, well-lit and safe, nutritious hot meals at lunch, playgrounds with all of the equipment that one would need, physical education classes to keep us fit, art, music and well maintained grounds. This is similar to what a private school offers today. A student during that time received a good education and could go from a public school into any university. You didn’t need to attend a private school to gain access into the best schools in the United States. You were on equal footing with your counterparts. That is not the case now and it has to do with money.

As Federal money has dwindled, municipalities and states have had to rely on property taxes, bonds and levies to fund education. Unfortunately, for many taxpayers who do not have children, public education is not a priority and school bonds and levies often do not pass. I saw this happen in California several times. Because of the state of public schools, many parents who can afford it, place their children in private schools which depleted the school districts of funds that would otherwise be allocated to those students and therefore the gap increases.

We have strangled our school system. There is overcrowding in the classrooms. A student from Franklin High School noted to the school board one night that one of her classes had 40 students in it and she said that the school needed more money. She went on to say that nothing could get done in a class that large. There is also less time spent in class. Because of the decreased budgets, class time has decreased. There are now partial school days and more days off. This has put the onus on parents, if they are able to, to supplement the time through homework sessions and/or tutors. What is left in our school system are valiant and valued teachers and school staff who keep their schools together with small budgets, a vision and a lot of hope.

Then we have Arne Duncan, inculcated with the Broad philosophy, waving a carrot in front of a very hungry populace saying, you can have the money but first you have to do a few tricks. What he wants for a relatively small amount of money is to have all states allow charter schools, but charter schools are not the answer. Charter schools do not provide equality of access to all as is the mandate of public schools. Will charter schools meet the needs of the poor and the marginalized as is mandated by the Federal government for all public schools? No, not when a charter school can expel a student if they do not perform well on a test. These are public funds that are to be used to provide for all, not just a select few. Teachers in charter schools have no protections that are provided by a union in a public school. Pay is on average less and the hours are longer.

I was having a discussion the other day with some parents about charter schools and we all agreed that our children could benefit from that situation. We have the knowledge and wherewithal to either establish or select a school that would fit the needs of our children. We would have knowledge of the programs available, we would understand how to gain access to those schools, and our students would perform up to the standards set by the school. But that is not the case for all families. There are many families who do not have access to information to make these sorts of choices, maybe they do not speak English or have access to the Internet. Maybe, due to circumstances that they have little control over, there is not enough time or resources to ensure that their children will do well on a standardized test that determines whether they remain in a charter school. It is an inherently biased system towards those who have and therefore these schools should not be publicly funded.

Sometimes, when I read about these charter schools, I think that these global corporations that fund the Broad and the like are just wanting to train the cogs in the wheel, children who can have basic information drilled into them with no opportunity for developing perspective or creative thinking skills. You then have an even more divided social stratum, the unquestioning workers/soldiers and the ruling class.

The answer to the question as to where do we go from here is two tiered. First, there is the overall picture. The idea of a trickle down economy is a myth. It is apparent to all that the idea that people who have wealth will provide opportunities for others to also prosper is absurd and I would dare to say, manufactured by those with the greatest wealth. The only businesses that I have seen prosper from the wealth of others are businesses that cater to the wealthy such as yacht makers, luxury auto dealers and of course, the brokers. The accumulated wealth of a few that has nowhere to go at the top needs to be reinvested in our country and in our future. Our future is our children. Good business practice is that you reinvest part of your profits.

Corporations have made billions of dollars from the opportunities afforded to them by simply being in the United States. That money now needs to be reinvested in our children through the reinstatement of a tax structure that is equitable and no longer allows tax breaks and subsidies to oil companies and other large corporate businesses, a financial structure that demands oil companies who drill off of our coastlines pay for that privilege and end the tax breaks for the wealthy as instituted by our previous president, George Bush. Because there has not been a significant investment in education over the last 50 years, businesses have had to look elsewhere for talent, to other countries where people have been more adequately educated. The shock for many was that they had to import talent. Microsoft is an example of that. Because of their awareness of the problem, the Gates Foundation has tried, unsuccessfully, to come up with an answer to the problem. Unfortunately there is no quick solution and actually they don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

The answer is before their eyes and in their own backyard, the alternative school system that has existed in Seattle for 40 years. The public educational system can work but it requires money to function and to function well as it did 50 years ago. This gets me to the second and more quickly attainable tier. Seattle has a rich and varied history of alternative school programs starting with Alternative School #1 (AS1) which was established in Seattle about forty years ago.

When my daughter and I moved to Seattle, I discovered the alternative school program and was greatly impressed by what the school district had to offer. There are programs for students K-12 at various locations throughout Seattle. High schools such as Nova have a track record of high test scores, the WASL Language Arts scores are the highest in the city, and placement in some of our best colleges in the country. There are waiting lists into each of these programs and the level of quality of the staff is outstanding. These well established programs need to be maintained and supported. These schools provide an opportunity for all students to succeed, not just a select few. That is what Seattle has and other schools can be developed based on the proven track record of the original alternative school program structure. Governor Gregoire has stated this to Arne Duncan when pressed about charter schools. The state of Washington should receive the additional funding that Mr. Duncan is providing under the Race to the Top program because we have those programs in place. AS#1 established a charter with the public school system in the 1960’s.

The answer can truly be in your own back yard. What we already have is tried and true. The basic tenets of these programs can be used in developing new schools that can provide an even greater diversity for our students and an opportunity for all students to succeed.


3 thoughts on “A Better Way

  1. Hi Dora (et al),
    Thank you for your great work. Would you please shoot me an email? I would like to talk to you about the Civics for All Initiative. The proposal calls for the SSD to adopt the initiative, calling for “civics instruction across the K-12 curriculum.” It is garnering a lot of support —see—- . I hope to hear from you soon. Thanks, Web Hutchins, Civics for All founder, 22 year SSD SS/LA teaching veteran

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