Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Good School System

I'm still unpacking some of the things I heard at the 5 Years Later panel regarding the current state of New Orleans public education.

The thing that bothered me most was that everyone on stage appeared to agree with OPSB Member Brett Bonin's statement (and I'm paraphrasing) that 'now New Orleans knows what a good school system looks like.'

That might make for good copy, but the truth was exposed later on when the moderator asked the panel 'what does a good school system look like?' The panelists responded with boilerplate statements regarding "student success" and "school success scores" and students who could engage in "critical thinking." The closest any panelist came was the RSD Deputy Superintendent, who said that a good school system could be identified by a student body with an average ACT score of 20. This was verified by others in attendance.

Pardon me for thinking that if you "know" what a good school system looks like, you can describe more details than that. I could do better than that with my layman's knowledge of basic good school systems. Let me throw some darts at it:

1. A city of 350,000+ people should have, at the very least, 35 SACS accredited public elementary, middle, and high schools. Accreditation should be the basic administrative standard for any public school, traditional or charter. This means that when external evaluators from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools show up at a given school, there are instituional mechanisms in place that are known best practices in the field of education. This goes for academic and administrative elements.

2. A city of 350,000+ people should have, at the very least, 1 public SACS accredited school system, which means there is a governing body of public schools also engaged in administrative best-practices and effective instituional mechanisms that are recognized nationally.

And before you think it cannot be done, the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Jefferson Parish public schools, Plaquemines Parish public schools, and 15 other public school systems in the state of Louisiana maintain accreditation through SACS, as do hundreds, if not thousands, of other school systems across the South. Yes, it would be a process to get there, for New Orleans, but the biggest obstacle is a local culture that accepts nothing less than progress-prone priorities. Residents of this city deserve no less than residents of any other.

When it comes to "good schools" those two were easy, low hanging fruit. Which makes it more problematic when not one member of Tuesday's panel mentioned them. The elements of "good schools" only get more difficult from here.

3. Students with an 8th grade education in a "good school system" should be able to read and comprehend the local newspaper front to back. Students with an 8th grade education in a "good school system" should possess a vocabulary large enough to express their thoughts and opinions clearly to others, and to comprehend the thoughts and opinions of others. Students with an 8th grade education in a "good school system" should be able to use mathematic skills to solve everyday problems such as calculating cost of multiple items, balancing a checkbook, paying bills, and calculating percentages for tax and tip.

4. Students with an 8th grade education in a "good school system" should be knowledgeable regarding accepted history of the state and city in which they live as well as the United States of America; students should demonstrate a familiarity with historically important persons, historically important events and why those people and events were important. Students with an 8th grade education in a "good school system" should be able to apply the scientific method as a tool in testing theories about both the natural world and the social world; they should be able to identify relevant and valid data; and they should be knowledgeable about prevailing scientific theories explaining the natural and social worlds.

5. Students in a "good school system" will, by the 8th grade, have had the opportunity to engage in the following activities for at least a semester in length, if not more: play a musical instrument or sing; paint or draw a picture; type; use a computer to access information; participate in athletics or competitive sports; build something at school; take part in a theatrical performance; exchange ideas, thoughts and opinions through debate or verbal problem solving; be provided the opportunity to balance a budget, calculate interest/tax/tip, cook, sew, garden, take care of animals or practice some form of home economics; and finally participate in experiential learning outside of school through field trips.

6. A "good school system" will create effective mechanisms to provide robust access to all of the above to students who have demonstrated learning disabilities or exceptionalities.

7. A "good school system" will create effective mechanisms to provide robust access to all of the above to students who have demonstrated an inability to socialize into the school environment without disrupting the education of others, while working to minimize the limiting effect of such disruption.

8. A "good school system" will create effective mechanisms to properly identify and evaluate students with learning disabilities, exceptionalities, and disruptive socialization issues so they can be referred to the appropriate specialists required to provide the appropriate and necessary learning environment.

9. A "good school system" will create effective mechanisms to properly identify and evaluate students who are demonstrating difficulty in acheiving basic academic goals and develop audacious educational plans to work with these students to overcome these difficuluties.

10. A "good school system" will have the support of the community it serves both professionally and voluntarily; adequate funds to maintain a physical plant while retaining and developing human resources; and a governing board responsible for identifying and supplying needed resources within the means of funding provided.

Those are ten darts at the wall that I would use to describe a "good school system." This is just off the top of my head, but almost all are items I know I've discussed before. Of course, these are just the basics. The devil is in the details regarding how you acheive these goals.



Dante said...

I only have 1 dart:

-A good school system maximizes learning based on the abilities of the individual student. And by "maximize" I specifically mean the maximum number of life opportunities open to a student.

Not everyone is a Rhodes Scholar. Not everyone is even going to be competent at any given subject. We can push them but there's only so far a student can be pushed. After a while, you're just dragging them along. I've seen some utterly ridiculous things happen to public education in the State of Georgia (and from what I gather, it's happening elsewhere, too). I've seen the abandonment of the vocational high school diploma option. I've seen academically integrated classrooms where our brightest and our not-so-brightest are lumped together expected to take the same course and get just as much out of it. I've seen standardized testing turn from a tool into a crucifix at the mandate of our former President and former Senator Kennedy. It'a all bullshit.

And now we have a President wanting to get rid of the education gap? BUY A FUCKING INTRO TO STAT BOOK! The kids at the very bottom are there because they're physically unable to do better. There's no way we should close any gap between people on the bottom who cannot possibly do better and people on the top who are currently limited only by their learning environment. Pushing everyone as hard as they can will necessarily result in a bigger gap. It doesn't sound good and it probably doesn't feel good to think about it that way, but it's the truth.

Everything ties back into my single dart: Get those kids everything they need to live the lives they're capable of. That doesn't mean we need to have all of the kids pass a test (whether it be standardized or just judging their ability to read a newspaper). What it does mean is that we have to identify where kids can go and get them there.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

You do bring up one of the elephants in the room regarding public education.

In my experience, most people talking about the "education gap" are talking about the artifical gap created by unequal distribution of resources. For example, many of those "abilities of the individual student" you are talking about were traditionally assigned based on race or gender or other cultural factors that had nothing to do with a student's actual ability.

This is one reason I picked the terms I did. First of all, I believe these are reasonable expectations that the majority of students should be able to acheive by the 8th grade in a merely "good" school system.

I chose them because these are some of the most basic tools students will need to transmit an American culture of progress, and we shouldn't wait for them to finish high school. These skills will let individual students determine whether they want to go to college or vocational school or just finish high-school to play in the band.

Of course there are going to be some students who, biologically or socially, experience difficulty gathering these skills. Those externalities can be addressed, as you said, to the maximum ability of an individual student. To me, that comes down to managing resources correctly, from evaluation to instructional delivery.

A "good" school system would manage those resources correctly.

Dante said...

I don't think setting the bar at the points you listed for everyone "transmit[s] an American culture of progress." If there are kids who come into the eighth grade year able to perform the items on your list (especially 3-5) and that's all they come out with, too, then your school system sucks. If you want your kid to have the best education possible, shoving them into a baseline with everyone else is simply not going to accomplish that. That's playing to not lose instead of playing to win.

For some reason we understand that fitting the standards to the student works for special education but we are unwilling to apply that same tactic everywhere. We need the equivalent of IEPs for everyone. If little Timmy enters the school year already able to read and understand a newspaper he had better damn well be past that by the time he leaves.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

How does basic literacy, arithmetic, cultural and scientific understanding, and extra-curricular activities not transmit a culture of progress? Those are the very basic tools required for someone to continue learning even if they never go to school another day past the 8th grade.

And make no mistake, if kids can do much more but are held to only such standards, your school system does suck. I think the students in New Orleans public schools are capable of so much more than their opportunities provide.

I'm not writing this in the context of that advanced school system understanding. The purpose here is to explain to certain leaders and stakeholders in New Orleans (and in areas experiencing similar problems) the very least they ought to expect from their local public schools.

Because apparently the folks in charge here have a difficult time enunciating what that is, and a lot of stakeholders have a difficult time putting things into context.

We can use language about the "maximum ability of each student" all we want (and there is an awful lot of that going on here), but when the prevailing cultural attitude is that the majority of your student population does not have a high maximum ability because of their race or background (as is the case here), that language is going to fall flat. We hear a great deal about "school success scores" and "student testing scores" and numbers that mean this and that.

But no one has ever said, "we want every student with an 8th grade education to, at the very least, be able to read the local newspaper."

Because right now, the majority of our schools, even with all the charters and reforms, cannot provide the instruction students need to acquire these most basic skills.