Fixing America’s Public Schools: A 19-Point Check Listy

K-12 Public Education Reform: A 19-Point Check List, The American Conservative, May 11, 2017

by George W. Liebmann

The last forty years of controversy over education reform has largely involved argument from fixed positions. Reformers have aimed at the heart of teacher-union power by seeking to establish charter schools and voucher programs and by attempts to dilute union-security and check-off provisions; relatively feeble attacks have been made on teacher tenure and seniority practices.

These attempts have not been without result: about 5% of K-12 students now attend charter schools. But, despite their validation by the Supreme Court in the Zelman case, voucher schemes and education savings account schemes benefit far less than 1% of students, and so-called ‘accountability’ reforms, by promoting uniformity in instruction, over-testing and ‘teaching to the test’; the spoon-feeding of information in bite-size chunks at the expense of serious reading; and neglect of history, geography, foreign languages, art and music as subjects of instruction; may actually have had perverse effects. The argument about the merit of reforms has centered almost entirely on test scores, without discussion of whether reforms promote individual or family responsibility, instill better values in students, promote maturity, or are consistent with what Judge Learned Hand once called “the preservation of personality.”

Defenders of the status quo extoll district public schools as”community schools” necessary to instill a decent minimum, without examination of whether they are in fact controlled by the community or secure the desired object. The argument is framed as one between the public interest and “privatization”, easy to sustain when the argument takes place in ‘stock-broker suburbs’ satisfied with their schools or in rural areas where the creation of alternatives is difficult. There is limited enthusiasm for erection of a parallel system to replace that which already exists; the neighborhood elementary school has its appeal, even though such schools are almost inevitably less socially diverse than private or charter schools; and there is pride in buildings, basketball teams and the like.

After all, public high schools cost parents nothing; get adolescents out of the house when they are at their most difficult; feed them two or even three meals a day; transport them; introduce them to the opposite sex; entertain them on weekends; conduct heart-warming graduation ceremonies; and eventually present them with certificates entitling them to admission to something, somewhere called a college, or to employment in some not-too-demanding service business. What’s not to like? The fact that by international standards the students are innumerate and by the national standards of a hundred years ago illiterate is beside the point..

Yet reformers too often have put all their eggs in the ‘choice’ basket, to the detriment of proposals which would attract a broader constituency, divide defenders of the status quo, and undermine the strength of the unions and organizations that are its apologists.

There follow some suggestions directed at these purposes which shatter the unions’ preferred narrative of education controversies as involving a choice between “community schools” and “privatization.”

For it is not “privatization” but a sensible model of a public school that the unions and their sympathizers reject.

What is such a school?

1. A school in which teachers and principals retain control over student discipline, without fear of “disparate impact” claims, procedural steeplechases, or ruinous attorneys’ fee awards.

2. A school in which disruptive students are promptly removed from the classroom, so as not to delay or disturb the education of other students.

3. A school in which hiring of teachers is reposed at the building level, without seniority “bumping” and other curtailments on schools’ ability to build a team and select their teachers.

4. A school in which the principal is selected by and responsible to a building-level board, enlisting the energies of parents, teachers and community members with relevant expertise.

5. A school that is free like private schools to recruit its teachers from the 90% of college graduates excluded from the teaching force by today’s certification rules.

6. A school which unlike most of today’s public schools can hire properly qualified teachers of physics, chemistry, computer science, Arabic, Chinese and other critical languages and teachers trained to educate the blind, the deaf and the seriously physically disabled without being obstructed by the unions’ single salary schedule.

7. A school which can adjust its salary schedules to recruit members of single-earner families in the interest of not having an almost entirely female teaching force

8. A school which includes in its teaching force persons of varied ages and backgrounds, including career changers, scientists, returning housewives, and retired military, law enforcement, business, professional and civil service personnel

9. A school in which inadequate teachers as determined by a principal and building-level board can be terminated without lengthy grievance procedures

10. A school in which learning disabilities are identified early in a student’s career by school health examinations

11. A school which takes seriously discouraging drug use among its students, and which does not, for fear of lawsuits, relegate them in wholesale lots to the criminal justice system

12. A school in which the quality of teachers renders unnecessary heavily prescribed curricula; in which books are read, not bite-sized chunks of them; and in which ‘teaching to the test’ is unknown

13. A school which treats 11th and 12th graders like the incipient adults they are, separating them from adolescents

14. A school which does not shrink from the inculcation of cultural and religious traditions and values, and which respects parental rights of choice in this respect

15. A school in which teachers are rewarded with adequate salaries, not with over-elaborate fringe benefits encouraging malingering and ‘gaming the system’ , and in which ‘burned out’ teachers are not locked into their jobs by seniority benefits and vesting requirements for pensions

16. A school with meaningful and internationally recognized graduation standards, which will not be waived by reason of supposed ‘disparate impact’

17. A school with meaningful connections with the ensuing experiences, educational or industrial, of its graduates

18. A school in which handicapped students enjoy the services of specially qualified and properly paid teachers, in which resources are not wasted on bureaucracies preparing ‘individual treatment plans’

19. A school whose teachers are able to use new distance learning and digital technologies, free of state-level restrictions imposed by the unions

When increasing proportions of the public are made aware of how far the typical public school departs from this model, there will be greater pressure for reform, including, where necessary, competition and ‘privatization.”
The writer, a Baltimore lawyer, is the volunteer executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research in Baltimore and the author ov various books on public policy, including Solving Problems Without Large Government (Praeger, 2000), reprinted as Neighborhood Futures (Transaction Books, 2004) which discusses education issues.

Posted in: Education/School Choice/Multiculturalism

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