Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Education Reform Finally Hits Home

By Patrick O'Connor

Real change in education may finally be coming to Detroit, a change that should be noted by counselors everywhere.

The woes of the city of Detroit are well known (note: I am a native Detroiter and live in theMetro Detroit area).  The former mayor had affairs with at least two staffers, and only left office after he spent millions of city money trying to cover up his indiscretions.  The census shows Detroit lost 25% of its population in the last decade, giving it the same population in 2011 as it had in 1911.  Recent test scores showed many Detroit elementary schools with 1 in 4 students reading at grade level, leading Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to call Detroit “ground zero” for public education.

Detroit’s need was made clear Tuesday when Secretary Duncan (a Democrat), Republican Governor Rick Snyder, the State Superintendent and at least three extremely well-financed foundations decided enough was enough.  Using state laws crafted in the last two years, the governor has created a new, boundary-free school district that will ultimately include every “failing school” in Michigan.

The first schools included will be the failing schools in Detroit.  They will receive funding separate from the other Detroit public schools; a local university will offer teacher trainingin these schools; 95 percent of all funding will be directed to classrooms, and principals will have the right to hire and fire staff at will.

All of this makes for great drama, but the real change is in the small print of each newspaper carrying the story; parents sending their children to these schools must agree, in writing, to support their child’s efforts to learn.

And that, my friends, is headline news.

For the last 20 years, and especially for the last 6 months, educators everywhere have borne the brunt of attacks from the right, the left, the rich, the poor, and the unemployed.  All of these attacks have three things in common:

i)                    Some of our kids aren’t learning enough.
ii)                   All of our kids go to school.
iii)                 All schools have to change.

But wait.  All kids go to school, but only some kids don’t learn—even in the worst Detroit schools 25% of the kids know what they’re doing.  Same school, same teachers.  What do they have going on that the other kids don’t?

It’s clear none of these critics have ever been teachers, because this is something teachers and counselors have known for years.  Who shows up at parent conferences?  The parents of the good students.  Who calls counselors for help, sometimes to the point of distraction?  The parents of the good students.  Who volunteers for the PTA, field day, the refreshment table at back-to-school night?

It isn’t a perfect relationship—there is no study that shows kids will go to Harvard if their parents bake cupcakes for school-- and teachers are trained to make a difference in the lives of all students, while parents receive no such training.  But it’s still there, and Tuesday’s press conference in Detroit shows that government leaders are starting to admit this.

So what took them so long?  Why, instead, have they tried merit pay, eliminating tenure, teaching to the test, degrading teachers as a group, and denying teachers the right to negotiate for a salary commensurate with their education?

Simple.  No public funding is tied to parenting, and you can’t legislate a change you can’t control.  You can ask parents to change, but that won’t happen unless they want to change.  Counselors have known that for years, too.

Maybe education’s leaders need to go back to counseling school

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