Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Teaching Profession Needs A Major PR Makeover

Teaching kills for a host of reasons. Lots of teachers won't tell you otherwise. Lest I get branded a 'Serial Whiner' (With no apologies to former McCain advisor Phil Gramm: "Whiner" like the teaching colleague whose idea of staff meeting participation is ridiculing everything while managing to grade papers, and purposely leave facial dandruff droppings in the meeting room 'cuz he hates the custodial staff slightly more than either himself or his eighth grade algebra students), here's what I think would mark the beginning of a major PR boost:

1) Provide the following financial incentives for classroom teachers:
  • Eliminate State and Federal Income Tax for all K-12 public school classroom teachers

  • Forgive student loans completely for folks teaching grades 6-12. Lots of states already do so for teachers working in critical shortage areas or subjects. Given the sorry state of our secondary schools, the case for expanding "critical" is easily supported.

  • Increase starting salaries for classroom teachers. More so for those teaching grades 6-12: 70K for urban school districts, 50K+ for rural (or, at least 10% than what the rural cops are making). Use a combination of federal and private sector funds to pay for this (after all, 'they're' the ones already paying steeply in the form of overpopulated prisons, and a shitty workforce). Michelle Rhee (DC Superintendent of Schools) has the right idea in a strongly modified version of merit pay (i.e., substantial, conditional raises, performance-based [not necessarily test score increases]).

    • Here in California, the state is required to spend 40% of its entire budget on public education. Well over 85% of that goes toward salaries and benefits. Far too often, district-level administrators are grossly overpaid. End this imbalance or force administrators back in to the classroom they so diligently avoid. You think CEO salaries are out of line in corporate America? Sheeee-it, you oughtta take a peek at public schooling (see NY Times' 'Week in Review" ad section every Sunday)! Throw money where it counts.
    • Provide additional financial incentives for those returning to the schools they themselves attended.

2) Get more eyeballs and bodies involved in the makeover discussion by considering conscription.

Charles Moskos took so much heat for advocating a military draft as late as 2003, but the man had a point: there's nothing like personal stake-holding to stoke debate, consciousness raising, and personnel shortages. With a snotty nod to our Presidential candidates, I say we fund either conscription or the entire PR makeover by buying 3 fewer B-1 bombers, shutting down Guantanamo, and sucking funds directly from the nascent Bush Presidential Library. We don't need a bigger war machine, and we all know Dubya don't like to read nothin. Young people between the ages of 18-27 would be required to serve our country for two years. You can enter the classroom, the military, the Peace Corps, the National Parks Service, or any agency providing services to our most vulnerable populations (the elderly, indigent, or young).

  • If you agree to teach, or work in a public school (min. requirement for classroom teaching would be a Bachelor's degree, those without a 4 year degree would be assigned to support positions), up to 2 years' worth of your college loans would be repaid.
  • If you decide to stay in the profession after your term of service, you'd become eligible for a combination of continuing education (e.g., NYC Teaching Fellows program), and complete student loan forgiveness.

3) Find the Education Messiah. Fast. Get his or her ass all over the airwaves.The environment now has Al Gore. Kabbalah has Madonna. Personal computing has Steve Jobs. Our Fantastic Four (Bill and Melinda Gates, Richard Barth and Wendy Kopp) are too busy actually getting stuff done. Qualifications: name-recognition, positive telegenics, a substantial amount of wit and a profound sense of the power of teachers. A cursory scroll of pretenders may help reveal the magnitude of our need:

William Bennett (Are compulsive gambling and chain smoking among your espoused virtues these days?), Diane Ravitch (too, too), Rod Paige ('nuff said), Randi Weingarten (lamentable overbite, too busy being Al Shanker), Margaret Spellings (see Rod Paige), Jaime Escalante (He stood, delivered, and resigned due to collegue jealousy issues), Edward James Olmos (alas, he's loco in real life), the guy who wrote "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire" (too busy kicking ass in the classroom), and Queen Latifa (she had the best of NBC's "so now you know" , school-specific public service announcements).

Nominations anyone?

Lemme know, and I'll make the phone call. I'm serious.

The profession needs a serious public relations makeover. We need the best and brightest. Even the vaunted Teach for America can barely make a difference. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The public and our government says our high schools and middle schools tend to suck

  • Drop out rates remain alarmingly high. California's are indicative of the nation's.

  • Our teachers tend to leave the profession soon after entering

  • Studies perennially indicate high levels of teacher dissatisfaction with school-workplace environment

  • We can neither recruit nor retain secondary math and science teachers to satisfy demand

  • Our secondary school classrooms are dangerously overcrowded

  • Research and attendant dollars tend to focus on pre-K and/or elementary schools ("first five")

  • Our high school teachers are scrutinized more than Presidential candidates, getting much more blame than praise
  • More often than not, "teaching to the test" and "teacher-proof" pacing guidelines replace secondary school teachers' autonomy
  • Most sane people would rather not spend the majority of their day teaching, much less being in the presence of adolescents.

Yammer all you want about education reform. Yammer all the way to the Third World and back. It all starts in the classroom. For far too many kids, that's where it ends as well.

Eliot Suarez

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Reducing HS' Class Size the Old Fashioned Way

I live in San Francisco. My wife and I have a two year old son, and are expecting a baby daughter in seven weeks. Already, we're stressing about schools. I'm most anxious about our local secondary schools. Beyond the expected pre-school enrollment woe, my real concerns are actually projections based on current facts. We console ourselves for the time being by looking at the elementary years as one would ordering an omelette at a diner: safe to order cuz you can't possibly fuck that up. It's a whole other story when it comes to middle and high schools.

Out here, we have so-called 'School Choice.' Does this mean that parents can choose where their kids go to school? Sorta. You make a ranked list of seven, then the district does its best to assign you to one of your top three. It sorta works. It's sorta been called fatally flawed by a civil grand jury a few days ago. Persistent overcrowding, even with perennial declines in enrollment (thus state/local funding), and incredible amounts of public frustration with a pathetic, desperate method of selection make the whole process feel like I'm back in Cuba. Sure you can vote, but there are no opposition candidates, just a slate o' shit. Just like every other urban school system, there are 1-3 notable high schools (in NYC: Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvessant. in SFO: Lowell, School of the Arts) with the rest being an utter crapshoot.

The selection method relied on by SFUSD is a six-factor "diversity index." Given that our high schools are diverse only in the sense that every culture but 'Anglo-American' (White) is represented in spades; given that 'White flight' begins rising sharply as kids near middle school (@ 34% of school aged kids in SF attend private schools, more than 10% above the state's average); given that longitudinal studies forcefully show that the worst place for African-American males to go to school is beautiful San Francisco; given that the new Superintendent had to hire an 'Equity and Social Justice' administrator to the tune of over 200K per year, I'd say the District, were it a diner, truly fucked up this omelette.

SFUSD's reducing HS' class size the old fashioned way, alright: through bungled policy, a lack of predictability for parents, mediocre schools, and attendant declining enrollments.

Are we, as the new-ish Superintendent has said, "stuck on stupid?" Should my wife and I be worried.

I'd say yup."

Leaving for Hawaii (just vacation!),

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Philanthropic Foursome $hould.Go.All.The.Way

This week was Bill Gates' first week of the rest of his life. Last week, he officially resigned from day-to-day operations at Microsoft. Now he and Melinda can focus almost exclusively on their Foundation. He's had the money for years, and where giving to schools is concerned, the man is far more impressive than Vista and/or the current state of the company he founded.

Most notably, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have given millions to improve high schools. New Visions, Learning Academies, call 'em what you will, but above all, call 'em a great, overdue idea. Small high schools, focusing on workforce preparation through academic rigor and greater attention to individual students' needs elicits the biggest "no duh!" this blog can muster. Perhaps Bill figured things out firsthand at Microsoft, when he ran up against the depressing underpinnings of a crap-ay domestic product: our under-qualified workforce. Our country has long lost its edge in regards to educational attainment. To put it bluntly, these days, a high school diploma don't mean shit.

A recent NY Times article discussing popular reasons for the current economic downturn cites a booked called The Race Between Education and Technology, by labor economists Claudia Golding and Lawrence Katz. The book pretty much lays it out. Globally speaking, we're losin' the race in some serious ways. On a national level, our high schools generally suck. Our graduates aren't ready for college-level work and seem better suited for the service sector than for places like Silicon Valley.

But if you've read this far, and if you're anything like me, then you might be saying "Yeah, that's great Eliot, but, um, where's the foursome? How about that foursome?" I say hold your horses, Henny Youngman (..."take my wife. no really. take my wife"). I can't invite you to dinner without setting the table, dude. Good thangs take time.

Time is what Bill Gates now has.

And what better way to celebrate than to hook up with public education's ascendant Power Couple, Wendy Kopp and Richard Barth. An inversion of the ol' "in-out, in-out," if you will. The oldsters rejuvenate by coupling with the youngsters, while the youngsters luxuriate in greater relevance by bumpin' uglies with the royals. Oedipus Rex, Ang Li's key-swappin' Ice Storm, a good one third of the Old Testament, the blue-faced whimsy of Krishna, and the HBO mini-series Rome aside, history and Joseph Cambell's ghost hold a special place and role for the almighty foursome: Creator-Destroyer.

The fierce-ass Hindu Goddess Kali. Jesus coming "not in peace, but with a sword." Bill and Melinda cavorting, however metaphorically, with Wendy and Richard. Nothing pretty about any of it, I suppose. But damn if change don't gotta come soon. Times have changed. Just ask those labor economists.

Up until a few weeks ago, I had no idea that the founder of Teach for America (Wendy Kopp) was married to the founder of the uber-successful KIPP (Richard Barth's Knowlede is Power Program, a charter school network kicking regular public schools' asses everywhere, everyday). That Barth started out as one of Kopp's earliest ToA employees made the NY Times story even more compelling for me. He also bears a slight, puffy resemblance to Bill Gates. Plus, um, Wendy Kopp is hot. So it got me thinking.

A foursome is definitely in order. Even one as banal as additional, invigorated funding and consultative assistance. There's too much common ground, so much to be sown from the seeds that have already been planted by both parties.

At the risk of further bludgeoning the metaphor, it's time for them to get in bed together and fuck like rabbits. If they're already there on occasion, turn it up several notches. Go crazy. Install mirrors.

For our kids. Really.

Imagining the Headlines,
Eliot Suarez