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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Last week, on Tuesday, August 25, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted in support of a plan to turn some 250 of its schools -- including 50 new campuses -- into charter schools. (Read this Los Angeles Times article for the full story.)

I'm really not sure what to make of this, and so far there is little discussion in the papers or the blogosphere. I'm hoping that Edutopia.org's readers who are educators in Los Angeles will share their thoughts, feelings, and opinions.

Here are a few of the details compounding this issue:

  • The LAUSD is huge. There are more than 688,000 students in this district, and a dozen high schools with more than 5,000 kids in each one.
  • Many of these schools are chronically underperforming. Overall, in most grades, fewer than one-third of the students are proficient in math and English. The high school dropout rate (always very tricky to accurately measure) is over 50 percent.
  • The city's mayor and a very active parent community pushed hard for this resolution. (See the Parent Revolution Web site for more information.)
  • The LAUSD already has the highest number of charter schools of any district in the country; nearly 150 of its 800 schools are run by nonprofit educational groups.

There's a part of this decision that makes me really nervous. It feels like one step closer to the privatization of education. Some charter schools have had fantastic results; others haven't. In some ways, charter schools are less regulated and monitored than public schools.

This move is definitely heading in the direction that Chicago and New York City's schools have gone in recent years, and the verdict is still out on how successful they've been. I don't know; it just makes me nervous.

And on the other hand, obviously, something drastic has to be done in the district. It is absolutely outrageous that hundreds of thousands of children are being failed. If I were a parent there, I'd probably be advocating for charter schools.

But here's the thing: There's a lot of blaming going on. The teachers are blamed, as are the credentialing programs they came out of and the unions that represent them; the district and its bureaucracy is blamed, as well as the school board; and the kids and their families are blamed.

It just sounds like no one knows what to do.

There's one thing that's bugging me in all the discussions about the crisis in our schools; there's a big elephant in the room -- or perhaps it's a sacred cow -- that no one talks about: capitalism.

Our education system and its inequities and disparities are an outcome of our capitalist economy. The underlying beliefs of this system are that some will make it, while a great many won't. Our schools were designed to sort kids out -- the factories needed workers.

This system is also built on the conviction that a person improves his situation by pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Within this individualistic, competitive mindframe, we are each responsible for ourselves, and the message is that we can improve our situation regardless of the circumstances.

We tread around on these foundational beliefs all the time without being aware of them, and they allow us to do a lot of blaming. In this land of opportunity, if you can't make it, there's just something wrong with you. (Look at Oprah.) This message finds its way into our schools and our education system in quiet and dangerous ways.

A colleague of mine in Oakland, Anthony Cody, posted a powerful piece about the poverty in which many Oakland children live. Cody wrote, "We are often told not to make excuses for the poor performance of our schools, but I have seen firsthand the effect that poverty has on student performance."

His description of conditions for many kids in Oakland is a sharp reminder of the challenges we are up against.

All the failing schools in Los Angeles are in low-income neighborhoods. We don't want to acknowledge that we live in highly segregated cities and that especially in California our taxation system has produced major inequities in how schools are funded.

Cody's piece concludes with this statement: "But there is a way in which education rhetoric these days seems to deny that poverty has an impact on the ability of students to learn. Sometimes it feels as if the schools and teachers are actually being blamed for the conditions our students are forced to live in.

These conditions should not be used to justify a poor quality education," he wrote. "But the schools and teachers that serve these students have special challenges, and need our support."

The blame our schools are receiving is justified; it is morally reprehensible that they fail millions of children, but it is capitalism and our corrupt system of taxation and that should also be condemned. I fear that until we start having that discussion, we aren't really going to get to the root of things and create an equitable education system for all children.

I really hope that the LAUSD's actions will result in dozens of schools that will serve kids. But there are so many issues that aren't being taken up, and so many questions that linger from this decision.

I do want to know what readers think -- and I am particularly interested in reactions from educators in Los Angeles. Please comment!

Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Samuel Morris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sorry, I could not disagree more with you on the issue of capitalism. You write about fallout of those students that do not keep up. How is this the fault of an economic system (by the way, the best economic system in history)? My wife is a teacher and has worked in both private and public classrooms. The difference that no one wants to discuss is parental backing. Public school parents love their children but many seem to leave the teaching of their children to "someone else." That parent needs to do help with homework and attitude. The lives of their children are very dependent on attaining good grades and believing they can become a solid, productive, successful citizens. If they continue to have a "class envy" chip on their shoulders, how will the children advance?casino

Nick Wisniewski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our economic system is indeed at the heart of the problem. Moreover, It is my firm belief that the whole charter school movement is a case of well-intentioned people being duped by right-wing capitalists into helping destroy public education. There is a "vast right-wing conspiracy" (Hillary Clinton used this phrase when talking about her husband while he was president over a decade ago) that is destroying nearly a century of progress towards democracy and an equitable society, from bankrupting and dismantling social security to destroying labor unions to weakening public education. I am saddened that President Obama is buying into this instead of doing the obvious: if you want to reach and help children, you need a better teacher to student ratio; that is, you need to hire more teachers! When charter schools "succeed" they do so either because their classes are smaller and/or because they have a self-selecting audience of children who have parents that want them to succeed, leaving the rest of the children without that support system in the failing public schools as collateral damage. We do not need a more polarized society split between the haves and have-nots, but that is exactly what the charter school movement is contributing to, willingly or unwittingly. Charter school students are commonly referred to as the cream of the crop; that is, they are elitists in training. And the particularly disdainful dirty little not-so-secret is that it is being done with public funds, further undermining the remaining public schools. If these schools want to present an alternative, let them do it as private schools, which would be more in line with their ultimate philosophical intent of producing an even more economically divided society.

Richard Redding's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that the charter school concept is undermining public education. And for what....in many cases the all inportant dollar! In the State of Florida, for example, I would be interested to know just what percentage of the Charter School Programs there are owned by our former President's brother
"Jeb" and other notable politicians or former politicians. It would appear that many of those that stand to make a fortune off of charter schools are the same ones that have been the most vocal in their support. But for some reason many of those politicians invested in charter schools have failed to point out their conflicting interest.

Cheryl Stock's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This country is the greatest country on this planet because of our founding fathers. Two key traits make us the land of plenty. One, we are considered and were built as "one nation under God". Our founding fathers knew the importance of God, our Creator and the teachings of the bible. We have come away from God as a country and have allowed immorality and accepted attitudes, lifestyles and other religions that aren't based on God and the bible. The second trait that is a huge asset to this country and is what makes everyone envious and draws people to move and live here is capitalism. Capitalism provides opportunity! Socialism and communism do not. Capitalism allows us to dream, work hard, reach goals and be successful. It also allows for people to choose to sit back, be lazy, take from the government and complain about the people who "have" things. But the people who work hard and are successful are taking care of the people who choose the path of laziness. Thank goodness these successful people keep on working hard and don't decide to just sit back and have a poor me attitude and be disgusted with the fact that they are working and providing for people who choose not to work or worse, have the attitude that "they are owed something". Big business is what provides jobs for many, many people. Maybe, just maybe, there should be more business men/woman running the government and our schools and less politicians. The politicians seem to keep messing things up. They don't run efficient and effective programs. I have not sorted out my thoughts on charter schools vs public, but I do believe in capitalism.

Paula A. Benjamin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe the transition for the public schools versus the charter schools is a good thing becuase I highly favor charter schools over public schools due to the fact they have a better rigorous curriculum and strict disciplinary system.

Robert Cowan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been teaching for four years, but didn't begin until 38 years old. I had 20 years working for companies that generated the tax dollars to fund the schools.

First - Money doesn't equal education. The founders such as Thomas Jefferson were given excellent educations with very little printed material. True he was "home schooled" by private tutors, but access to supplies was extremely limited until the 20th century.

Castro may have successful, low cost schools, but dissention, free thought and abhorrent behaviors are not tolerated. Negative reinforcement in Cuba is the gallows.

Second, Drug use is the #1 reason why kids fail in school. Marijuana use in many homes occurs when there isn't enough money to pay utility bills. Drugs are cancer for society.

Third - Many Americans have lost the work ethic of past generations. Traditionally, kids worked to eventually become members of productive families of their own. Today's kids are encouraged to be narcissistic. They put off responsibility as long as possible. What is the hurry?

Teachers are not the problem. Why do Japanese schools work? Do we wish to model their system? Are we willing to implement their structure? No! We want the cake, but are not willing to bake it.

tanner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

hi my name is tanner and i am home schooled i like to be home schooled
because i can learn about god and the bible . if you are home schooled
they teach you about global worming which is not true it is a bunch of lies god created the world and even the scientests know that god created the world how many people do you know that will home school there kids when they have some . do you know what i live by fall back spring ahead .but they that wait uppon the lord shallrenew their strength they shallmount up with wings as eagles they shall run and not be weary;and they shall walk,and not faint.

Dexter Morgan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Any educational institution should benefit from public funding.

"it is morally reprehensible that they fail millions of children" -> It would depend on the current view of what "failure" means. Regardless of the future changes in education (positive or negative) there will always be million of students that compose the bottom 10%.

Marchelene Manning's picture

As an educator with a positive experiences at a Charter school and a privatized Public school, I have first-hand knowledge of the pros and cons of both. As such I believe that the pros out-weigh the cons and are not only viable but excellent options for increasing our chances of producing a great crop of well-educated critically thinking students. There are no perfect one-size fits all answers to any or all students needs and the education system in a country as large and diverse as our own should continue to grow, evolve and expand even as our society and culture does adapting as it goes to what the best interest of the child is at all times.

Walter Raines's picture

In the school district I work in, our state superintendent personally threatened a state takeover to two high schools if there is no change in performance. I am a third year teacher, so initially I was a little confused by this threat. When enlightened by an older colleague what that meant, I felt that it was not fair to the teachers. We work hard to educate both the motivated as well as the unmotivated students. I never had full appreciation for the extra work teachers do, until I had to do it. For the people who are casting blame on teachers should try to walk in our shoes for a school year. Personally, I think charter schools have the same chances as the normal schools have of being successful; 50/50.

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