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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

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Shane Krukowski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a good thing... I'd point to the theory of innovation articulated in Clayton Christianson's work, most recently in his book 'Disrupting Class'.

Systemic change, rarely if ever, happens as part of the existing system.

Shane Krukowski
Project-Based Learning Systems, LLC
Milwaukee, WI

Katje Lehrman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Part of the problem is that LAUSD is not looking into why the schools are failing.
I teach at a school that has lost nearly 50% of the students during the past two administrators. Prior to these administrators our school had school based management where teachers, parents, and administrators worked collaboratively. Test scores were rising.
Currently, collaboration means that the principal hand picks teachers to decide what everyone will do. There is no effort to have teacher buy in.
As for parent and community buy in, council meetings have at times been announced the afternoon before. Additionally, translation is not provided adequately for the non-English speaking parents. At one particular meeting, a teacher picked up the translation while the translator was clarifying a question. That teacher was told that she could only speak English.
Tragically, this is not an isolated experience. I speak with many teachers whose schools are being held hostage.
I am not suggesting that poor leadership is the single cause of a systemic failure, but certainly it is a problem that is not being addressed.

Marion Siwek 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are many factors that that demonstrate the poor performances of LAUSD schools in low socio-economic, and/or close to poverty tainted neighborhoods. As a special education teacher at one of these such elementary schools, I have seen children fail due to circumstancs beyond their control. When teacher Anthony Cody says, "I have seen firsthand the effect that poverty has on student performance," I am right there with him. When families are displaced, both parents, though usually one's at home, are working two jobs at a minimum wage, speak little English,living in close quarters with extended family members, with way too easy access to gang lifestyles, there is little time left for reading, writing, and homework. For these children to succeed and overcome these huge obstacles, it is nothing short of a miracle. It takes a commitment by both parent and teacher for a child to be motivated and make progress. Yes, it is time to stop blaming the schools and teachers, and look at how we can directly address these challenges and obstacles that are a direct result of living in these neighborhoods.

John Roper-Batker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I appreciate Elena Aguilar's comments about capitalism and its affects on education. I am a teacher in Minneapolis, and we are feeling another dimension of capitalism's influence. When there are too many schools to serve a given number of students--the open marketplace model--schools have to close. The Minneapolis Public Schools have faced declining enrollment and many school closings at the same time that many charters have failed and closed for a variety of reasons. If these were factories manufacturing similar products, it would be no problem. One could assume that the marketplace would create the best, most efficient production models. Unfortunately, when a school closes, a whole population of students are displaced, and when they move between unrelated programs they accrue serious gaps in their education. I would like to see charter programs carefully limited to limit the chaos that ensues when programs close, funding becomes unstable, and students are left a curricular lurch.

K. Garner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A statistic I often read: 4/5 kids in Los Angeles live in families in which the income is below the poverty line. From my 20 years of teaching experience--a high proportion of parents of our students are not high school grads--and many haven't attended college (and many haven't finished 6th grade--but we don't have stats on that!) In some neighborhoods the population is living in a sort of state of constant high-alert: it's dangerous just to be. This affects how brain function--it's a stressorr that makes processing information more difficult. Limited experiences that corralate with academic success and smallish vocabularies of impoverished children are what many kids start with. If we could measure each child's progress and see if they are learning--we'll find that they are--at their own rate.

The system as it exists does not promote helping little people find there talents or nurturing their potential so that individuals can choose their futures. I think your sense that our kind of capitalism, which needs "workers" to function rather than wants self-actualized individuals, is right on. Thanks for your piece! Please keep following the news. Here's a great blog: http://4lakidsnews.blogspot.com/2009/04/coalition-of-lausd-unions-hope-p...

K. Garner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A statistic I often read: 4/5 kids in Los Angeles live in families in which the income is below the poverty line. From my 20 years of teaching experience--a high proportion of parents of our students are not high school grads--and many haven't attended college (and many haven't finished 6th grade--but we don't have stats on that!) In some neighborhoods the population is living in a sort of state of constant high-alert: it's dangerous just to be. This affects how brain function--it's a stressorr that makes processing information more difficult. Limited experiences that corralate with academic success and smallish vocabularies of impoverished children are what many kids start with. If we could measure each child's progress and see if they are learning--we'll find that they are--at their own rate.
The system as it exists does not promote helping little people find there talents or nurturing their potential so that individuals can choose their futures. I think your sense that our kind of capitalism, which needs "workers" to function rather than wants self-actualized individuals, is right on. Thanks for your piece! Please keep following the news. Here's a great blog: http://4lakidsnews.blogspot.com/2009/04/coalition-of-lausd-unions-hope-p...

Carolyn Jacobson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

First, I should say that I am a teacher in a West LA middle school that is specifically being targeted by a hostile charter takeover, because we are the neighborhood school of a highly paid "consultant" of one of the largest corporate charter operators in existence, who also happens to be a city official with strong personal ties to the mayor and the organizer of the most vocal of the parent groups advocating for charters.

With that said, let me give you a little background of our demographics and experience, and then I will respond to your article.

Roughly, 71 % of our student population is living in poverty and are on the federal lunch program, a la Title 1, 23% are special ed with moderate to severe learning disabilities, and 35% are english language learners. 12% are Caucasian, 33% are African American, 55% Hispanic. We have a nominal amount of Asian and Pacific Islanders, but not enough to make even 1%. I would say that of the 12% Caucasian, about 10% come from the neighborhood with the rest of the school's population bussed in from Mid-City or beyond.

For many years, parents that visit our campus have expressed fear when they see our diverse student population. They ask if it is true that we've stopped busing, or that they want their child in the gifted classes because "those" children do not have the work habits or would be a negative influence on theirs, or that we have a reputation for a culture of failure and have a "gang" problem (we don't). They've actually been rude enough to say these things directly to myself and others that work here, with students within earshot.

Frankly, they are afraid of the very thing that the teachers, administrators, and staff members believe is one of our greatest assets: We are a true microcosm of Los Angeles. We are unique. Thirty different languages are spoken on our campus. We have a student body that is growing up without racial prejudices and biases because they are personally familiar with the variety of cultures, sub-cultures and ethnicities that exist in this city - the very thing desegregation was to promote. It is working on our campus!

Yet, we are a PI 5+ school primarily due to the lower test scores of the Ells, special ed, and the kids living on the edge in poverty and/or homeless, AND the fact that many are holier than thou, nothing-can-affect-or-touch-me, the devil may care, young adolescents (as we all once were) - just as most schools across the country are. Yet they "fail" to score well on an upper-middle class normed test.

Their scores have nothing to do with their learning. I personally get them all to read and critically discuss Shakespeare, yet we are a "failing" school.

Now my response:

You should be very afraid of the corporate privatization of public schools. It is the new form of segregation, union busting, and graft. The robber barons are back.

The mayor in Los Angeles has been seduced by the money and power in the Westside - the greatest opponents of desegregation still. And this mayor has the majority of the school board in his pocket, as well as the promises of support by the wealthy charter EMO/CMOs.

Particularly on the Westside, it is the final push back, the last, bitter act (for now) of the white flight that began with the desegregation of public schools and the busing that began in LA in the 1970s. It is also brown flight in South and East LA (read up on Ritter Elementary, for instance).

All of these people will profit greatly by charterization - don't let the term non-profit fool you. Most of the PI schools are in South and East LA, and there are way more of them than on the Westside.

When you really study the Chicago and NY models, you will see the lack of access to neighborhood schools for special ed kids and the behavior problems when they get expelled from their neighborhood charter - if they can even get in on their lottery systems (which are a part of the charter movement here).

In Chicago, I believe this has a direct connection to the rapid rise of violence and murder rates of children this year. These kids are very, very angry as they become more and more disenfranchised. Here in LA at Locke HS, Green Dot expelled 8 kids last year - who must take multiple buses now to attend regular public schools (if they go at all).

Finally, the rhetoric that has been ingrained in the masses through the continuous marketing of "failing schools" and NCLB has clearly worked. Schools are judged strictly by this one test, not by what goes on in the schools themselves.

It seems that the soldiers for democracy and the true advocates for children are now left to fight this monster alone, as they sweat in their classrooms, offices, cafeterias, and the maintenance sheds in their schools. Fortunately, many parents and students are right there with them, too, otherwise we would all simply walk away to earn a better living in other fields that require our level of education. We do not have many friendly outlets to allow our voices to be heard above the clamor and rhetoric of the special interests that would like to monopolize our schools for profit and/or political gain.

To your assertion that the problem lies in capitalism, my reply is simply that democracy is neither easy, nor pretty, and requires an educated populace. However, a fully educated populace creates a society that questions authority - something that capitalism can not have in order to function to its fullest profit potential, or even function at all. Capitalism requires the system of haves and have nots. Think about it...

Carolyn Jacobson
Emerson Middle School
Teacher
Grade 7
Los Angeles

I. M. Preturbed's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So the Board of Ed for LAUSD could not figure out the myriad problems of the "failing" public schools, and therefore decided to let 300 or so public schools turn into charter schools? Perhaps these Board members should fly to Cuba, which has the highest literacy rate in the Caribbean, exporting medical students throughout the region, to see how education works (successfully). How is it that Castro's tiny, poor island produces such great education, and on a shoestring budget, at that? What I have seen in 12 years of working in the public education system is a mind-boggling amount of largesse, graft and waste. Millions of dollars of textbooks and materials are sitting in cabinets getting dusty, unused; software and expensive programs are purchased, used for a short time, and then set aside, when a new textbook adoption or software system comes in to vogue; even during our economic downturn, when teachers and other employees were being laid off, and positions were being cut, there was no cut for the $4,000 "car allowance" for the advertised position of Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources in my district (and why would someone making a six figure salary need a car allowance?! The part-time clerks could use a car allowance, not someone making over $100,000 a year). There has got to be a better way...

Caroline Grannan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's true that there's not enough discussion in the mainstream media of the questions raised by the charter invasion. I'm a veteran daily-newspaper copy editor myself, and I never realized how gullible and unquestioning my former colleagues could be until I retired and got into public-education advocacy. The press needs to start asking tougher questions and taking harder looks, or it's not doing its job. (And I'm sorry to be so critical when the press is fighting for its survival -- but falling down on the job is not going to help it win that struggle.)

Meanwhile, there IS a growing voice of resistance around the nation against the invasion of charter schools and privatization.

Here's a description of charter schools from the blog Seattle Education 2010:
**
What Is A Charter School?
The basic difference between a traditional public school and a charter school is that with a charter school there is complete control of the school by a private enterprise within a public school district. Although taxpayer-funded, charters operate without the same degree of public and district oversight of a standard public school. Most charter schools do not hire union teachers which means that they can demand the teacher work longer hours including weekends at the school site and pay less than union wages. Charter schools take the school district's allotment of money provided for each student within the public schools system and use it to develop their programs. In many systems, they receive that allotment without having to pay for other costs such as transportation for students to and from the school. Some states, such as Minnesota, actually allocate more than what is granted to public school students.

A charter school can expel any student that it doesn't believe fits within its standards or meets its level of expectation in terms of test scores. If the student is dropped off the rolls of the charter school, the money that was allotted for that student may or may not be returned to the district at the beginning of the next year. That is dependent upon the contract that is established by each district.
http://seattle-ed.blogspot.com/

**

Here are some more onlinevoices critical of charter schools:

Education Notes Online (New York City)
http://ednotesonline.blogspot.com/

NYC Educator (New York City)
http://nyceducator.com/

Perimeter Primate (Oakland)
http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/

Schools Matter blog (contributors from various places; the blog owner is in Massachusetts)
http://schoolsmatter.blogspot.com/

Small Talk (Chicago) (This blog by Mike Klonsky is not as critical of charter schools as other voices, but it takes strong exception to many aspects of privatization and is sharply critical of Arne Duncan)
http://michaelklonsky.blogspot.com/

Solidaridad (Los Angeles)
http://rdsathene.blogspot.com/

SusanOhanian.org (Vermont)
http://www.susanohanian.org/

And here are two books that are not all-out anti-charter school, but that raise and examine many questions about them:

The Charter School Dust-Up
Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement
By Martin Carnoy, Rebecca Jacobsen, Lawrence Mishel, and Richard Rothstein
Economic Policy Institute
http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/book_charter_school/

Keeping the Promise?
The Debate Over Charter Schools
Edited by Leigh Dingerson, Barbara Miner, Bob Peterson, and Stephanie Walters
Rethinking Schools and the Center for Community Change
http://www.rethinkingschools.org/publication/promise/promise.shtml

Here, too, is a recent commentary by Diane Ravitch on the Huffington Post voicing dismay about the direction the Obama administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are taking:

**
... what is the Obama administration now doing? Its $4.3 billion "Race to the Top" fund will supposedly promote "innovation." But this money will be used to promote privatization of public education and insist that states use these same pathetic tests to decide which teachers are doing a good job. With the lure of all that money hanging out there to the states, the administration is requiring that they remove all restrictions on the number of privately-managed charter schools that receive public dollars and that they use test results to evaluate teachers.

This is not change that teachers can believe in. These are exactly the same reforms that President George W. Bush and his Secretary Margaret Spellings would have promoted if they had had a sympathetic Congress. ...
Now that President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan have become the standard-bearer for the privatization and testing agenda, we hear nothing more about ditching NCLB, except perhaps changing its name. The fundamental features of NCLB remain intact regardless of what they call it.

The real winners here are the edu-entrepreneurs who are running President Obama's so-called "Race to the Top" fund and distributing the billions to other edu-entrepreneurs, who will manage the thousands of new charter schools and make mega-bucks selling test-prep programs to the schools.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diane-ravitch/obamas-awful-education-pl_b_...
**

Diane Ravitch, by the way, is a former advocate of privatization who was an assistant Secretary of Education in the George H.W. Bush administration. Having watched the principles she once advocated being implemented on New York City schools, she has switched course and become a sharp critic of the forces of what's often called "school deform."

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