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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!

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