Tuesday, March 18, 2008

School Boards - Are They Still Relevant? Are They The Appropriate Vehicle to Address 21st Century Issues

Tonight I attended a school board meeting. Not by choice mind you but because members of our local teachers union take turns taking notes at these things. There were plenty of places I could think of where I would rather have been: at a movie, shopping, online reading by RSS feeds, at home playing with my toddler, etc. However, even though I was dragged to this event I must say that witnessing the process was riveting as it always is. Sitting in on a school board reminds me of just how insure our profession is and how resistant it is to change.

School boards were created originally in our country to ensure that major education decisions were made at a local level by elected officials that supposedly have the best interest of the taxpayers and local community at heart. If you look at how things are financed and how they are governed in this country it all follows this structure. Federal funding for education is minimal and to tap into those funds they do dictate certain criteria be met. The vast majority of school funding the fed leaves up to individual states. If you look at individual state budgets the majority of taxpayer money always goes to education. Then, if you are lucky enough to live in an economically well off school district a large chunk of school funding comes from the taxpayers (thus the gap in education provided by public schools in wealthy areas as opposed to poor areas). The people then elect a school board that has final say in how these funds get dispersed and often get their fingers into nitty gritty school policy issues. The boards then appoint Superintendents who are in charge of hiring administrators and teachers to carry out the policies of the school.

The scary thing about this whole process is that a school board member doesn't necessarily have to be a supporter of education. Often school board members are elected to the board feeling they are there to represent those who have little vested interest in public education. This might mean they want to make sure their taxes are low or want to derail the public system to make room for private options such as private schools or home schooling. Or they feel they are put there by a portion of the constituency who want them to impose some sort of moral value or moral code on the school such is the case with issues like creationism vs. evolution. This is always the dilemma of those who push for change in education. Those who have ultimate say are not always in their positions because they put the welfare of our children first or value the education of our children first. There is far more at work when making decisions than that. Now, I don't think anyone is ever elected to a school board with the intent of doing harm but often their values do not match those that statistics show are best for our kids education. Often these school boards become deadlocked on issues because of this and deadlock means nothing is done.

In this particular school board meeting I observed the main point of debate was all day every day kindergarten. This year has been a trial year for this program in our district. We have gone to great lengths to document the impact this has had on this year's kindergarten students. We measured last years students at various points in the year and applied the same rubrics to this years students. The result was that while last years students started the year slightly ahead of this years students academically and cognitively after having them in the all day every day program they measured ahead of last years students when measured mid year. In fact, the level they collectively reached mid year was higher than last years students at the end of the year. I have personally observed these students mastering complex concepts such as fractions and probability that would never have been possible in a half day or every other day program. There have also been tons of parents come before the school board to sing all day every day's praises. Still, despite overwhelming evidence that this program is good for our kids, the board remains unable to make a decision about what to do next year. I have to conclude that this has to be attributed to board members who feel they do not represent the families of next year's kindergarten students (or any future kindergarten student for that matter) but rather represent families who would rather see their kids at home or their tax money in their pockets.

I think from looking at this debate a few things are clear about the nature of public schools and how they are governed. First, should something come up that would require immediate action traditional public schools would not be able to handle it because the process is not designed to handle major change. Second, the more attention is paid on an issue the more in jeopardy it is (whether it is good or bad) and the more something is allowed to go unnoticed the more it will thrive in this system (in other words, don't stand out, don't do things radically different, and don't do things that will attract attention because no matter how good it is there will be someone opposed and ready to make it an issue). This I believe is true of any organization. Look at The Apprentice. On that show there is always a contestant who rises to the top four because they kept a low profile in the beginning. Third, statistics don't always matter and some people will never change their minds. Statistics are great if we are clear that what we are measuring is of value to all. If we want school achievement and the statistics look great fine, but what don't the statistics show. Statistics can be twisted by anyone and are always viewed by the reader differently based on their own bias before they are presented to them. It is almost impossible to shake someone with strong convictions. If they show something positive there is likely to be someone who says they don't measure what I care about so I am going to dismiss them.

This is at the heart of a problem that will soon become a crisis in this country. Every year the cost of educating a child rises at a rate greater than the money states can provide. We have to make great changes to counter this. Second, statistics show that in the next five years our nation will loose the majority of it's teachers either to retirement or to career changes. Last year alone South Carolina only graduated one Chemistry teacher and that statistic is pretty common across the states. We are also facing a national fiscal crisis. Multiple sources are telling us we are headed into a recession. What are the statistics on levys and referendums in times of economic recession? I am sure they are not good. Recessions mean fewer dollars for schools. How is today's school board equipped to handle such a problem?

I moonlight as a teacher for an online public charter school. This is a very part time job for me. In fact, I probably only spend 6-10 hours a week working for them. Still, I have 375 students in 2 states enrolled in one or more of 10 classes I offer. In such a system I can be more productive than I could be in a traditional face to face setting. Many people in the distance learning community are looking at these kinds of statistics and saying that this is a solution to our looming crisis in education. How is this public school structure equipped to deal with this? I could very easily add students in other states if I had the licensure but to do so I have to go through the process of getting licensed in each individual state and to some degree have to go through local channels to work with students. I believe there is a better way to handle this.

I used to live in an old house. One nice thing about this house was it was amendable. I could change the color of the walls, I could add or remove walls if I wanted, I could update the decor. After many years of previous owners doing just that the paint got so thick that it began to peal off in thick chunks leaving a large areas of the wall that had noticeable texture issues. The non load bearing walls had been moved so many times there was evidence of where they had been previously. All these additions over the years had resulted in a house that was difficult to restore. This winter my wife and I bought a new house. This house still needs work, the basement is not finished, the yard needs landscaping, and the walls are all battleship gray. The difference is with the new house change is easy. We have an open canvas with which we can do anything we want with relative ease where with the old house we were constantly trying to deal with the structure we got.

We are living in an increasingly more globalized world where things that happen in other people's neighborhoods are more and more relevant to us and what happens in places other than the local community has greater and greater importance to us. Technology is changing fast and allowing this to happen. The television brought news of other places and ideas from outside the community into our homes in the 1950s and web 2.0 is now making everyone a publisher/producer/broadcaster. With the ability to be connected in such a way shaping the way information is shared and having a trickle down effect across every aspect of our culture does it make sense to maintain the education system controlled by a locally elected school board? or do we need to build a new house that addresses concerns of contemporary life?

In the meantime, lay low, try not to be noticed, and don't do anything too extraordinary.

1 comment:

Cheryl Oakes said...

Thanks for commenting on my blog. I am really intrigued that you are an online teacher with 375 students please write more about your experiences.