Friday, February 1

As I See It: Education Wrap-Up

I've had a few people ask me why I haven't given my opinion on the education plans this week. My short answer is, "Who cares what I think?" This blog is about helping each of you figure out what you believe and providing the facts for you to do so.

There are plenty of talking heads out there who will engage and entertain you with their insights and analysis on everything from the issues to the latest polls to what a candidate's body language meant during a debate. That gig is pretty well covered. What isn't available is a place where you can get facts without all the filters and bias. I'm hoping this site fills that void.

However, one of my other goals is to encourage healthy debate which is a hallmark of a free and democratic society. So each week I will throw out an opinion or pose a question so together we can hone and refine our own viewpoints and really begin to take ownership of our ideas. That doesn't mean I want you to all come to my conclusions. It simply means I want us to stop lettting other people think for us.

So here's how I see it this week...

I think the differences between all the candidates and their education plans was pretty clear. All of the Democrats had what I like to call "womb to groom" plans. They presented very detailed and all-encompassing plans that, in some cases, provided for a child before they were even born all the way through college and to the altar. A lot of great programs were proposed that addressed literacy, after-care, teacher education and retention, greater accountability and leveling the playing field for kids in low-income areas. Only a few of these plans had a price tag attached to them and none of them told us where the money was coming from to fund these efforts.

On the other hand, Republican candidates took a much more hands off approach to education. Simply stated, they think parents and the market should drive education. I tend to lean more in this direction of thinking.

I want my candidate to have a strong desire to see school choice become a reality. I would like to see a system where we aren't tied to the school in our neighborhood but we're free to attend any school in our city that would best meet our children's needs. Have a child that excels in the arts? Send them across town to the school that places emphasis on music or art education. Want your child to learn Chinese? Enroll them in the school that has added Chinese language classes to their offerings because they know the market is demanding this type of education.

I think releasing schools from the government regulations that tie their hands would actually create better and higher achieving schools. I mean, name me a government run agency that actually runs efficiently and maybe even turns a profit. There isn't one. But name me a successful business and I'll show you a business that continually strives to provide the best product available and at the best cost. Let the free market into the school systems and suddenly you'd see schools that don't squander money on programs that don't work. You'd see the good teachers rewarded for their work.

So what about underachieving and unsafe schools? Wouldn't they suffer the most? Well, some of them would probably have to shut down because they failed to perform---but itsn't the good? Why do we allow schools that aren't thriving to continue on thinking that if we just slap another band-aid on them (a.k.a. another government sponsored program) they will suddenly become a high achieving school. The problem with those schools is greater than a single program.

The conventional wisdom is that if we give more money to schools that will equate with higher test scores, better teachers and greater student success. In 2004, American schools spent an average of $8,400 per student. My kids attend a small private school that spends $5,700 per student. The teachers make half of what their public school peers make, there is less money for enrichment programs, they don't have computers in every classroom and the facilities aren't fancy. In fact, there isn't even a library in the school. However, this little school has produced three National Merit Finalists in the first two classes it graduated and the average SAT score is 1400.

Their secret? Well, many of you will argue that it's because they only enroll Einsteins and don't have to dirty their hands with kids who have learning disabilities or kids who are troublemakers ---at least that was my impression before my kids were enrolled there. Actually, I have found they are just average kids and some do struggle with dyslexia, autism, and a host of other learning difficulties. However, the school's emphasis on parental involvement, teaching the basics, and maintaining a peaceful and ordered environment has created a school where kids love learning and that has translated into academic success.

Schools can do more with less. We just have to give them the freedom to run their schools like they are in the business of educating tomorrow's leaders instead of holding them back with programs and mandates and rules that pushes education to the background and leaves political correctness as its guiding force.

I found this great article that detailed how San Francisco and a few other cities around the nation are moving to a school choice system and how it is changing the face of education for the better. Hey, if San Francisco can make it work, surely we all can find a way to move our schools to an education market.

That's how I see the issue of education in America. How do you see it?


Melissa said...

I absolutely agree that more government programs are not going to "fix" our schools. More positive parental involvement probably will.

Shauna said...

My mom is a teacher at an alternative school, which concentrates its attention on children who were not succeeding in "regular" school. This includes children/teenagers with criminal histories, pregnancy and even some emotional issues. Their school achieves yearly records on their achievements, they have a high turnout and graduation rate, they have a high rate of students attending college and going on to achieve what they might not have been able to without the help of the alternative school. My mom's main frustration, however, is that instead of being able to spend more time working with "her kids" on core subjects and life skills - she spends the majority of her time prepping her class for standardized tests which decide how much money they will be allotted. I totally support "hands off education", teachers and students shouldn't have to spend the majority of their class time trying to evaluate whether they live up to the standards enforced by "suits" who have no real world experience.

Anonymous said...

I generally agree with the goal of creating more educational choices and requiring schools to compete for students. I disagree, though, with the notion that funding is not an issue. If you have schools with old or no textbooks, crumbling buildings and oversized classes, these are issues that require adequate funding. Also, while private schools may be able to pay teachers less, public schools do not have that luxury. So, yes, I absolutely agree that there should be choices, but proper funding needs to be a part of any effort to lift up kids in difficult districts.

Livin' Life said...

I agree with the "hands off" approach. I do believe the individual states need the right to allow financial decision to be made instead of Federal involvement. We need to help those schools that are failing and not financially able to compete with well funded schools.
I live in the sub-burbs where my children go to a great school district but that by no means, detracts from the dissatisfaction I have with our inner city schools across the river. I want each child to have the same positive experience no matter what district their in.

Hands-Free Heart said...

Like Melissa said, more parental involvement probably would help.

While privatized schools sound great, what incentive / competition would exist for privatized schools to open and operate in poor neighborhoods, where their chances of success due to lack of parental involvement (in cases of overworked or missing parents), and other dynamics play. Would an investor be interested in high-crime areas? Not that we want schools there, but children do live there. How far will they have to travel to find a decent school?

I don't think the Republican stance adequately addresses these issues, yet the Democratic stance can get scary... do we really want government controlling more of our lives? I would hope that any proposed Democratic 0-5 programs would be voluntary. Shauna's mom's struggles are probably a result of the Republican No Child Left Behind laws.

I think both sides have some good ideas. I haven't really solidified my opinion, but I'm thinking of a solution which combines public school choice (any within 30 miles?) and equivalent vouchers for private school choice.

Natalie said...

To Anonymous and Hands-Free Heart,

Let me answer your question about funding. The article I linked to about explains how San Francisco uses a weighted student formula to fund the schools. Here's how the article explains it:

"In San Francisco the weighted student formula gives each school foundation allocation that covers the cost of a principal’s salary and a clerk’s salary. The rest of each school’s budget is allocated on a per student basis. There is a base amount for the “average student,” with additional money assigned based on individual student characteristics: grade level, English language skills, socioeconomic status, and special education needs. These weights are assigned as a percentage of the base funding.

For example, a kindergartner would receive funding 1.33 times the base allocation, while a low-income kindergartner would receive an additional 0.09 percent of the base allocation. In 2005–06 San Francisco’s base allocation was $2,561. Therefore, the kindergartner would be worth $3,406, and the low-income kindergartner would generate an additional $230 for his school."

Attaching the money to the child is a slightly different way of doing it as well. If it is determined that it takes $8,500 to educate a child in your area, then that amount is attached to the child and goes wherever the child goes.


Jenni said...

Shutting down underachieving schools - how would that be decided? By standardized tests, I suppose, which are hardly an indicator of student learning and are increasingly mandated by the government. That aside, if you close down those schools, where will the children go? To the next school, in the same district, that also got closed down? I think of Camden, NJ, where ALL the schools are considered 'failing.' What do we do with those children? Bus them an hour or more?

I agree that parents should be more involved in their children's schooling. But for many Americans, that is not an option (working 2 or more jobs, single parenting, etc). Should we penalize those children?

Schools can do more with less, but some schools absolutely can not. Frankly, we are a rich enough nation that funding education should be a non issue.

Natalie said...

Again, the article I linked to about the San Francisco school system bests addresses when and how a school is closed:

"School closure is another prominent feature of the weighted student formula model. In Edmonton, if a school declines to the point that it can’t cover its expenses with the per student money, the principal is removed and the remaining teachers and facilities are assigned to a strong principal—or the school is closed altogether, and the staff is moved to other, more successful schools.

The San Francisco school district closed five schools in 2005 because of underenrollment and is considering closing or consolidating 19 other schools."

This would be a plan that encompassed all the schools in your region so kids wouldn't necessarily have to travel an hour away. In my area, the "bad schools" are no more than 15-20 minutes away from the high achieving schools.


Anonymous said...

If Obama wins the primary, I wouldn't be surprised if you see him come out in support of school choice. It's one of those common sense issues that he can use to signal to conservatives and the African American community that he's not tied to the old Democratic machine.

dcrmom said...

What a cool blog!! I agree, I'd like to see more school choice. Competition generally improves performance.


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