About Schools, Tech, Poetry & Justice

1. The LA Times ran a story about LAUSD’s turnaround efforts at Freemont.  Here’s part of the intro:

Last December, Los Angeles schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines announced that he would personally oversee sweeping reforms at Fremont. The most striking was his edict that all staff members — including teachers, counselors, custodians and cafeteria workers — had to reapply for their jobs at the persistently low-performing South Los Angeles campus.

Among the disturbing data that led to his decision: Fewer than 2% of students tested as proficient in the math course they took last year. [emphasis added]

Nearly half of the teaching staff has returned, said Principal Rafael Balderas. Of those not coming back, about 70% had refused to interview for their former jobs. The rest, about 33, tried to come back but were turned down. Displaced teachers are entitled to jobs at other schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Here’s my comment in support of Cortines strong action,

If anything, Cortines should have gone farther, said Tom Vander Ark, “Close and replace is the best option,” he said. “There’s only one thing wrong with the large, struggling high schools of Los Angeles — and that’s everything.”

The giant LA high schools have everything working against them.  A real fix would require a coherent core curriculum, a strong culture, a personalized structure, strong community/family connections, as well as restaffing.  In fact, the best approach is trading bad seats for good seats—closing bad schools and opening good schools (as opposed to restart)—but that’s logistically tough to do in LA where the district is short of capacity and real estate is still at a premium.
It’s also worth noting that teachers not hired at Freemont have return privileges and show up in other struggling schools bumping new teachers and disrupting whatever improvement efforts were underway.
When papers want critical quote, they now call the not-to-be-named-here-once-conservative-scholar-turned-NEA-mouthpiece.  But there is no possible way to justify another generation of chronic and widespread urban education failure.  We know better.  We can do much better.  We need to fundamentally change the conditions that created the problem.  We need to close and replace bad schools.
2. An edtech vendor asked me today, “What are superintendents most worried about?”  There’s a long list, here’s three relevant to the questioner:

  • Cost pressure: administrators are shell-shocked and hunkered down after several rounds of budget cuts with no relief in sight.  It’s a tough time to ask them to spend money.
  • Academic pressure: despite the fact that NCLB is in a holding pattern and few states exercise real accountability, districts feel pressure to boost math and reading score.  You need to have a good story around academic improvement to sell anything these days.
  • Integration: it’s still hard to create an integrated teacher desktop.  You need a good systems integration story.  Your product better be inexpensive, easy to integrate, fast to learn/set up, and interoperable.

3.  I felt like a kid that read ahead and was ready for a pop quiz when I heard W.S Merwin was named Poet Laureate.  I have been carrying around his 2005 volume, Present Company.  Typical of his sparse punctuation-free verse is this morning greeting:

let the day welcome you

as its guest the way you

welcome your friends

My favorite of this collection is his toast To Mistakes:

you are the ones I
must have needed
the ones who led me
in spite of all
that was said about you
you placed my footsteps
on the only way

4. On the way home from the airport, I listened to an interview with Robert Jensen, who’s socialist politics would not make him a favorite of all Texans.  His integration of theology and ecology was deep and fascinating.  His distinction between our ability to build stuff and our inability to manage the resulting outcomes is important (and similar to a recent Brooks column about risk management–stuff we’re creating is so complicated that we can’t manage the complex systems we’re creating).
Here’s the relevance to edreform–Jensen espouses the theo-paradox of humility and justice.  We should approach the world and our fellow human beings with humility (Calvinists call that total depravity).  But we’re also called to lift a prophetic voice in support of justice.  And it’s that call to ‘make all things new’ (see Henri Nowen on reconciliation) that gives us confidence to take a stand in favor of those less blessed by the genetic lottery.
So, back to #1; I approach the subject of urban high school improvement with humility forged over 800 attempts–this is difficult and complicated work where, per Merwin, I learned a lot from mistakes.  But we do know how to create good new schools–it’s happening all over the country–and gives me the confidence to suggest strong measures for kids that can’t wait and deserve more from all of us.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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