Some of my friends have told me that working to reform public schools is like hitting your head against a brick wall. Many, many people have tried for years, and little has changed.
In a report entitled, "Put Learning First: A Portfolio Approach to Public Schools", Paul Hill writes:
"The problem for reformers is that our current public school system is a lot like a building designed to withstand an earthquake. It has multiple, independent structural supports that flex and bend, dissipating outside jolts of energy. While this makes for a very stable educational system, it also diffuses pressures for positive change—most notably, efforts to reform schools to meet the shifting needs of students and society.
He identifies the following items which have constraints placed upon them, thereby making changing difficult:
- Instruction: "State curriculum rules typically require coverage of a wide range of subjects. State testing programs also provide strong incentives to emphasize some skills over others."
- Use of funds: "Although overall spending within a school might amount to several million dollars, school-level leaders typically only control budgets of perhaps $10,000 to $50,000...Also, state laws and labor contracts largely govern teacher salaries and benefits, which account for about 80 percent of spending at the school level."
- Human resources: "School principals have little control over the hiring and assignment of teachers, who typically work in schools according to the terms of collective bargaining agreements. In general, teacher seniority trumps other factors in determining who gets to fill a particular vacancy."
- Teacher and principal licensing: "States establish licensing requirements for teachers and principals. Schools of education generally define these standards, thereby ensuring demand for their courses and degrees. The requirements set minimum, yet not very effective, standards for teacher and principal quality: More than one-half of new urban principals and teachers report being poorly prepared for their jobs."
- Investments: "...while individual teachers and principals are constantly coming up with new ideas about teaching and learning—and every city has a school or two that beats the odds with poor and disadvantaged students—other educators have few, if any, incentives to investigate what is working best and imitate it."
So working toward change in Seattle could require:
- Changing union contracts for teachers;
- Changing teacher and principal certification rules and education programs;
- Giving principals more control over their budgets. (Although Seattle principals currently have more control over budgets than most principals, at last night's Board meeting, I think Raj referred to taking back some of that budgetary authority from principals. Did I hear that right?)
- Resisting imposition of district-level curriculum decisions. (Last night's math curriculum discussions seem relevant here.)
- Creating incentives for duplication of programs that work.
#1 and #2, while vitally important, feel overwhelming.
#3, #4, and #5 seem like items we could tackle as parents and community members across the city.
What do others think? What should we know about efforts already doing on in these areas and/or barriers to success we could fight to remove?
And of course, making these changes would not in any way guarantee better schools in Seattle. It would just remove some of the structural barriers that make positive change so difficult.