Friday, August 12, 2016

When the “Criminal” Hides Behind “Not Perfect”

Ask public officials in Oakland what their accomplishments are, and you will get a rapid fire list of Soviet-style awards and merit badges.  The problem issues will be articulated and the buzzwords for the “known to work” solutions will get named.  Something they have done will associate their names to “good work” with little discussion of how ineffective the institutions, programs, and non-profits are when looking at the big picture. 

Point this out and you will get the latest cliché on auto play:
“We can’t let the ‘perfect’ hold up the ‘good.” 
But maybe more often, the “not perfect” is really something “criminal”. 
Crime number one in the Oakland Unified School District is to have so many kids not finishing high school. 
Want to find these kids? You are guaranteed to find at least one of them a day at the courthouse, entering the revolving door of our failed prison and parole system.  Not finishing high school was only part of the trap opening up for them. Prison and becoming a convicted felon is this trap snapping shut. 
“Not perfect”?  Well, I can see why a careerist politician would want to call it this. 
Back in the real world, where we are prying numbers out of a system that does not want to provide them and does not want to count the dropout kids on their books as failures, we find about half of the Oakland youth who should have a high school degree, don’t have one.  This non-graduate half  is overwhelmingly black and brown youth who are overwhelmingly economically disadvantaged and are on track to have trouble finding good work. Our own OUSD Superintendent tells us that most of them will eventually find themselves arrested. 
What I do not see is the urgency, the sense of emergency, the will to do something at the level that might really make a significant difference.  Every year we totally fail hundreds of our young people who will have trouble finding a job and no trouble finding their way to a jail cell. 
And what do we hear?  Oh, the test scores are “most improved” and our graduation rate is, if not counting the dropouts, up a few percentage points.  And what about the school-to-prison pipeline?  The same crowd wants some kind of “perfect” solution with a lot of expensive and complicated planning to do something major.
The OUSD should declare the situation to be an emergency, transfer lots of people to the task of getting these young people back in school, and accept that such an effort will not be perfect.  What more of an emergency do we need?  Some of these kids will die in street violence, most will get involved in crime, and all will enter the job market with a strike against them.  If we had to close all kinds of administration offices for a couple months and go visit every family affected, it would be worth it. 
Seems we are selective about what is called “good enough”.  What is being done now about the failure to stem the dropout rate does not rise to the occasion in my book.  The dropout rate is a crime hiding behind “not perfect” and this crime has some siblings. 
There is, first and foremost, the high crime of making school a boring, if not somewhat oppressive, institution with a drudgery of desk work with a misplaced focus on standardized tests and test taking. When coupled with a neglect of the other aspects of school, public education becomes an irrelevant and negative part of being young. 
Where did we get the idea that school should not be fun?  Where did we get the idea that by making it possible for all kids to have a chance at college, no kid will get a chance at learning technical skills or Spanish, not to mention learning how our government works, how to apply for a job, how to type, how to use a computer, how to fix a computer, how to drive a car, how to fix a car, how to insure a car, how to get an ID, how to file taxes, how to open a bank account, how to rent an apartment, how to check a circuit breaker, what to do in case of an earthquake, and?, and?, and? 
Maybe if school offered more of the things related directly to our real lives, young people might find it useful to study them?  In point of fact, after-school programs that offer projects for the young people to make their own are shown to have improved student participation and lowered dropout rates.  In short, fixing the irrelevant school curriculum problem is part of solving the dropout problem. 
It is a crime to call the death of non “core academic” programming just “too bad” and “not perfect” while we spend so much money on test giving, administrative costs, and doubtful building projects. 
It is also a crime to overcrowd the classrooms.  More than any other aspect of our public schools, classroom oversize and lack of stable, trained, and sufficient support staff makes day-to-day school a lot less than it ought to be for our students and teachers. 
Classroom overcrowding is sluffed off as “well, not perfect” and then we go on as though somehow it is acceptable, or even workable.  Then we start looking at how to judge teachers and whole schools, often using only those test scores, while crippling them with an impossible situation of over twenty-five students per class.  Here is another emergency needing to be declared.  We are in a long-term budget crisis caused by Proposition 13.  Then what is our crisis plan?  Maybe it is the administration that needs to have staff cuts and we should transfer those folks to on-site school jobs?  If we are saddled with a long-term budget crisis, let’s at least choose which crisis to have and where to have it. 
Classroom overcrowding subtracts time and resources from the students who need extra help the most, and often causes students who do not have a crisis to get lost between the cracks. 
The last crime I will work on today is the crime of shutting down adult education before we had a new system to replace it.  This is a the crime of destroying decades of public investment in a system that served thousands of residents.  This crime was committed because "reality" was a short term budget problem that was solved by doing a long term damage to our educational systems.  Where do people do their high school equivalency prep?  Where do they learn English?  Where do they finish up their diplomas if they did not graduate?  Other districts, if at all.  For the most part, not at all.  The OUSD voted to throw those programs and people to the winds and just take the money. 
I don't even see the "good" in trading long term damage for hand to mouth, short term budgeting, but I say a crime was committed against our community when adult ed was killed in 2010. 
What do we do otherwise? 
I’m not sure what the downside of slashing administrative costs to build back up staff at the schools would be, but I am willing to risk the experiment.  To keep on as though “business as usual” is tolerably good, albeit admittedly “not perfect,” is to accept the unacceptable.  

Friday, August 5, 2016

A time for the practical in education

A time for the practical in education
English, History, Math and Science should all be taught with a foot in the real world. Civics, which deals with matters ranging from the entirety of our public lives, should be required. 
Long before the wars between charter and public schools, long before the anti-Mexican "English-Only” propositions, and long before the Christian Right stealth campaigns for school board, another problem had arisen within the U.S. public schools.  Somewhere along the line, teaching things practical or in an applied way was lost and abandoned.
If there is one thing that my fellow parents, school teachers and residents all seem to agree upon, it is that the K-12 schools should do a better job of teaching practical life skills and teaching the curriculum in the context of how it would be used in everyday life outside the classroom.
Yet we still have a focus on the theoretical side of almost every subject and a day-to-day practice of making students spend a horrible amount of time sitting at a desk getting ready for tests in classes that have one, and only one, real goal:  college preparation.  
Ask anyone involved and they will agree that we need to accent the applied, but when it comes to changing the school day, most of what results is an addition of some word problems and maybe an “experiment” or two in lab.
Anyone who has gone to trade school can recall the routine of learning based on doing projects.
Basic electronics?  We started by building a radio.  >From scratch.  The math, the materials, the science, all come into play when one winds a coil and sets the variables to capture a resonant frequency.  (that means tuning in a station)
But project based learning is hardly the only way to be teaching the practical.
All across the curriculum there exists possible links from the subjects we supposedly teach to what is going on in the world around us.  History can be linked to the morning news.  Geography, language, and art can be connected to our international place in the world.  Math can take us to electronics, but it can also take us to filling out a tax return or to calculating the actual dollar amount of the percentage of the gate won by a famous prize fighter.
For the most part, bringing relevancy to content is not a problem that needs loads of money to fix.  It needs teachers and administrators who are willing to open themselves up to a transformation that would keep the standardized tests from driving our kids back to their desks within the confines of the classroom walls. 
Time needs to be taken to modify the curriculum to get students out of their chairs and DOING THINGS and even MAKING THINGS -- activities that will help them grasp the concepts of their core coursework.  The work of curriculum development takes deliberate review of existing projects that have already been designed and learns how to use them effectively.  It is admittedly hard, albeit rewarding, work, and anyone who tells you that there are lots of insurmountable problems is just plain wrong.  Almost any trade or skills training program accomplishes these tasks every day.  There is not much new, just a need for new technology subjects and a sex and race discrimination free environment.  Fortunately, there is already a lot of work being done along these lines.  For a small example see:
Some other resources could be found looking for STEM applications to the “real world” of everyday life.
It will take some leadership to make this change to how we teach K-12 in Oakland.
To be more precise, this is a change back to a past era.  People my age and over remember shop, civics, home economics, and art classes, and much more.  In my child’s charter school we started to reintroduce such things in a small way. The kids benefited from it, and it was a satisfying feeling to see girls using bike repair tools to fix a flat tire and boys using a sewing machine to make a marble bag because we made all students do both.  The kids wanted to add "app coding" and wood shop. 
I would like to have us work our way back slowly, starting with small, but fun and practical, projects that every student could do as part of their current course work RIGHT NOW.  The reason for RIGHT NOW is that we are losing too many students for the simple reason that school work is often too abstract and boring.  Too many students believe that school has not been designed with them in mind.  Just ask them.  
We need to go back to the days when schools grew plants in milk boxes, did art projects with egg cartons, and pulled classroom discussions from current news events.  One of our biggest problems is that students of every age are not engaged, and when they get older a disastrous number of them drop out. School needs to become more fun.  Students need to feel that they are learning something worthwhile.  In short, school work needs to be relevant to the larger world around them.
There was an old word I used among my examples: “civics.”
We need to bring back and expand civics.   There are all kinds of matters relating to ordinary citizens and their everyday concerns that should be a study in and of itself. 
Most of us remember civics as being where we learned that a state has two senators.  Such basic understanding of our government is badly needed.  Our students and their parents need a better understanding of how our local government works.  As a political candidate for school board I get a lot of questions about what precisely are the functions of the school board.  I would like to see students have some form of civics taught throughout their studies, and once in middle and high school with an eye on preparing them to become good citizens and informed voters.  Schools are locations where students and their parents should be able to register to vote and are often where they do vote. 
But participation in civil society entails more than just voting.  We open bank accounts, file taxes, join the military, rent homes, apply for jobs, receive public services, continue our studies, use health care, and insure our homes and cars. Every reader could add something important to this list. No student should leave our schools without a bank account and an ID card.  Civics is where we can make such things happen.  Of all the things I have mentioned here, this one will cost real teacher salaries and the expenditure will be worth it. 
More practical education will help us keep students in school.
Browbeating the students to be interested in a tedious series of pointless exercises, such as regurgitating on standardized tests some facts that they might use “someday” when they compete for a college entrance that most will never see,  is a recipe for failure and poor classroom discipline, which is way too much of what we have now.
Project-based learning, along with electives providing “identifier projects” for the students to work on, have shown themselves to improve overall school results, starting with staying in school.  I promise another blog to talk about this more in depth.