Tuesday, August 08, 2006
THREE BETTER SOLUTIONS
FOR NEBRASKA'S THREE EDUCATION CRISES:
RACIAL ACHIEVEMENT GAP,
AND SAVING OUR PRICELESS COUNTRY GRADE SCHOOLS
1) How best to plug the longstanding racial achievement gap within the Omaha Public Schools?
We should reorganize the 20 worst schools within the Omaha Public Schools into a subdistrict with more curricular freedom, similar to the freedom that alternative schools now have to meet their students’ distinctly different learning needs. This subdistrict could be on a long-term management contract with a successful private education management firm such as KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program). OPS should install an assistant superintendent specifically for this subdistrict, reporting to the OPS board instead of through normal channels. This liaison could be a trusted Omaha education leader of color, such as City Councilman Franklin Thompson or community advocate A’Jamal Byndon.
The Nebraska Legislature is attempting to divide the Omaha Public Schools into three districts, basically with white, black and brown students, to zero in on the needs of different student populations as a way to plug the decades-old racial achievement gap. The idea has spawned a discrimination lawsuit, lots of criticism along racial lines that Omaha is returning to the days of school segregation, and outrage among OPS parents and taxpayers since educrats are doing all the planning and they are being excluded.
More importantly, there isn’t a shred of evidence from anywhere that dividing a student population by race will have any learning benefit for the children involved, without changing the curriculum and instruction methods radically. And there’s no evidence OPS even knows what the effective curriculum and instruction methods ARE, since they don’t have them in place after all these years.
Now, Nebraska districts have been allowed to operate alternative schools for many years for kids who, for whatever the reason, don’t benefit from traditionally-managed school settings. Since test scores in about 20 OPS grade schools, middle schools and high schools are atrociously low, but test scores are acceptable in the other OPS schools, it seems obvious that something significantly different should be undertaken for those 20 schools.
Solution: set them up as 20 alternative schools within a new subdistrict of OPS, still reporting to the elected OPS school board and still receiving the same amount of funding per pupil as they currently get. Except for health and safety regulations, though, remove the new subdistrict from the control of the existing central office in OPS or Superintendent John Mackiel, and make the teachers and principals free of the existing collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union.
Instead, management would be provided under a long-term contract by a private firm such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (www.kipp.org). It has demonstrated significant success with tough-to-teach student populations in other cities with common-sense but effective differences compared to the traditional public-school operational formula, which obviously is not working for these kids in inner-city Omaha.
Now comes the fun part, for the educators who will be working in the new subdistrict: allow them to get merit pay, and tie it to improvements in student test scores. Fund-raise in the business community and among philanthropists to provide extra money for “value-added” merit pay, as well as for the programs that have been proven to work in the other KIPP communities. Yes, private philanthropists have been generous with OPS. But the OPS bureaucracy has a track record of spending on the things that we already know don’t work, such as laptops in grade school, the whole language philosophy of teaching reading by NOT teaching reading instead of simple phonics instruction, and increasing children’s time within the public school structure with “free” preschool and all-day kindergarten instead of making the best use of the time kids are already spending there, K-12. Funding needs to be redirected toward the things that WORK if low-income kids are ever to catch up with middle- and high-income learners. The same money from taxpayers and donors in experienced hands such as KIPP’s would go a lot farther toward bringing low-income kids up to speed.
As a fail-safe, install a liaison between KIPP and the OPS board who is revered in the minority community of Omaha and can represent parents and taxpayers to the Legislature, state education bureaucracy, the OPS board and the KIPP management. Pay this person well, but have high expectations for success. We might even set goals such as test score equity among the races within 5 years, measured at the fourth-grade level, and within 10 years for eighth-graders. Two suggestions for people who could make this happen: City Councilman Franklin Thompson, a longtime educator and University of Nebraska at Omaha education professor, or A’Jamal Byndon, a respected advocate in the African-American community and son of one of the original busing case plaintiffs that desegregated OPS a generation ago.
2) How should we get rid of the discord, strife and reluctance to cooperate among Omaha-area school districts?
A whole new layer of education bureaucracy was created last legislative session in the form of a “Learning Community.” It would skirt existing school boards by allowing the money to flow from the government to this “learning community board” and then out to districts. Taxpayers would have even less accountability and responsiveness from educators than they do now. This is being done with input solely from educrats rather than from parents, taxpayers, the business community and so forth. It’s typical of educrats: when a problem presents itself, they create a new layer of bureaucracy and regulations, rather than zeroing in on the problem and its many possible solutions. Instead, Omaha schools should go into a year-long mediation process that would do just as much good for a fraction of the cost, with no remaining bureaucratic structures, costs and regulations long-term.
Even though it looks reasonable on paper, the “learning community” for metro Omaha is a dangerous, destructive idea because it widens the distance between the source of tax funding, and the money’s ultimate use within our schools. It’s an open door to the “keep up with the Joneses” syndrome that already plagues our schools. If Westside gives out laptops to all third-graders, then every other district in the “learning community” will expect funding to do so – even though the evidence clearly shows that laptops don’t help kids read, write and figure any better than pencils and paper. In the name of “equity,” we would be off on all sorts of crazy tangents, instead of holding educators’ feet to the fire to spend money cost-effectively. It would be like endless, expensive, governmental sibling rivalry without any parents to check impulses or mediate disputes.
Their heart’s in the right place, of course. The Legislature is attempting to bring about financial equity for schools in the Omaha metropolitan area because spending inequities now exist. The senators’ solution, though, is to form an overarching “learning community” that would seek to equalize tax money among the many districts in the Omaha metropolitan area and work together to try to help low-income students with possible new school construction and other projects.
The problem is, this is a step toward creating regional school districts in Nebraska, with the ultimate goal of setting up a statewide district. It’s not by accident that federal education legislation refers to local schools as “local education agencies.” If this sort of organizational change is allowed to get entrenched, then local schools will all be like local post offices – providing a generic public service that individuals are powerless to influence or change. You can see it in everything from No Child Left Behind to the things the teachers’ union is doing: the direction really is toward nationalized schools that would all be essentially the same, from state to state and from city to city. Local taxpayers and parents would have little or no influence over what is taught or how the money is spent. The power would be in the hands of the educrats.
To the extent that school boards would no longer be in control of any significant portion of school funding, they would become even more of a pointless rubber stamp than they are now. So would the State Board of Education, which is becoming more and more irrelevant. Even the Legislature’s Education Committee would basically have its hands tied by the bureaucracy under this structure. The net effect would be to further distance parents and taxpayers from the decision-making process, and entrench the union and the bureaucracy.
Much better to turn to a much better, cheaper form of conflict resolution: mediation. The Legislature should throw out the “learning community” and order it. Someone from outside the education bureaucracy needs to come in and hold all these superintendents’ feet to the fire to come up with a collaborative solution to these perceived problems. Heaven knows this state is crawling with attorneys; surely one of them could represent the interests of the public and taxpayers, and prevent the “keep up with the Joneses” syndrome that superintendents now can’t resist getting in to.
3) More than 200 Class I, country grade schools in Nebraska are in danger of being wiped out and forced to consolidate within larger K-12 districts in towns that are often many miles away. How can we save them?
By taking them private. It may be the only way. Now, here’s hoping Nebraska voters repeal LB 126 at the polls this coming November. School consolidation is contrary to the evidence for what’s best for kids and the tiny towns in which they live. With just a few exceptions, Class I schools have done just as good a job managing money and improving the students’ learning as the town districts have done. They don’t deserve to be killed.
But even if voters agree and revive the Class I schools, it’s questionable whether our smallest, rural, one-room schoolhouses would want to remain in a governance structure depending on the state education bureaucracy and members of the Legislature that tried to kill them, and still want them to die.
So what if voters put the Class I schools back in place? Can you live happily ever after with your would-be murderer? Not likely.
Even though it’s not fair and could be seen as one more knee into the groin of rural Nebraska, the smartest solution would be for Class I parents and teachers to pull out of government funding entirely, and form “multi-family attendance center homeschools.”
In other words, co-ops. They would be exempt from most education requirements for public and private schools, and would have the freedom and flexibility to meet their students’ individual needs. Co-ops could gain mentoring and advice from Nebraska’s many homeschooling organizations. It would be a model for the nation of parental involvement and private-sector solutions for 21st Century schooling.
That’s right: the familiar structure for grain marketing and so forth can be the salvation for education in Nebraska’s smallest towns. The Class I schools could go private, turn their backs on state aid and property taxes, and also get out from under the onerous regulations they say their kids would be better off without.
They could focus on the 3 R’s and avoid the state-mandated, disgusting record-keeping, social engineering and left-wing curriculum that rural families object to for the most part anyway. It would be a lot easier to form new homeschools for grade-school kids than for older kids, so presumably, by the time the children hit the secondary level, they could attend the public middle schools and high schools of the nearest town or city.
Parents would have to take on all kinds of work – from hiring and supervising staff, to authorizing curriculum expenditures, to paying utility bills, and perhaps even teaching classes themselves – as well as coming up with tuition money to pay one or more teachers, when most rural household income is maxed out as it is.
But they could get together and form a nonprofit corporation which could receive grants for added funding. Children in these organized homeschools would be eligible for tuition assistance if their family income is relatively low through the Children’s Scholarship Fund.
For a look at some successful school co-ops, see:
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