School Reform: Why It’s So Hard

Posted on 30 July 2012

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By Peter Schrag

Listening to even the best people in California’s school reform discussions doesn’t leave much clarity about the direction our money-starved education system school go or much confidence that things will get perceptibly better any time soon.

Many of those good people know what’s needed. It’s just that they don’t all know the same thing, or don’t know it at the same time. That much at least was apparent once again at last Wednesday’s Sacramento forum on school finance sponsored by PPIC, the Public Policy Institute of California.

What they agreed on was that the fixes of the last thirty or forty years – what state School Board Michael Kirst called “the historical accretion” of programs – wasn’t working. It’s become, someone said, “the Winchester Mystery House” of school finance, rooms added willy-nilly to solve one or another problem. 

Neither the policy makers nor the reformers are entirely – or maybe even mostly – to blame. In a state that now ranks in the bottom ten nationwide in school spending, and among the lowest in the ratio of teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians per pupil there’s a long list of suspects. When a questioner at the PPIC forum asked what we mostly needed, someone stage-whispered, “more, more, more.”

But in a culture that must rank among the world’s leaders in anti-intellectualism, and a society whose citizens can’t make up their own minds about what they really want from their schools – about standards, about testing, about social promotion, about evolution, and about a thousand other things – money is hardly the only problem. “Money matters,” Sen. Joe Simitian said, “but it matters more if you spend it wisely.” 

The current fashion, at least at the State Board and in the office of Gov. Jerry Brown, has too main elements:

(1) Replacing the plethora of categorical state funding streams – the biggest is class size reduction – with a “weighted student funding formula” where every district gets a basic amount per student and additional money for each low income student and every English learner – plus more for districts with high concentrations of such students. When some districts and other school interests complained that the formula was treating them unfairly, the formula was revised to reduce the extra funding that would be provided for poor and immigrant kids. Here again, the driver wasn’t any assessment of educational need, it was pure politics.

(2) More local control combined with local accountability under which the state would replace its detailed monitoring of input with measures of outputs.

But the problem, as Catherine Lhamon a veteran civil rights lawyer at the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel Law Center, pointed out, is how to guarantee that the locals provide adequate resources – good teachers, books, decent facilities and all the rest -- to schools with the poorest children and others without the political clout to secure them.

Waiting until a district fails to deliver in measured student achievement is to consign yet another generation to failure. Just a few days ago, we learned that the state had reneged on the promises it made years ago when it settled another suit brought on behalf of poor and minority kids.

The fact that the governor has been blocking the further development of the state’s educational data system doesn’t do much for confidence in either the ability or the willingness of the state to hold the locals accountable. Nor is there yet any clear idea of what the state would do when the locals don’t perform. We’ve never known before, and we don’t know now.

To make school improvement still more complicated – for schools and teachers, for kids, for parents—is the shift to the national common core standards and the new testing system that comes with them. As a long-term pedagogical principle, common core, with its shift from fact-based and formulaic learning to understanding, analysis and creativity is long overdue.

But making the transition, doing it within the next year or two as the state is committed to do, and to do it at a time when school spending is being cut, when teachers are being laid off and the teaching force is already demoralized, and when the state expects the locals to buy the necessary materials, is not quite a sick joke, but close to it.

The “historical accretion” Kirst talks about is the result of the long-term failure of local districts, responsive as they always are to pressure from influential parents and other interest groups, unions among them, to allocate funds accordingly. It’s how we built that Winchester Mystery House.

Given the special distrust of state government, local control always makes for an appealing political slogan. But we have a long history during which local control – in southern school segregation, in school funding, in the drawing of school attendance zones, in the assignment of teachers to the nicest, brightest, newest schools, and in a host of other decisions, favored the privileged and short-changed poor and minority kids.

Maybe this time it will be different, but there’s little yet in place that provides much confidence that it will. Jerry Brown has never been averse to the hair shirt. But almost always, it’s the poorest kids who will have to wear the hairiest shirts. 

P.S. Given all that, would it be better if we preserved the dismal status quo by passing Gov. Jerry Brown’s inadequate tax hike in November – and thus deferred for maybe five years any chance for anything better? Or would the catastrophe following defeat of Brown’s initiative finally wake the voters up?  It’s not an easy decision.


Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in
the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and
columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost:
California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High
Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his archived columns here.

Thanks for the post. This is interesting. I usually agree with your views and writings. Here, I strongly disagree. You missed the basics. School reform is hard because the press, the media, and the politicians are not listening to the teachers and the students.
Here is a brief argument. More is developed in my book, Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education.

This is time for a change for our society and in our schools. This generation must renew our democratic society. As described in my book Choosing Democracy, we face marked crises in government, politics, families, communities and in the schools. Public schools have a particular responsibility to reverse these crises and to renew our democratic society. The first mission of pubic schooling is to equip all students for the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship – and many of the schools in low income areas are presently not fulfilling this mission. If we do not solve the problems of low performing schools our democracy suffers. For our democracy to survive we need to create schools that value all of our children and encourages each of their educational achievement.

All children need a good education to participate in our democracy and prepare for life in the rapidly changing economy. Making schooling valuable and useful is vital to prosperity for all. Lack of education is a ticket to economic hardship. The more years of school that a student completes, the more money they are likely to earn as adults and the better their chance to get and keep a good job. Unemployment is highest among school dropouts as is incarceration for crimes. When we fail to educate all of our children, the high costs of this failure come back to hurt us in unemployment, drugs, crime, incarceration, violence and social conflict.

We need to invest in urban schools, provide equal educational opportunities in these schools, and recruit a well prepared teaching force that begins to reflect the student populations in these schools. We must insist on equal opportunity to learn, without compromise. When we do these things, we will begin to protect the freedom to learn for our children and our grandchildren, and to build a more just and democratic society.
Teacher advocates consider schools as sites for the struggle for or against more democracy in our society. The struggle for education improvement and education equality will be a long one. Schools serving urban and impoverished populations need fundamental change. These schools do not open the doors to economic opportunity. They usually do not promote equality. Instead, they recycle inequality. The high school drop out rates alone demonstrate that urban schools prepare less than 50 percent of their students for entrance into the economy and society. A democratic agenda for school reform includes insisting on fair taxation and adequate funding for all children. Political leaders in most states have not yet decided to address the real issues of school reform. We cannot build a safe, just, and prosperous society while we leave so many young people behind.
The problem is to provide the resources, including well prepared teachers with adequate support, needed to make the current schools successful. The California legislature has failed a this consistently for the last several years. We face a choice between providing high-quality schools only for the middle and upper classes, and underfunded, understaffed schools for the poor. Or, we can also choose to work together to improve schools that are presently failing.
Why then in schools do we allow politicians, lobbyists, and other “experts” who are not teachers and have not worked in classrooms for over ten years, and who have not taught children, to make the basic decisions about schooling. As a starting point, clearly those establishing our policies do not understand testing and its limits. (See Bracey, 2009).
A major problem with our campaigns for a democratic approach to schooling is that most of the media has been sold a mindset or framework of accountability. Corporate sponsored networks and “ think tanks” such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Bradley Foundation, the Olin Foundation and their access to the media is not likely to change. The domination of the accountability frame within the media and political circles must be opposed. The appointment of Arne Duncan was symptomatic of the problems. He represents the kind of corporate/media approach to reform. Certainly in the current battle with Arne Duncan over the "Race to the Top Funds," he has ceased the high ground with a claim of accountability – it’s a false claim- but it works. Education and explaining will be a constant struggle.
There are many advocacy strategies. However, the most important is to share and magnify teacher voices. Politicians make bad decisions – such as the current budget cuts, or an over reliance on testing- because they are not listening to teachers voices. Instead they are listening to paid consultants, and “experts” from the corporate establishment.
Newspaper writers and other media writers make the same mistake. They call their favorite “source” which just happens to be a corporate promoter like Arne Duncan, Michele Rhee, or one of the “experts” at elite universities. Note: few professors in the elite universities work with teachers. They are several steps removed from the classroom. You can read more about this on the blog Choosing Democracy The most basic strategy is to insist on teacher participation in the development of policies. We need to get the politicians and the corporate shills out of the classroom. – they have failed our children.
See more at the Democracy and Education Institute – Sacramento.

Liberals always want to spend more money (on education and all other social programs) without any control or evaluation. Conservatives say money is not the answer, and thus they are very cheap with social programs--they seem to only want to spend money for defense and wars. As always, the correct approach is in the middle: enough money to pay teachers a good salary; curriculum that is developed by teachers; less money on bureaucracy (in CA, (and most other states) only about 60% of the school dollar goes to the classroom).

As for wars, hopefully, the sequestration will go through on Janaury 2, 2013, and then they will not have the money to continue the war in Afghanistan.

Thanks, Peter, for an excellent column. But I can't help but point out the comment made after the passage of Prop. 98 by Honig, then state superintendent. As the LATimes headlined his words, "Money No Longer a Problem, Honig Says."

Krashen points out on a near daily basis that our middle class schools outperform most of the rest of the world. It is our poor schools that do poorly, and we have more of them than any other industrialized nation.

So fixing poverty is number one, and the schools' role is to give the poor kids better schools.

Thank you also for mentioning libraries. CA has the lowest level of school and public library service in the nation. We have the same number of school librarians as Connecticut. We would have to double the number of public library branches to be average.

Then there was the elimination of all the "extras"-- art and music and shop and home ec. No, everyone of our kids is headed for college, right?

The discussion is political -- with those who don't know issuing edicts to those who do. And the fix -- since the 60s -- has always been, create a special program, roll that program into the general fund, rinse and repeat.

Diane Ravitch said it best here at an American Federation of Teachers conference recently:

Reform IS the problem. When big business starts calling the shots in education instead of letting academics and child development specialists do their jobs - that's when things go to hell in a hand basket. The Charter movement has sucked needed public funds from the regular public system and refuses to teach ALL children. Discriminating against moderate/severely disabled, Foster, homeless and English Language Learner students - they've proven that their "reform" efforts will leave these children behind to...what? Becoming warehoused?

At some point we have to ask ourselves why so many of these "billionaire boys club" folks want a piece of this pie. It's an easy new revenue stream. Children are not widgets and schools should not be run as businesses. The use of tests to destroy unions (and destroy the joy of learning from our children)is yet another big business. The test-taking industry (Neil Bush) has benefited under NCLB and in fact, this law was created to assist the Bush family and their buddies into realizing new profits at the expense of the general public.

There is little or no oversight in charters. I've collected data for years regarding LAUSD's charter enrollment by disability type. They don't take those kids, they don't want those kids. Returned back to the district, without the funds (under the block-grant funding model, charters get to keep any ADA after norming day when those "undesirable" students are counseled out and asked to leave. The money should follow the child and it does not. This is a flawed funding model, I've mentioned it to our leaders for years, but no one seems to care.

Links to the new world order. If you didn't think it was a for-profit motivation before, perhaps you'll reconsider after reading these articles:

"Would the catastrophe following defeat of Brown’s initiative finally wake the voters up? It's not an easy decision."

What the fu******??????? Have you taken a second to look at what will happen to the children during your catastrophe? Forty to fifty in a class, if not more? Forty to fifty in a class without a teacher? How about a series of teachers? How about fifty kids in a class with a series of seventeen to twenty substitutes in succession from August to June? How about more? Would a catastrophe be an advantage?

What the fu****???? Have you lost your blanking mind?