Friday, February 09, 2007

A Town Hall Meeting about Education Reform

This photo from my cell phone shows the moderator and panelists, and some of the 200+ people who attended a meeting last night on school reform in Watsonville, California, called "Improving Our Schools: Getting Beyond the Rhetoric."

This event was sponsored by Beacon Education Network, a non-profit charter management organization group formed to create charter schools in the Santa Cruz area, and, I believe, endowed with $1 million by Reed Hastings of NetFlix, who was member of the panel. This 2-hour and 15-minute meeting was incredibly thought-provoking, and left me and my brother-in-law, a Santa Cruz resident, talking long into the night.

Some general conclusions:
  • It seems to me that this event--a kind of "under-the-hood" look at public education, where there was a willingness to really question what we are doing--is not likely to take place unless there are empowered and legitimate fringe groups that are able to push the issue. This meeting was created by a charter-school organization, and while such deep soul-searching may be taking place within traditional public-school settings, I haven't seen it in the communities we have lived in.
  • There was a particularly noticeable difference between the statements of Michael Watkins, the new Superintendent of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, and the other panelists. His answers exemplified what I imagine are the requisite political skills to deal with the incredible pressures of those who work in public school administration, and to balance an enormous range of constituent interests. In other words, I was almost never satisfied with any answer he gave, and often wasn't sure that an answer was actually given. This was particularly telling about our expectations for educational leaders, because while the other panelists gave clear, focused, and opinionated answers that really made the evening worthwhile, I could not imagine their outspokenness ever allowing them to be elected superintendent of a county office of education.
  • Because of the above, I left with an even greater commitment to some form of school choice. It seems to me that passion and a belief in the value of learning are at the core of great educational experiences, and our current system seems to rob us of that by requiring sameness. The influx of passionate educators and administrators seems to be one of the great benefits of the charter school movement.
  • This is the kind of event that should be taking place all over the country. We need a great, open, national dialog on education. Tom Brown, Beacon's President and CEO, and the organizer of the evening, later seemed to indicate that he has an interest in taking this experience and using it to help others on a national leve.
  • For a debate on education, this was decidedly low-tech experience, which surprised me. I sought a power plug in the auditorium to no avail--turns out it's against the fire code to plug in a laptop there (!!). Also, there was no apparent way for the dialog of the evening to continue, even with all of the new tools of the web that make that so easy.
  • In the same vein, I have to admit that I was surprised at the general focus of the roundtable members on discipline and structure, and no mention of "engagement." These same web tools that are transforming learning in the business environment were never mentioned, nor was technology at all. Now, given 20 years of spending on technology that hasn't really done anything, I'm sensitive to that. But I left vaguely unsettled that there was no voice for student engagement and participation (rigor and passsion) that have so informed my thinking for the last several months. (See our new wiki on School 2.0 and my interview series.)
  • At times during the panelist roundtable, and during the follow-up questions, the crowd applauded, hissed, murmured, and even boo'd. OK, I'm not a big fan of emotional crowd responses (I might even go so far as to say that I hate the superior attitude of someone saying "I know what is right" and not being willing to engage in thoughtful discussion); I am instead a huge fan of activities that bring diverse opinions into engagement. I've had enough experiences in my own life to know that multiple perspectives almost always bring us closer to "truth." (The Wisdom of Crowds was one of the best, and most thought-provoking books I've read in years.)
Now, some specific notes from the event. This is a lot of material, but I expect to some it will help to give a sense of the scope of this discussion:
  • In Tom Brown's introduction to the evening, he said that it is too tempting to think of the challenges as "schools' problems," and that we need educators, policy-makers, business leaders, parents and student all talking together to solve these issues. Bravo, Tom.
Reed Hastings:
  • Reed Hastings was, to be frank, incredibly well-informed on all issues that he discussed. I was very impressed, and hope to hear a lot more from him. His clarion call from the start was to provide strong school cultures that support great teaching. Reed was the former President of the California State Board of Education, and his commitment shows through his detailed knowledge.
  • When the discussion came to the question of for-profit schools, and seemed to head into a non-productive dialog, Reed pointed out that fewer than 1% of charter schools are for profit, and the fuss is something of a political canard--thankfully closing that topic quickly.
  • When the discussion was on the cost of educating a student adequately, Reed pointed out the easiest way to come up with a valuable number: take the cost that private incur, which is $11,000 per student per year (California spends $8,400 per student).
  • When the discussion turned to the incredible inequalities that exist in how much is spent on students in different communities, Reed pointed out that this is not really a problem in California like it is in other states--again, saving an unneeded debate. He also pointed out student achievement is not actually tied to ethnicity, but to the educational level of the parent--and because of that, you have many schools in that have succeeded in spite of apparent ethnic disadvantage. So, he said, you don't have to guess or experiment, you just need to look up those schools that are succeeding and copy their recipe: discipline, structure, long hours, and a focus on basic skills.
  • In the discussion on bi-lingual education, he was similarly clear in his opinion: it is a "terrible idea, and the biggest mistake California has ever made." (That got boos and hisses.) The students just get further and further behind. It may be a good idea in theory, he said, but practice has not worked. He came into this issue relatively neutral, but the more he got into the data, more compelling the case was againstit. It is a complex issue because of cultural identity, but the data is black and white: provide lots of English early, in the first and second grades. It is harder for the older kids, but they represent a tiny fraction, as over 50% of those for whom English is a second language are already here in kindergarten.
  • Reed addressed a question about charter schools taking away funding from regular schools by using LA Unified as an example--they have 100 charter schools, and that hasn't bankrupted the system. Similarly, it also hasn't taken away all of the best students--it's shown that achievement is possible and that people should be able to make choices.
  • Reed really angered the crowd when he talked about teachers having fewer"rights" in charter schools, and that the rights of the teachers (the right to employment, I'm assuming) and students (the right to a good education) have to be balanced. He made what I thought was an incredibly important point when he suggested that charter schools have more unified staff because the teachers, also, have chosen to be there and were not "assigned" there.
Brian King, the President of Cabrillo College, was a panel member.
  • There was a lengthy, and informative discussion, on the role of community colleges as remedial institutions, and which I won't detail because of my focus on K12. However, like the high-school basketball coach who runs summer basketball camps for elementary and junior high kids, Brian seems committed to the discussion of how to help students be more prepared when they arrive at college, since that would allow the college to better serve them from that point on.
  • Brian talked about the importance of building a bridge between college and high school instructors, so that there is good communication between them. We have good middle and high school teachers, he said, who have a commitment to our students excelling, but they need a better understanding of what those expectations are for college-ready work.
  • Brian did mention the difference in education between filling a pail and lighting a fire. Again, it surprised me not to hear more on that.
  • Brian talked about how California is on the upper end of access to community colleges in this country, but on the lower end in funding (about $4,000 per student per year).
  • In a self-acknowledged plug for community colleges, Brian talked about how a high school diploma is no longer the entrance ticket to America's middle class, and that 80% of jobs in the future will require more than a high school education, but less than a 4-year college degree.
Lisa Keegan, a former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, was also a panel member:
  • Lisa quickly identified herself as a Republican, and was introduced as having been one of the drafters of "No Child Left Behind." She was not shy about her viewpoint, and provided a great deal of insight, making me appreciate, again, the value of different viewpoints.
  • Lisa started her comments by lamenting the fact that we don't allow the people that believe the most in the children to dictate what happens (provide leadership) in the schools. In the charter schools, it's generally teachers who start because they are so passionate about education. KIPP schools was started by two guys teaching 5th grade in Houston, she said, and is based on culture, and they hire people with same vision. What makes a great school, she said, is great leadership at the school that everyone buys into, and a belief in the kids.
  • On how you change schools: you give control to the person that is actually running the school--but that happens rarely. But if a governing board's job is to hire a superintendent, who then hires principals, and if those principals were really were in charge and got to have all the money attributed to them, then that would make a huge difference.
  • Incredibly well-spoken and persuasive, Lisa had more difficulty addressing her belief that you can have for-profit schools. (I'm much too tired to go into that whole discussion here...)
  • Lisa was most compelling in giving a positive view of NCLB and testing, and the value of shared expectations. I hear a lot (a LOT) from teachers about the negatives of NCLB, so I was particularly interested in her views here. Her point was that high-achieving schools are doing testing all the time, and that it doesn't have to be dreary, awful stuff. It can also be, she said, a great tool for finding schools with similar demographics or difficulties that have been able to succeed, and to learn from them. She later said that one of the things she really wishes that they had been able to include originally was that it be based on a "gain" measurement, which would better measure actual progress that was being made.
  • Lisa got applause when she talked about the difficulties of being a teacher, and how the single contract model of districts really limits the flexibility and initiative of teachers, since they can't get paid more for doing more. She also said that we need to adjust the barrier of what it takes to teach. She quoted someone (I missed it) about about how the barrier to getting into teaching are so high, but then overcoming those barriers has nothing to do with what is actually required later.
  • Lisa made what, if true, is a significant argument for the value of charter schools: that they raise the achievement levels of their surrounding schools by raising the stakes and the dialog. I got the sense from the crowd response that charter schools face some of the same immediate, emotional responses that we got when we home-schooled our oldest daughter--there is some sense that not following the traditional school path is seen as mutinous, or a form of abandonment.
David Conley, the Director of the Center for Education Policy Research at the University of Oregon, was the final panel member:
  • David's thesis was that our secondary and post-secondary educational systems don't connect. In the US, you have to make an extraordinary effort to get to college, he said, and it shouldn't be that way. College-readiness needs to be more transparent, and the definition shoudl be "the ability to succeed in entry level at college." Students aren't ready, so they go to remedial classes or avoid certain topics in college altogether.

  • Some studies show that writing actually declines in high school, he said, and writing is a key gauge of success. Community colleges can have up to five levels of remedial math, and while America believes in second chances (and we don't want to lose that), how do we create high schools that have clear, appropriate, high expectations so that they have a clear pathway for the next level of learning, instead of community colleges replicating high school?
  • His thoughts on restructuring schools: the history of focusing on restructuring is not a history of success. If you just change the structure of a school and nothing else, you're not likely to see any change. (Moving to the block structure, for example.) Structural changes don't amount to anything and just take away from the real changes that need to take place--you need to focus on what's going on in the classroom, what's being taught, and what the expectations are.
David's contributions to the discussion deserve more than I have given here, but I'm already way over my own time limits for this post, and all known rules about brevity... There is still much of the discussion that I have not covered (segregation, funded pre-schooling, health services, and teacher training, to name a few). If I have misquoted on misinterpreted someone, I hope to be corrected. But I also hope that the length of this post gives some sense of the value of the evening, and the necessity that I see for this dialog to become more public.


  1. I am sure I am going to continue to think about this event for some time. Here are two additional thoughts I have had:

    1. I don't remember seeing any students at the meeting. I know many students for whom both watching the event, and even participating, would have been valuable. It's hard for me to imagine, in a transparent world with youth so engaged in learning outside of traditional school structures, not helping them be a part of the dialog. For some of them to become teachers, they need the involvement and mentoring opportunity. They need to see the process in action.

    2. Somewhat related, I think, is the degree to which panelists agreed that structural changes is not what is needed. I think I agree with the value of that viewpoint--that just changing structure doesn't really change teaching--but it does seem that our current structures really reflect the industrial economy, and we are going to have to consider some drastic structural changes that are already evident in the work world--like the ability to manage ones own time and work independently and productively. Hopefully, some of these changes will occur and be experimented with at the "fringe" when local schools have more control.

    One structural changes that surely needs to be considered is giving teachers more time.

  2. Anonymous11:05 PM

    Very good summary, I wish I had capacity to become more involved with such discussions. As a more "nuts and bolts" kind of guy that is passionate about efficient operations to provide the most time and resources for the school which hopefully translates into increased time for teachers to pile upon the students, I appreciate the efforts of others to continue to move the idea of "choice" along the way. I couldn't agree more that one of the values of charter is it forces districts to face the realities that they are in the business of educating students and if they don't stay sharp, they will lose market share to private, public schools of all types.

  3. Great to see you today, Tom. Good to get some feedback from you on these issues.


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