Earlier this week I was one of a dozen or so people who participated in a roundtable discussion about the possible future of public education in California. I don't intend to quote the people who attended--that's not the point at all--but I want to give an overall impression of what occurred.
As you can see at the link above, the meeting was hosted by Students Matter, the organization responsible for bringing the Vergara case which ruled that California's tenure and last-in-first-out layoff practices violate the state constitution. Ben Austin of Students Matter, and former congressman George Miller, led the discussion and took questions and comments from a group of 10 policy advisors, community leaders, and (three) teachers. The first thing I'd like to point out is who was not there, either by design or by fortune: the CTA.
Ben started off, and his opening remarks left no doubt as to his liberal bona fides--lots of "white privilege" talk when what he really meant was that he can afford to live in a good area and send his daughter to a high-performing school. He discussed the schools that poor kids attend, how they get the most inexperienced teachers and have the highest teacher turnover because of last-in-first-out employment practices. He couched his vision of the end of tenure, however that turns out in practice, in terms of civil rights for students.
Congressman Miller has a long history of interest in education, identifying himself as one of the 4 principal co-authors of the No Child Left Behind Act. No conservative, though, Miller seeks to ensure that every child has competent teachers and has a chance at an education that will ensure opportunity in the future, not a sentence to yet another generation of poverty.
Let there be no doubt. Both of these men are flaming liberals. They've reached "my" views, but via a distinctly leftward path. Via their own routes they have come to the same conclusions I
have about certain aspects of education in California, and in one of my
first comments I pointed out exactly that. It was a "reach across the aisle" moment.
The conversation started being about adults--how do we attract and keep good teachers for poor kids, how pay disparities among nearby districts and drain teachers from the lower paying area--but eventually we got back to talking about students, what they need, and how to provide it.
I was insistent that whatever plan they propose--and the idea right now is for Students Matter to propose a plan in the fall--it must have overwhelming support. Parents, teachers, politicians, all must support it overwhelmingly. It cannot have unpopular components that can only be passed if my faction gets 51% and gets to shove it down the throats of the other 49%, and after the next election the other faction gets 51% and not only reverses the original course but does something else ideological. Education in this state is mired in politics, and one way to get past that, at least part of the way, is to temper ideological wants and desires and genuinely try to create a consensus about what we want public education to be, what we want students to have, and how we want to provide it to them. Yes, I know that that doesn't leave sufficient opportunities for graft or self-aggrandizement for the guys in the big white building downtown, but if we're rethinking what we want education to be, we should at least try for what's right.
When I decided to attend this meeting I went with one message I wanted to convey. I thought, if I could only state one idea, what would it be? My purpose for attending was to share the following: that while every student should have a quality education that will allow them the opportunity to attend college, we must get away from the notion that every child must attend college. Every high school class does not have to be "academic", and raising graduation requirements to be the entrance requirements for our state universities will only water down course content and do the exact opposite of providing a good education for all students. We must banish the banal (and totally nonsensical) phrase "college- and career-ready" from the educational lexicon, as if those two are in any way necessarily equal. Not everyone wants or needs to go to college, and what kind of people are we who essentially tell non-college-bound students, "The very first thing you've done as an adult identifies you as a failure." That cannot be the goal of our education system, whatever it becomes! If you believe that all children are unique, you cannot simultaneously believe that all children must travel exactly the same road for 12 years. We must do more than shove facts into their heads in high school; we must offer them opportunities to pursue their own interests, to develop the inquisitive "lifelong learner" state of mind by allowing them to trade some "academics" for valuable trade, artistic, or philosophical pursuits. We have to provide a strong foundational education for everyone, but allow it to be tailored somewhat as the students proceed through high school. Let's not try to force even the square student pegs into the round "college prep" hole.
That was the message I wanted to convey.
There was much commentary from all the participants, most of which I agreed with. It was intelligent, it was respectful, it was forward-thinking. I'm glad to have been a part of it, and encourage interested persons to participate in future roundtables to be held in San Diego, LA, Fresno, and the Bay Area.