‘Back To School Special’ Part 3— Why Reforms Don’t Work

by on September 13, 2010 · 18 comments

in Civil Rights, Economy, Education, The Chronicles of Edumacation

tugowarComing soon to a theater near you will be Davis Guggenheim’s (Director of An Inconvenient Truth) latest documentary entitled Waiting for Superman.  The picture, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is a moving and compelling account (I viewed a copy over the internet) of a handful of kids and their parents who simply want to go to a decent school.  You can’t help but root for these kids as they wait for the results of a lottery to gain admission to a high performing charter school.  You can’t help but despise the portrait it paints of schools systems with that fail miserably at educating kids.  And, like any good contemporary documentary, it sends audiences home full of passion, indignation, and outrage.  The lessons imparted from Waiting for Superman are: charter schools are saviors, unions are villains.

When the Los Angeles school board invited outside bids to take over 36 new and underperforming schools last year, the assumption was that private charter operators in Los Angeles would be coming into a windfall. After all, Los Angeles already has the most charter schools in the country. Proposals came in from 85 groups, including charter management companies, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s own school franchise, and the teachers union (UTLA).

Teachers, staff, students, and parents impacted by the proposals were allowed to vote on the choices at hand. In a February, 2010 election overseen by the League of Women Voters, 87% of parents voted for teacher-led proposals across the city. High school students also gave significant majorities for teacher-led plans. Not one private charter plan won parent, teacher, or student votes. In the face of overwhelming parent sentiment, the school board awarded control of 29 schools to the teachers’ group, three to the Mayor’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, and four new schools went to charter companies.  The lessons imparted from this process seem to be that parents seemed to favor letting the villains—as described in Waiting for Superman—manage the path to salvation (charter schools).

What both these examples having in common are that they have bought into the meme that the crisis in education in the US requires an alternative to the “public school monopoly,” as the first President Bush proclaimed during a summit at Charlottesville, Virginia in 1989 with corporate CEOs and the nation’s governors.

bad teacherNo Child Left Behind (NCLB), the educational legacy of the second President Bush was different from past educational reform schemes—this time the “reformers” would win, no matter what happened. The Act mandated the impossible: 100% math and reading proficiency scores by 2014. When these goals were unmet by the deadline, and a large majority of school systems have failed (or been placed on the “Federal watch-list”), the road to school privatization will be clear sailing. By then, parents should be willing to try anything to stay away from any more Federally-mandated letters telling them that their kids are failures since their schools are failing. State legislatures, dispirited and broke, thanks to the under-funded burdens of NCLB rules, will be desperate and ready to turn the whole effort over to an education industry that will be ramped up and ready to seize the opportunity.  And if by some miracle the schools did meet this benchmarks, then the reformers will have succeeded by having rendered schools into scripted testing factories.

President Obama’s educational policy as expressed in the Race To The Top (RTTT) program, replaces some of the more punitive elements of NCLB, with offers of more funding. Along with that money schools get even more Federal oversight. And the underlying premise of NCLB that charter schools are a viable solution remains intact, despite broad testing since 2003 that shows that they are no better (on average) than regular public schools.

barreraRichard Barrera, President of the San Diego Unified School Board (which opted not to apply for RTT funds) describes the current reforms schemes as, “The worst of both big business and big government practices”.

One-time reform-architect-turned-critic Diane Ravitch is even harsher in her criticisms, telling the National Journal,

“The Race to the Top is a collection of ideas that have no basis in research or experience. Taken together, the RTTT will do little to improve American education and might even set it back… … the fundamental principle of American education is, or is supposed to be, equality of educational opportunity, not a “race to the top.”

It’s worth noting here that the RTTT program is the brainchild of Arne Duncan, formerly CEO of the Chicago public school system.  Despite all the articles touting his role as reformer in Daleytown, it’s interesting to note in the wake of  the Mayor’s recent decision to step down, here’s how the press (AP) characterized the education scene:

“Dozens of new schools have been built and a series of reforms put into place, including ending social promotions. But progress has been slow with many schools still lagging far behind, their students posting poor test scores.”

So, assuming that the critics of NCLB and RTTT are correct, what can be done?  Let’s look at another path to reform in Finland, where reforms adopted in 1970’s have achieved results that are respected world-wide.

Students from Finland outperform peers in 43 other nations – including the United States, Germany and Japan – in mathematics, science and reading skills. Finland is also ranked top in economic competitiveness.

FinlandIn the 1980s, Finland abolished standardized tests in schools. Instead of test-based accountability in schools—because of the high quality of its teaching force—has a trust-based system to allow teachers freedom to teach with creativity and encourages students, autonomy to learn in different ways.  Students in Finland cumulatively have fewer instructional hours compared to American students: a teacher in Finland teaches three lessons per day on average, American educators teach seven.

The most compelling difference between the two systems is the high esteem the Finnish have for teachers and school principals. Those who graduate at the top of their class are the only ones who can consider a career in education. It is the most competitive field, more so than medicine and law. The average acceptance rate into schools of education is a mere 10%.  In Finland 95% of the teachers are union members and the union works very closely with universities in setting standards for teaching.

Governmental agencies, trade unions and business form a tripartite in Finland, closely coordinating, communicating and heading to a common goal. This partnership, in both the planning and implementation stages, allowed the teachers union to change roles from external political pressure group into a stakeholder in government decision-making. This element has turned out to be the driving force of education performance and economic competitiveness in Finland.

The key in the educational reforms was ‘how to find ways to help schools and teachers come together and share what they have learned about productive teaching techniques and effective schools’. The result was the creation of multi-level communities of schools sharing locally tested practices and enriching ideas, and matching the needs for local economic development.  The trade-off that moved teachers into the stakeholder part of the education equation was an understanding between all the political parties that pay and working conditions for educators needed to be a given.

The guiding policy of the Finnish ministry of education is the belief that teachers, together with principals, parents and their communities know how to provide the best possible education for their children and youth. Except for guidelines for learning goals and assessment criteria, The National Board of Education (taking care of curriculum development, evaluation of education and professional support for teachers) doesn’t dictate lesson plans or standardized tests. School can plan their own curriculums to reflect local concerns.

nclbSo after reading all this stuff about government, labor and business in Finland cooperating for best interests of their children, are we ready to get our political parties, teachers unions, school boards and chambers of commerce to emulate a proven model that works?  I don’t think so.  It’s much easier to blame unions as the most available and politically expedient scapegoat for explaining why so many American schools are underperforming. Or we can blame the students, as Washington Post writer Robert J. Samuelson recently did in a piece decrying the failures of big government education reform. Or we can blame the parents as Bill Maher did in this essay, saying

(may as well slip a little humor in here…):

Firing all the teachers may feel good – we’re Americans, kicking people when they’re down is what we do – but it’s not really their fault. Now, undeniably, there are some bad teachers out there. They don’t know the material, they don’t make things interesting, they have sex with the same kid every day instead of spreading the love around… But every school has crappy teachers. Yale has crappy teachers – they must, they gave us George Bush.

Or you can just say—if the idea of working together turns your stomach– that Finland is so different than the United States culturally that what they do up there in the Northland couldn’t possibly have any relevance.  After all, they are up there next to Russia, right?

So let’s look at countries that pay their teachers a lot. If money were really important, then countries with the highest teacher salaries—Germany, Spain and Switzerland—would seemingly be among the best. They aren’t. In practice the top performers (Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore, South Korea) pay no more than average salaries.

England has changed virtually every aspect of education policy over the past 50 years, often more than once. The only thing that hasn’t changed has been the outcome.  Australia has almost tripled education spending per student since 1970. No improvement. American spending has doubled since 1980 and we’ve had nearly a decade of high powered reform. Again, nothing.

San Diego’s own experimentation with education reform gets a whole chapter in Diane Ravitchs’ book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  In 1998 the San Diego Unified School District hired former U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin for the city’s top education job.   Within three months, he announces a major administrative reorganization, including forming an Institute for Learning, to be headed by New York educator Anthony Alvarado.  A year later the school board approves Bersin’s reform proposal, the Blueprint for Student Success. Under the plan, the district implements several strategies to improve literacy and math skills, hires 200 teachers, 75 peer coaches and lays off some 600 teaching assistants.

Critics claim Bersins’ policies were alienating the public and sacrificing comprehensive education for a narrow literacy focus.  Retired educator Ernie McCray put it this way,

As a principal when he was at the helm of San Diego City Schools I saw him dismiss people’s concerns and ideas as though he was trying to set a “Guinness record for ignoring people.”

At a meeting in my neighborhood at the beginning of his term he literally turned his back to Latino activist friends of mine because he didn’t “respect” them or their questions. That sure showed.

He took us principals on a yacht cruise around the harbor and before we had barely sailed he made it clear that parents would have very little to say regarding what happened in our schools. Wasn’t long before that was old news.

After seven years, the school board makeup changed and Bersin was out of a job.  His supporters (or those who support his methods) are still unhappy about the change. A group calling itself ‘San Diegans 4 Great Schools’ surfaced after months of shadowy meetings to issue a critical report on the San Diego Unified School District back in July. At a press conference group leaders called SDUSD a “failing school district”.  Having lost their battles at the school board level, they’ve been bantering about “reforms in governance”, including having the Mayor take over the schools (he’s not interested) and expanding the school board’s size though appointments rather than elections.

P5255138Actually, test scores went up during the Bersin era.  And they’ve gone up in the post-Bersin era. But up is relative, and nobody’s rushing about ready to claim that SDUSD is setting any kind of records with these scores, even if they are near the top of heap for schools in California cities.

The big deal about the Bersin era in San Diego was that it was, in many ways, a preview of the various kinds of reform programs that have been rolled out nation-wide over the past decade.  It was a “top-down” system that was overly reliant on test scores.  When teachers, principles and students protested the system, their protests were seen as “proof” that “reforms” were working.

The current management at the school district has been the object of a ceaseless campaign, mostly led by the daily newspaper, to paint it as a tool of the evil teachers union.  It’s a typical U-T smear job, whereby facts that don’t fit with their narrative are ignored and the bully pulpit of the editorial page is used whenever possible to remind their readers about their point of view.  The SDUSD plan for local schools and parent groups to be key players in local academic programs—Vision 2020—has been given exactly one paragraph near the end of one news story.  The district’s refusal to sign on for RTTT has merited numerous stories and editorials.

Once again I’ve blabbed on for too long, so we’ll take a look at the San Diego Unified grand plan for saving our schools in yet another installment of this tome.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

doug porter September 13, 2010 at 8:59 am

and while we’re at it, don’t miss Voice of San Diego’s piece on kindergarten at OB Elementary: http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/education/article_b25368f2-bd19-11df-b7b7-001cc4c03286.html?mode=story


RB September 13, 2010 at 11:39 am

You do make a case for past reforms not working well. Historical both the left and right have had limited success in school reform. I would include the unionization of the teachers (late 70’s) and busing (early 70’s) as failed reforms of the schools. While you may find benefits in these changes, it is hard to find improvements in student education.

Local neighborhood schools provided this country a highly ranked educational system in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. Local neighborhood schools here or in Finland run by the principals and teachers rather than by the District or the union benefit from increased parent and community input and support.

Any comparison to the schools in Finland should also include the fact that they spend less than us on schools, they require teachers to major in the subjects they teach not some remedial education department training, and they track students towards the university or vocational schools after the 9th grade.


doug porter September 13, 2010 at 3:00 pm

the key word that you picked on there was LOCAL. i think what this “crisis” in education should be teaching us is that the process of learning isn’t always scalable and that it requires the on going collaboration of the key players, especially parents. all the Meg Whitmans, Jerry Browns or Alan Bersins in the world couldn’t have as much effect on a bad union/management practice as a school full of parents.


Sarah September 13, 2010 at 3:19 pm


I couldn’t agree more about the power of a school full of parents. My kids were educated in Washington State and I have no clue how the states “compare”. What I do know is that when I was in doubt about how my kids were being educated I went to school with them.

This did not always go over really well with the teachers or the principal’s, because really having REAL parent involvement was scary to some of them. Others embraced it and made good use of my presence and had me correct math papers in the back of the room, or work with the “kid” that needed constant attention.

I was the “token liberal” on our high school site council and was extraordinarily involved in their schools until they went to college. I might have gone along with them had it been required.

One of the high points of my parenting life was a short conversation with my youngest when he was about 16. Here’s how it went.

“Mom, you’ll like Ryan’s mom a lot”

“Oh? Why is that?”

“She’s like you. Nobody likes her, either”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“I mean the school administrators and people like that, it’s all good”

“Oh. Thanks”


Editordude September 13, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Doug’s post was picked up by google news and is receiving quite a number of hits this morning.


annagrace September 13, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Terrific piece Doug. I think it is hard for people to grok in other parts of the city the impact on school performance of a constant wave of new immigrants to this county. In San Diego, those immigrants end up in City Heights and to a lesser degree North Park and Normal Heights. Finland does not have to respond to new immigrant communities of Somalis, ethnic Albanians, Persians, Sudanese, Mexicans, Eritreans, Hmong, etc. The SDUSD does not have a homogeneous student body throughout the system. This lack of homogeneity sets us apart from many other American cities, let alone Finland. This lack of homogeneity creates specific challenges that are not met by a one size fits all solution.

There are classrooms in City Heights that have experienced a 100% turnover of students over the course of a school year. This is a transient community. Many students are not literate in their native language and this has a significant effect upon learning and test scores. Immigrants come from rural areas where there are no public schools, or from areas where education is only available to certain economic classes or genders. To point to a lack of parental involvement in these situations, which are prevalent in City Heights, is to overlook the tremendous skills and efforts that are needed by our education system to level a playing field that goes unnoticed by most white, middle class people.

Public education is a cornerstone of our democracy. It is essential to a democracy. Our public education system is far from perfect, but I embrace it as one of the best vehicles we have as a society to provide an entrance to future generations to the middle class. Privatization and the push for charter schools and the anti-union sentiments are at heart a push to dismantle the middle class and to establish a new world order in which the gap between the richest and poorest affords no middle ground. It is worth noting that the gap keeps increasing…..


doug porter September 14, 2010 at 7:24 am

what you say about immigrants is true; i deliberately picked a system without that factor because i didn’t want to deal with the nutcases that come on and leave anti-immigrant comments on websites like this. Sweden, next door to Finland, has a similar population (12% immigrants) to the US, higher test scores and a similar national consensus that education needs to be a collaborative process.


RB September 14, 2010 at 8:22 am

It would be nice to have documentation for your positions on public vs private education. First, both private and public schools have existed in this country for many decades. During the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s we had both a vibrant middle class and private schools. I have seen no data that correlates the existence of private school with harm to the middle class. Most economist correlate middle class jobs with federal trade and tax policies, not private schools. Secondly, I would contend that parents that pay twice for their students education by funding a private school should be thanked. All us public school parents and students benefit from them not depleting the resources we need in our underfunded public schools. Lastly, we have both a vibrant public and private university system. The competition and choice coming from multiple models of higher education serves our diverse student population well. I see no reason, other then paranoia , why charters, private schools and public schools can’t co-exist.

If you go to the library and look at garment jobs in South Carolina in the 70’s, steel jobs in Pittsburgh in the early 80’s, and auto jobs in Detroit in the 90′, you will not find one middle class job said to be lost to a charter schools. Blame your elected representatives, not private and charter schools, for the loss of our middle class.


EducationTruth September 14, 2010 at 1:06 pm

“Public education is a cornerstone of our democracy. It is essential to a democracy. Our public education system is far from perfect, but I embrace it as one of the best vehicles we have as a society to provide an entrance to future generations to the middle class”
AnnaGrace- you get it!!!
We strive every day to become perfect this is part of the American dream and ideologies of democracy. Outsourcing our children’s education is a tragedy especially when we have outsourced to foreign entities (see my post below and the Gulen Movement which currently manages 140 Charter Schools across the USA)
I fear for our children, and I am saddened ever time I learn of Charter School fraud, charges of embezzlement, racketeering and money laundering are rampant.

Don’t our children deserve more?


Ian September 14, 2010 at 3:13 pm

If you think your children deserve more then it is up to you to give them more.

It is up to you as a parent to provide them with the skills necessary to survive, succeed and flourish in this world.


Sarah September 14, 2010 at 3:21 pm

That may be true, Ian, but I am not willing to live with the results of that “policy”, if I may.

If any of the children in my community are denied access to GOOD education for any reason, my entire community will suffer. I wish to live in a community of educated, aware, capable adults and that means I need to help my community provide the required framework for that education to be delivered to children.

The answer to all our problems is a better education for everyone.


Ian September 14, 2010 at 4:15 pm

There are lots of parents who are just not interested in educating their children, so they are denied access to GOOD education from day one. It is just a fact of life, it has always been that way and it always will. The only way to prevent it is to have minimum requirements for parenthood (which is not something that I am suggesting; this point is more of a reductio ad absrudum argument) so that the only people who have children are those who are interested and capable of educating their children.

But you are correct that education is not just a family affair, it is also a community undertaking. Which is why I believe that the vast majority (if not all) education reform should take place at the community level. Top down, sweeping, generalized directives from the Federal Government (like No Child Left Behind) and even State Governments do not provide the elasticity and mobility that is needed to educate children in our rapidly changing modern world.

Our education system is a static dinosaur, and the mandates from the top only make it worse. This is why people and families need to stop relying on “the system” and take a proactive approach, starting from the family, and propagating out to the local school, and community.

Change in this realm (as with most social realms in this country) will not come from the President, or the Congress, or the State legislature. It will only come when the individuals and families take charge of their own welfare, and take responsibility for themselves.


Nancy September 16, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Just reading this today, and right off was hoping someone would mention all the great points that Annagrace has made. I thought I wanted to be a teacher til I practice-taught a 4th grace class in college and quit after 3 wks.; I couldn’t handle the different levels of comprehension in an all-white college town in the Midwest.
Just think of what the teachers face with all the many ethnicities out there now, with many (Hmong, Cambodian, Somali, etc.) that have parents who were’t even literate in their own country, and of course most didn’t know English so could not help their kids. Teachers have a tremendous job, and deserve more support than they get, and unions are there to fight for them. We should not be privatizing schools, but should be listening to teachers and fighting with them.
Thank you, annagrace, for your great comments. Nancy


EducationTruth September 14, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Charter schools are publicly funded yet privately managed, they are only as good as the curriculum, ethics and AGENDA of the private management company.
California unfortunately has had their share of Ivy Academia and many other incidences of fraud, embezzlement and racketeering. Largely unregulated and new we are clarifiying charter school regulations as we go or ‘learning from our expensive mistakes”
There is a high incentive to perform for these schools and much of the public funding is tied to performance. Many schools have lied on tests, forged them or filled in answers where they are blank. It is the mentality of the “Fox guarding the Hen House” with $ Millions of educational dollars at stake.
We need stronger guidelines, we have many Charters that are ran by foreign entities with NO credentialed education and many are under “religious” doctrination such as the Gulen Movement out of Turkey.
In California these schools are called Magnolia Science Academies, Pacific Technology and Bay Area Technology Schools. The uncredentialed teachers and Principals (always male and Turkish) come to the USA under HB-1 Visas that are paid for with Tax Dolllars via their multiple layer of Gulen Foundations/Institutes over the schools. The teachers claim they are scholars but in reality have no special talents beyond an undergraduate degree.
The Schools push Turkish culture indoctrination with Turkish language, singing and dancing which are performed at Turkish Olympiads throughout the USA (paid for compliments of the US Taxpayers) there are also trips to Turkey for the American children to perform along with American politicians. While the flag of Turkey is boldly displayed (the flag is actually the symbol of Islam) our children sing the Turkish National Anthem.
This agenda of the Gulen Movement is very well documented and alarming. We need accountability and these Charter Schools are not supplying the American people with this. Please do your due diligence and learn about Charter Schools.


RB September 15, 2010 at 9:16 am

I think it is the opinion of most people that school is very important for the students and for the country. Also, it seems that it is the opinion of most that the parents are important in student success. So parents, who should be involved with their students education, should pay taxes to support the schools, should be legally responsible for the actions of their minor children, and should vote for members of the school board are not capable of making a choice about where they should sent their child to school? I think this is absurd. I am happy we have a choice of private, charter, and public schools here in Point Loma.


Deb September 14, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Finnish teaching looks wonderful on paper but here’s the reality: American parents wouldn’t tolerate Finnish teaching methods.

Their success does not lie with creative teachers floating around the classroom because of government mandated policy. Classrooms are overcrowded there as well and it’s the same as here, you get a good teacher you’re golden. You get a bad one you’re sunk. But do keep this in mind. Finnish teachers are still allowed to call children stupid and can be pretty mean about it. They have no problem pushing children who don’t score well out of the classroom into Special Ed programs. I’ve spoken to Special Ed teachers who say they have many children in their care who don’t belong there. I’m not saying it happens in every school but it happens. They also have different acceptable standards of safety. If the teacher who is supposed to monitor recess doesn’t come in that day, be assured your child will be outside playing with all the other kids in the school with no supervision. Another teacher is not going to give up her coffee break and go out there when it’s not her responsibility. There were 290 children, grades 1-6 in our school and never more than two teachers (if any) outside with them.

The real success of the system lies with the children. The culture is different there. The population is homogeneous for the most part. Children are pushed to be independent at a very young age, maybe because life used to be hard in the Arctic. Finnish people adhere to tradition. They are quiet and are not apt to complain openly when they don’t like something. Instead, children are expected to study hard and independently. As in by themselves. And they do. It’s quite impressive.

My main issue with the system though lies with the lack of teacher interaction. Teachers teach facts. They don’t discuss. Students are exceptional at reciting facts. However, if you ask them what they think about a subject they are stumped. Many parents there want to know how we are teaching our children to be vocal with ideas.

Excellent ideas we could take from the Finnish system:
Recess. Children have 45 minutes of class then go outside to play for 10 minutes. Children are expected to dress themselves and dress for the weather. They go out no matter what into the fresh air. They run off excess energy and don’t have the same behavior problems I’ve seen in schools here. This came about from numerous studies which suggest learning decreases after 45 minutes but increases again after a break.

School lunches: Finns will tell you how school lunches have gone downhill but I can assure you they are still good. Warm food is cooked every day at school cafeterias. Not the prepackaged garbage passed off as food but actual meats, potatoes, vegetables, soups. There is no white bread. Water and milk are the only beverages. Lunch is FREE for every student. A principal told me it costs .69 euros per student. This is another contributor to higher concentration levels and less behavioral issues among students.

Kids do fend for themselves more. Although I don’t believe children should always be left to their own devices, they do need some experience to learn how to make their way in this world – to cope with successes and disappointments. Sometimes you are good at something, sometimes you aren’t. Adults are constantly intervening/interfering here. How many parents do you know who do their kid’s projects or run to school with forgotten homework? This would never happen in Finland. There seems to be a higher awareness of personal responsibility in Finnish children. Maybe that alone, is responsible for their success?


Patty Jones September 14, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Interesting Deb, this sounds almost exactly what school was like when I went… here, 40 years ago. When California was ranked high, if not the highest, in education throughout the nation. Lunch may not have been free but it was damned cheap, and cooked on site. My mother and I still have a laugh about a typo on a school lunch menu, Friday – Meat Load.

We learned the 3 R’s early and that led to everything else being easier. We played outside, we had music and we had sing-a-longs. My mother never helped me with homework, not that as young student we even had much. My own children and grandchildren had/have incredible amounts of homework! And I’m talking elementary school. The stress of all that if felt by the entire family. Most children that age are not allowed to walk to the library by themselves anymore…

I have been very disheartened by the demise of the “Industrial Arts” in public education. It was a very real reason why some kids stayed in school and graduated. Without unions that support apprenticeships and the end of wood shop, metal shop, auto shop, who teaches these things any more? Who is going to fix the stuff that get’s broken? And things are getting more broken all the time.


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Older Article:

Newer Article: