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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Teacher Unions Don't Cause Schools to Fail

For San Diego's North County Times

The steady drumbeat of criticism leveled at public employee unions has become both tiresome and troubling. Tiresome because of the mindless cliches: Public worker jobs are "cushy," their paychecks "fat," their pensions "bloated," and their bonuses "hefty." Teachers are said to be greedy and self-serving, caring more about their own job security, pay and benefits than student learning. It's troubling because the overblown rhetoric makes it harder for people of good will to work together on common problems.

We can't blame unions for the greed, stupidity and shortsightedness that led to our financial woes. Mortgage industry executives, government regulators and our elected leaders had the power to prevent the meltdown.
Comparing North County city budgets and school test scores, it's hard to understand why unions get such a bad rap.

Carlsbad prospers, while Oceanside, Vista and Escondido face cuts to public services. All have strong public employee unions that are now under assault by city officials, either for threatening future prosperity, in Carlsbad's case, or for not bailing out the budgets of the other three. If unions are the problem, you have to wonder why Carlsbad has been left unscathed.

While several schools in Vista and Escondido are threatened with state sanctions because of low test scores, Carlsbad, San Dieguito and Poway schools face none. If unions are spreading an epidemic of failing schools, why are some schools immune?

Unions are blamed for denying administrators the right to lay off teachers based on merit rather than seniority. Good teaching is assumed to be easily recognized, and that experience cannot be trusted as a reliable measure.

Teaching success, like student learning, can be assessed in multiple ways. It's not possible to rank teachers precisely on their effectiveness. When budget shortfalls require layoffs, administrators could take into account the cost of retaining experienced, highly paid teachers, regardless of their effectiveness. Speaking from personal experience, I know I was a far better teacher in my fifth year than my first.

My beef with administrators arises when they hire and award tenure to ineffective teachers, removing students from their classrooms when parents complain. That's an administrative failure, not a matter of union obstruction.

I've never been a union member, but having worked with unions as a state university administrator, I learned that complaints about their obstructiveness were often related to a manager's failure to treat staff members fairly and openly when making tough personnel decisions.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently convened a meeting of school officials and union leaders from across the country to consider how management and labor can develop strong partnerships to improve student learning.

A good start would be to stop the name-calling.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Charter School Test Scores Tell Real Story

Is competition the key to improving our public schools? If a business doesn't deliver on its promises, shoppers go elsewhere. If they don't return, it closes its doors.

That's how No Child Left Behind was designed. In education's survival of the fittest, schools with chronically low test scores face sanctions ranging from allowing parents to take their children elsewhere to closure.

Our 10-year obsession with test scores has resulted only in glacial-speed improvement. All students were supposed to be at grade-level proficiency in reading and math by 2014. At California's annual rate of test score increases, white students will be fully proficient by 2025, Latinos and blacks by 2030.

Competition among schools has been promoted on this newspaper's opinion page. A recent editorial cartoon depicted an elephant named "Vista School District," emitting a cowardly "Eeek!" as it perches on a chair opposite a teacher pointing to the words "Charter success" written on a Classical Academies blackboard.

If pictures are worth a thousand words, this one needed another three hundred. Its companion editorial criticized Vista school administrators for resisting an Escondido charter school's plan to set up shop in their district.

The cartoon suggests charter schools are better than other public schools. The editorial says students should be allowed to vote with their feet to find better schools. Neither compared the test scores held sacred as quality indicators by the California Department of Education.

Here's what they left out.

Seventy-seven percent of the Escondido charter school's students are white; one is an English Language Learner. In the Vista school district, 30 percent of grade-schoolers are white, 30 percent are English Language Learners.

Here's a small sample of the 2010 California Standards test scores report, comparing the charter school's predominantly white enrollment with the 5,000 white students enrolled in Vista's elementary schools.
In eighth-grade English language arts, 76 percent of charter school students were proficient at or above grade level, compared to 81 percent of the comparable Vista subgroup.

In mathematics, 31 percent of Classical Academy eighth-graders were proficient in Algebra I, compared to 72 percent of white Vista students.

National studies have shown that charter school test scores are generally no better than those of other public schools.

California's academic performance indicator for Escondido's Classical Academy ranks it above 80 percent of other California schools. But it ranks above only 20 percent of schools with similar student populations.
The Classical Academy's ability to attract students is evidently unrelated to competitive test scores, which is the only way we measure a school's success under No Child Left Behind.

RICHARD RIEHL is a Carlsbad resident. Contact him at fogcutter1@yahoo.com.

Carlsbad Going Back to the Future?

As neighboring cities in North County struggle with budget cuts and fee increases for public services, Carlsbad’s city council members spent the lion’s share of their January 25th meeting listening to a proposal to set aside $4 million to redevelop its downtown.

Gary Nessim, Vice President of the Carlsbad Village Association, laid out a plan that would create a pedestrian promenade the entire length of Grand Avenue, from City Hall to the beach. Mayor Matt Hall and Councilmember Mark Packard excused themselves from the discussion since they both own property in the area to be developed.

The presentation reminded me of my seven years in the Midwest. My wife and I, both west coasters in our early years, relished our afternoon drives on weekends in search of small towns that flourished many years ago. Each had a town square, dominated by a City Hall protected by a couple of Civil War era cannons, and surrounded by a drugstore, a department store, some specialty shops, a restaurant and a gas station. They’re sad scenes today. Boarded up windows replace bustling streets as their main feature.

The words “back to the future” came to mind as Nessim described a future Grand Promenade, linking City Hall to the heart of the downtown district, creating a bustling central gathering place for residents and visitors alike.

Grand Avenue would be reduced to two lanes of traffic, bordered by two bike lanes, and no curbside parking. Several multi-level parking garages, above and below ground, would provide an ample supply of downtown parking.

A 53-foot wide pedestrian walkway would feature outdoor art shows, access to the farmer’s market, sidewalk dining and major city events, like car shows, that would no longer require closing other city streets.
Nessim observed that recent development plans for downtown have consisted entirely of residential townhomes. He warned that if the downtown becomes primarily residential town homes with very little retail/commercial you’ll never get the bustling downtown that attracts visitors as well as locals. He pointed to downtown Santa Monica as a glimpse of what Carlsbad’s Grand Promenade could be.

Downtown businesses like the idea, according to Nessim. He’s spoken with all of them on Grand Avenue and estimated 95 percent of them have expressed support for it.

When Nessim suggested the project could be completed in a year, but that the approval process might take five years, Mayor Pro-Tem Anne Kulchin quipped, “Gary, I don’t think even God could do it in a year.”
The council listened politely to the presentation. Kulchin said she liked the plan and “we should talk with some more people about it,” before we simply thank Nessim and say goodbye. When Mayor Hall returned to his seat he said he’d been listening to the presentation “from afar,” declared it a great presentation and “a lot to stretch your mind around.”

The Carlsbad Village Association is asking that $4 million be put into the capital improvement budget to move ahead with the plan and to appoint a Village Planning and Study Group to coordinate plans with all stakeholders.

The council gave lip service support to the vision for downtown redevelopment but took no action. Here’s hoping it will soon appear as an action item on the council’s meeting agenda. I don’t think we want boarded up shop windows to be Carlsbad’s only legacy of smart growth.