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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.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Unoccupied Carlsbad?

For carlsbadistan.com

On Saturday I had an attack of déjà vu in downtown San Diego that made we wonder if Occupy Wall Street could ever come to our sleepy little Village By The Sea. Let me explain.

My wife and I had to wade through an Occupy San Diego encampment in front of the Civic Theatre, where we were headed to see the revival of the 60’s rock musical, HAIR. Karen was more excited about seeing the show than I was. Although we both have vivid memories of those psychedelic days, hers are more pleasant than mine.

She found her inner flower child in the late 60’s, leaving a stuck-in-the-50’s husband who preferred the kind of obedient wife we see today only in the popular retro TV series Mad Men. I was a high school English teacher affecting a Bono look, no not that Bono, the Sonny one who harmonized with Cher. Sporting fashionably long hair and a slightly droopy mustache, I wore paisley ties, a macramé belt and waffle-stomper boots. But my polyester sport coats gave me away. The only risk I took in the 60’s was standing too close to an open flame in that attire. I was a hippie wannabe.


The hundred or so protesters camping out in front of the theatre appeared to be about the same ages as the actors on stage portraying pot-smoking, advocates of peace and love. But there were some important differences. There were no faint aromas of marijuana, petula oil, or incense wafting through the air. No angry chanting or taunting of the four good-natured police officers keeping a friendly eye on the group.

We were approached by a young woman who asked if we had any questions. I asked her if she was a student. She had been, she explained. But after completing two years of college, planning to be a teacher, she had run up $18,000 in student loans. She dropped out because she feared she’d be taking on more debt than a teacher’s salary would allow her to ever pay off. She’s now making what she called “good money” as a waitress, earning a whopping $2,000 a month. Her top priority in the protest was to make college more affordable…like free, as it is in several other countries.

Her sad story helped me see a link between the reason she was there and what’s currently happening with funding for Carlsbad schools. Announcing a potential budget shortfall of $11 million next year, the district is asking the public for feedback on how to cut costs by responding to a survey on the district’s web site.
The irony here is that, according to SANDAG figures, the city has the largest collection of wealthy households in North County, with nearly one in four enjoying incomes exceeding $100,000. But, revealing the wealth gap, more than half have incomes below $60,000.

While its schools face severe cuts, Carlsbad enjoys a comfortable budget reserve exceeding $50 million and provides annual million dollar bailouts of its failing golf course. The city council is currently looking for ways to save more money by outsourcing the jobs of the city’s lowest paid workers.

In his state of the city address, Mayor Hall declared that Carlsbad’s business climate “is about to explode” because of the city’s special efforts to become business friendly.

Will the city consider a bailout of its public schools, or does that not qualify as business friendly? I’m not holding my breath. It appears Carlsbadistan is not ready to be occupied.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Stop testing and start listening to students

For San Diego's North County Times

States opting out of No Child Left Behind are required to find other ways to hold schools accountable for student success. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed California's first try, SB 547, which would have replaced the Academic Performance Index (API), with an Education Quality Index (EQI) that includes graduation rates and career and college-readiness, in addition to standardized test scores,

Never having been a fan of test scores alone to measure a school's success, I was initially disappointed by the governor's action. But after reading his veto message, I think he got it right, praising the bill for going beyond test scores, but pointing out the new EQI would require "multiple indicators that would be expected to change over time, causing measurement instability and muddying the picture of how schools perform."

Brown suggested that a better way of measuring success might be for "locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students and examine their coursework." He apparently doesn't understand how vulnerable to local politics that would be, creating the illusion of accountability, but making it more difficult to measure achievement over time or to compare schools.

If we don't use test scores, must we return to the days when schools were judged simply by how well-behaved their students were and how many of their graduates go to college? I don't think so. Despite its many failings, No Child Left Behind's use of measurable results has held schools accountable for the success of all students, regardless of family background. There's no turning back from that worthy goal.

Unfortunately, our path to better schools in this country has become a matter of teaching to the test and providing school choice. Finland proves there's a better way. Their 15-year-olds lead the world in reading, math and science test scores, but there are no mandated standardized tests in Finnish schools, other than one exam at the end of the senior year. Schools are not ranked. Every one of them is expected to do whatever it takes to help each student succeed. To see how they do it, read Lynell Hancock's recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine ("A+ for Finland," September 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful.html).

Vista's Trade Tech High School, enrolling many students left behind in other public schools, increased its API score by nearly 30 percent last year. The school uses the Hope Survey, and the Gallup Student Poll to assess three ingredients researchers say are directly related to school success: hope, engagement and well-being. All three can be reliably measured by student surveys and enhanced through direct action.

It's time to stop testing and start listening to the ones we're teaching to find out what gets in the way of their learning.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Trade Tech high lives up to charter school promise

For San Diego's North County Times

We once took pride in our nation's comprehensive high schools. While other countries divided their students at an early age into either academic or vocational training streams, our schools prepared students both for college and for jobs that paid a living wage.

Now, after a decade of obsessing over standardized test scores, vocational/technical education has been largely abandoned. What's been left behind is a lingering achievement gap between the haves and have nots and little interest in measuring skills required for jobs of the future: learning how to learn, becoming a self-starter, creative problem-solving, collaboration, teamwork, and leadership.

Not many charter schools live up to California's 1992 Charter School Act, requiring an "emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving." Parental choice has resulted mostly in giving up on neighborhood schools as the great levelers of educational and economic opportunity.

Vista's North County Trade Tech High School is an exception, a charter school that lives up to its promise. The school's success with a diverse student population of 120 students (60 percent nonwhite, 66 percent disadvantaged), is a model of what charter schools were meant to do.

Doreen Quinn, Trade Tech's chief executive officer, and Principal Bryan O'Donnell explained how the school delivers on its mission statement by implementing the new three R's ---- Relationships, Relevance and Rigor: "to graduate students with a strong blend of academic and workforce competencies necessary for future success in post-secondary education and in the building and construction industry."

You read that right. It's a voc/tech high school, with state-of-the-art classroom technology, which also offers courses required for admission to the state's two public universities. Those not headed to a university may complete courses yielding community college credit. The school's affiliation with local building and trade unions offers opportunities for non-college bound students to enter paid apprenticeships directly from high school.

The school attracts many students who may have felt like losers before discovering Trade Tech High. O'Donnell told me, "Many, if not most, of our students have had attendance problems at previous schools." Their average daily attendance is now 93 percent. As Quinn put it, "There are many ways to win here."

If you measure success by test scores, Trade Tech's project-based learning is working. This year's Academic Performance Index score (API) rose by an astonishing 159 points, nearly 30 percent higher than last year's score. Success on the high school exit exam is even more impressive, with 87 percent of 10th graders passing in English Language Arts, higher than the passing rates of the district, county and state.

This charter school takes us back to the future to what a truly comprehensive public high school should be.