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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, June 29, 2012

What Romney's education plan is not


News of the latest California school rankings is about as exciting as a San Diego weather report. Student family income continues to be the best predictor of a school's success, and North Countians are reassured that their schools, like Lake Wobegon's kids, are mostly above average.

Each school gets two scores, ranked on a scale from 1 to 10, from the bottom 10 percent of other schools to the top 10  percent. The first compares the school with all other state schools. The second compares schools with similar student characteristics.

Take San Marcos and Mission Hills high schools, for example. Both rank above 90 percent of all California schools, and both rise to the top 10 percent of schools with similar student

characteristics. Forty-five percent of their combined enrollments are from low-income families.
By comparison, just 18 percent of Escondido's Classical Academy High charter school students come from low-income homes. The school's overall 90th percentile rank equals that of the two San Marcos schools, but it falls to the 40th percentile when compared with  schools that have similar student characteristics.

What does a comparison of two traditional public schools with a school of choice suggest about the future of school reform?

Those who favor school choice say competition in an open educational marketplace will lead to better schools. Mitt Romney joined that chorus after competing in primary campaign debates where candidates were cheered for vowing to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.

The title of his plan, "A Chance for Every Child," is a rhetorical retreat from the promise of "No Child Left Behind." It surrenders the responsibility of public schools to help all students succeed. The only "chance" children get under his plan is the opportunity for their parents to go shopping for schools.

Romney pledges to divert the $25 billion in federal funds now going to schools for low-income and special-needs students to go directly to the families of these students to allow them to enroll in any school of their choice, public, private or charter. He calls it "A Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education." But it's designed primarily for those parents who have the knowledge, time and financial ability to find schools and transport their kids to them.

The promise of American education has always been to provide publicly supported, high-quality neighborhood schools for all ---- not a free market of schools of varying quality that survive only on their ability to attract and retain paying customers.

Look to the two San Marcos high schools to see how it's done.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Envision An Aging City

For San Diego's North County Times

When they rolled out their 2012-13 preliminary operating budget two weeks ago Carlsbad city officials were singing "Happy Days Are Here Again." But not everyone joined in the chorus.

A parade of disgruntled residents reprimanded the city council at its June 5 meeting for the city's failure to invest in more open space. And now members of the planning commission join hotel industry experts in suggesting the city might soon be overbuilt with hotel rooms.

One land use issue that didn't make the headlines can be found in a report on the city's changing demographics by Community and Economic Development Director Gary Barberio.

Barberio pointed to forecasts showing the addition of 20,000 Carlsbadians by 2040, a 20 percent increase. But the number of 35 to 64 year-olds, who now make up nearly half of city residents, is expected to shrink to little more than a third of the population.

While the share of Carlsbad's Generation X gets smaller, the number of Millennials between the ages of 20 and 34, is expected to grow by 20 percent. Baby Boomers from 65 to 80 will rise by a whopping 124 percent.

Barberio left out the fastest growing group of all, which I'll dub the Older and Wiser, those in their 80s and older. That group will grow by 157 percent. The bottom line? If the forecast proves accurate, one in four Carlsbadians will be 65 and older by 2040.

If SANDAG planners are right, there's little doubt the city's population will be substantially older than today's. The number of residents 19 years old and younger will grow by a measly 4 percent over the next 30 years.

The city's Envision Carlsbad project is currently reviewing land use options that take into account the city's changing demographics. Barberio says Generation X typically buy detached homes. But Millennials and Baby Boomers, on the other hand, are more likely to buy multi-family units, condos and townhouses. Boomers look to downsize by moving to more centrally located living units in walkable locations closer to services. Millennials marry later in life, if at all, and have fewer children.

Barberio points out these changes will substantially affect the housing, commercial and industrial sectors of the city. He says it will create the need for "greater land use flexibility in the future." That raises more questions than answers, but it shows the importance of addressing these issues in the Envision Carlsbad project.

The city has done a great job of citizen involvement in the planning. But the question remains: will today's residents, composed predominantly of Generation X, have the foresight to create a plan for what they'll want their city to look like when they become members of the Older and Wiser generation?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Time for hybrid model schools?


From San Diego's North County Times
No Child Left Behind and the rise of charter schools have been the primary drivers of school reform in the last decade. But while NCLB promised school accountability, it got it by labeling students and schools successes or failures based on test scores alone. It failed the promise implied by its title, to close the learning gap separating students by income and ethnicity.

California’s charter schools, on the other hand, freed of state bureaucracy and teachers unions, were meant to help left-behind students bloom by using innovative methods traditional schools could adopt. But with a few exceptions, North County charters have served mostly as havens for families not quite wealthy enough to afford private schools. Home schooling is a feature of the largest of them, a popular choice for those who’ve lost faith in traditional schools. Low income and single-parent families are left behind when parents are required to take the place of trained professionals.

Hard times are now delivering punishing blows to schools simply trying to survive as they are. The talk in Carlsbad is about how many days to furlough teachers to save money, shortchanging students in the bargain. If voters don’t approve a tax increase in November things will only get worse. And if that happens, the survival of schools may depend more on transformation than reformation.

Technology has transformed the business world, producing vastly improved customer service. Yet schools are still run like Henry Ford’s assembly line. Students are expected to move along at the same rate, learning the same things in the same way, with periodic quality assessments that don’t impede their progress.

The Capistrano Connections Academy in San Clemente gives us a glimpse of how technology can transform education. It delivers its classes online rather than in classrooms. A tuition-free, accredited public charter school authorized by the Capistrano School District, it enrolls more than 1,000 students from its surrounding counties, including San Diego. Teachers are professionally certified, and the school meets California’s academic achievement and accountability requirements. Its impressive array of technology, available to teachers, students and parents, allows for a highly customized delivery of course content and ongoing measurable student progress.

Unfortunately, the Academy’s student test scores are not especially impressive. Its 2011 Academic Performance Index (API) stands at 779, down 15 points from its 2010 results, so online education alone may not be the answer. But maybe it’s time for a hybrid model, involving online instruction for certain courses and allowing teachers to do what they do best—work with small groups of students to facilitate learning in teams. It won’t be cheaper, but if schools produce better results voters may be more willing to support them.