My Convertible Life

Monday, October 11, 2010

Public Schools Need Sound Policy, Not Drama Queens

A recent New Yorker article by Nicholas Lemann described the American education system in this way:
"The creation of the world's first system of universal public one of the great achievements of American democracy. It embodies a faith in the capabilities of ordinary people that the Founders simply didn't have. It is also, like democracy itself, loose, shaggy, and inefficient, full of redundancies and conflicting goals. It serves many constituencies and interest groups, each of which, in the manner of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, sees its purpose differently. But by the fundamental test of attractiveness to students and their families, the system--which is one of the world's most ethnically diverse and decentralized--is, as a whole, succeeding."
As I read this article, which goes on to discuss the need for measured, research-based solutions to the very real challenges in public education rather than take a "Noah's Ark" approach in which we wash everything away and start anew, I kept thinking that Lemann must have been writing about Wake County. Except that nowhere in his article does he call anyone a prom queen.

At last week's school board meeting, the majority's 5-4 voting alliance splintered into name-calling and snide remarks as Debra Goldman (along with the four members who have been in the minority since December) put the brakes on a train-wreck of a "plan" (and I use that term loosely) for student assignment in Wake County. While I'm relieved that the board's decide-now-ask-questions-later, destructionist approach to "planning" is on hold, I have no confidence in Goldman or the rest of the former Gang of Five.

What amazed me most about all of this drama is how apparently shocked and surprised these five board members are to discover that creating a student assignment plan is hard. Really?! Did you think that the people in those seats before you weren't trying? Or that maybe they delighted in screwing with families and students to see how much hate mail they could generate? Or that somehow they were just oblivious to the challenges facing our schools?

The truth is that, as Nicholas Lemann observed in his article, public education is complicated. Every parent rightfully wants what's best for his or her own child -- but our public schools have to serve ALL children. And what's best for one child or one family might not be the right answer for another.

If there were a simple solution to student assignment in Wake County -- one that sent every family to their closest school filled with magnet offerings while staying within county budgets and ensuring that every school fostered a healthy, effective (uncrowded) environment for teaching and learning -- don't you think someone would have tried it by now?

There is no simple solution. Believe me, I wish I had one to offer. I only know that this "Noah's Ark" approach of throwing out the old plan and bull-dozing ahead without research or data to support the new plan isn't going to help more students graduate with the skills they need for college and careers. And petty commentary between board members certainly won't help my son and his classmates learn how to read.

It's time for the school board to move beyond campaign rhetoric, roll up their sleeves and get to work on the business of setting policies that help students learn. Ms. Goldman, I hope you'll prove me wrong for doubting your intentions and take the lead on making a positive difference for all 143,289 of them.

PS - If you missed the photo gallery of the one-minute post-meeting Goldman-Tedesco chat, you absolutely must check it out. Add your own voice-over captions for entertainment. And yes, Tedesco really did publicly call Goldman a prom queen. She has reportedly denied ever having been one.

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