All I Want for Christmas is...A Good Education For My Kids

photo by Dr. Zhivago, flickr photostream

Without a doubt 2011 has been a challenging year for education in Los Angeles and California as a whole; with State and local cuts, fake security guard shootings, cuts, grade scandals, cuts, pink slips, cuts, assessment controversies and more cuts. The year is ending with the demise of Public School Choice in favor of a new agreement between LAUSD and UTLA, guaranteeing more autonomous public schools, while the State has just cut State funding for school transportation. So schools may have new freedom to hire teachers, implement curriculum and develop their own assessment guidelines, but their students may not actually be able to get to school to enjoy the benefits.

Parents as Advocates

As a parent I see my children in a pool of almost 700,000 students and wonder how will they rise, learn, stand out and ultimately succeed. I play my role as well as I can, educating myself on the ins and outs of the system. I've been a classroom teacher and have worked in education so I have an advantage; nonetheless, the challenge is finding the time to attend a meeting or read and understand a variety of lengthy reports. Recently the LA times ran an article on the role of parents in getting services for their children who have autism. The level of autism services varied greatly by race and ethnicity, with a greater amount of services going to white families. Their research did not identify any prejudice on the part of LAUSD, but rather that the parents who were the loudest and more knowledgeable of the system received the most for their children. Of course the same is true for everything at LAUSD. The louder a parent is, and the more they know how to work the system, the better the experience their children is more likely to have.

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Searching for School Choice

The truth is the whole process is overwhelming. Last Friday was the deadline to submit the Choices Application for Magnet Schools. The application is simple enough, but the process is daunting. It's based on a points system where points are awarded based on how unsuccessful your local school is, how many times you've applied to a magnet and not been accepted, and sibling status. It's a complicated racket where many gamble on the likelihood of not being selected to accumulate points, until they're ready for their child to move on to their preferred school.

Fall is the season of school tours. The Choices brochure provides only a short description of each school so it's necessary to visit them to get a true picture of what they can provide. Parents are seen frazzled, writing notes and taking pictures, hoping not everyone on the tour actually applies.

The process is similar for most charter schools. Get on a list, wait your turn, and hope that your child is one of the few that are selected. Now that the District has officially ended parent preference practices at all charter schools, the lottery system is the only game in town for charter schools.

Teachers as Allies

Through my experience I've found that a school's philosophy is important, as are the resources available to each student. But the real key to learning is the teacher who is in the classroom with your child. In this way I find myself aligned with the statewide "Don't hold us back" movement, which demands that student achievement be a part of teacher evaluations and professional development be provided for instructors who need it, along with higher pay for more effective teachers. Teachers must have the support, resources and training to help their students succeed. It's to the benefit of the entire educational community to make innovative and relevant professional development available to educators.

This year I've had the good fortune to work with a diverse group of educators who tirelessly continue to place the needs of their students at the forefront. At the end of the 2010-11 school year a few of them received pink slips or saw their schools in danger of being taken over by the District. They tell me that it was difficult for them to keep moral up and provide for their students under that kind of pressure. The students I spoke to, almost all students of color, saw it as an example of how the District doesn't care about them or their education. But mostly they felt it was unfair to fire their teacher.

Many teachers are implementing new media strategies in their classes, learning new ways to utilize digital media and media literacy to extend their curriculum. These educators think outside the box and nurture a space where students can explore, play, learn 21st century skills and become active citizens of a digital world. This significance is not lost on the students, and many take advantage of the opportunity. I'm hopeful that in this new year more educators and schools will follow in this direction.

I'm also looking forward to see the work begun at schools that were originally part of Public School Choice (Sotomayor Learning Academies, Clay Middle School,) the Pilot Schools (RFK and the Esteban Torres Community Schools,) and new smaller learning academies at established schools. The common thread that runs through these programs is the autonomy to develop their own budget, staffing plan, governance, curriculum, assessment tools and school calendar. I'm curious to see the affect this new freedom has had on the student's learning and school environment.

Negotiations and Change Between LAUSD and UTLA

The recently ratified agreement between LAUSD and UTLA (Local School Stabilization & Empowerment Initiative), effectively put an end to the Public School Choice program. The program, originally passed by the School Board in 2009, allowed for charter schools and other outside organizations to compete with district teachers and administrators to gain control of the lowest-achieving schools. This was the case at Clay Middle School. The new agreement provides more autonomy for schools and removes the threat of takeover by charter schools or other non-profit organizations, effectively erasing the spectra of competition that was embedded in Public School Choice.

LAUSD is now a laboratory for various school reforms, many hitched to the same wagon. Meanwhile students and parents continue to search and ponder their choices, weighing their options. Which schools and programs are fit for my child? Which one is he eligible to apply to? Which one will she be less a guinea pig and more a partner in her own education? Will there be more budget cuts? Will these schools and programs survive?

*****

Recently I stopped at a red light at a busy intersection and saw a few young women at a bus stop dressed in khaki pants and white polo shirts. I knew they were from the high school around the corner - they were reading, exchanging notes and pointing at passages in their books. I wanted to yell out a cheer and give them the thumbs up for taking their education seriously, even while waiting for their bus. Instead I just smiled and took note of the fact that I needed to visit that school.

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I found this post to be full of contradictions and ultimately could not figure out the point of it. School choice is challenging, yet beneficial? Teachers are our allies, but let's publicly shame them through the Don't Hold Us Back Campaign by purchasing full page ads in major newspapers begging teachers not to hold kids back? Pardon me, but nothing could be more offensive as a teacher than portraying me as an obstinate, recalcitrant teacher opposed to reform.

One should tread with great care when walking down the road of value added measurement. To equate this with "student achievement" is misguided. One cannot know what the teacher did to get high scores, because the tests were not designed to measure teacher quality. As Campbell's Law states, the more you use tests to measure something other than for which they were designed, the more the results are corrupted. A teacher could exclusively teach to the test at the expense of untested subjects such as art, science, and social studies. A teacher could drill and kill, as these tests measure the minimum of student knowledge, not the thinking on the higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy. On a more ominous note, cheating scandals have erupted nationwide as teachers and administrators in districts that have moved into using student test scores as a part of evaluations now realize that high scores mean keeping their jobs, and they will do anything to keep them.

So if the author is seeking a good education for her children (aren't we all?), I encourage her to become a part of the school and district decision making councils. Join the professional organizations for different subject matters and attend their conferences, where there are usually parent sessions. Read Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Follow @SOSmarch on twitter and read all their links. You are right. There is a wealth of information out there and it can be so confusing. But don't buy into the anti-teacher rhetoric because I can assure you that the problems in education have a lot more to do with wealth inequality than teacher quality.