Saturday, January 21, 2012

NO PUBLIC IN THE "PUBLIC" SCHOOLS

When the grades came out, the Las Cruces Public School District demonstrated once again its consistent less-than-mediocre performance. Nearly half of its schools received below-average grades of D or F. The same was true of the public schools, taken as a whole, throughout the state. This poor report card is consistent with the results of other evaluations such as the state’s reading and mathematics proficiency tests and National Education Assessment Program tests. All of them agree: public education in New Mexico ranks in the lowest five percent of all states.

When the report card is poor, state “educrats” invariably complain about flaws in the methodology underlying the results. And they are right, up to a not-very-distant point; all evaluations have imperfections. But no one needs to pursue educrats’ obfuscatory, specious, or tendentious nit-picks to know that when all methods indicate the same mediocre or worse results, they are likely collectively and reliably reflecting a truth. In response to which, local school boards and superintendents do little more than issue press releases.

Thus, the LCPS District responded with typical hypocrisy and implicit blame-sharing, if not blame-shifting. Superintendent Stan Rounds stated that the district was “today asking every parent, every parent of every child to step up with us in a partnership here to move our kids forward, to accelerate them. This is a good wake-up call for all of us to hold hands and do that, to recommit ourselves.” The hypocrisy is the pretense of wishing parental participation in public education. Rounds neither stated nor promised specifics for this process of stepping-up or partnering or committing. Step up to what and how? Partnership how and with whom? Commit to what?

The record shows that the District does not want parental or citizen participation in District affairs. The exceptions have been the two redistricting committees, both of which performed admirably. Yet neither the School Board nor the Superintendent has seen their success as urging a continuing, constructive role for parents and other citizens to help the District and improve public education. Indeed, on the Superintendent’s watch, the School Board reformed its policy on standing committees, which had lapsed, by eliminating them altogether. His advisory committee is a compliant construct of no consequence.

But parental and citizen participation can support high-quality education. I have extended experience with superior public school systems in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Fairfax County, Virginia. Both graduate most of their students; both send most of their graduates to colleges, many among the best in the country. Both expect, encourage, and welcome support from community residents in addressing the full range of educational issues. I know that both communities enjoy socio-economic advantages which Las Cruces lacks. But I believe that communities lacking them like Las Cruces should make even greater efforts to involve residents to overcome these disadvantages.

One of the obvious advantages of inclusion is better decisions on educational issues because of more and better information about the education actually provided by the District. As a founder of what became the country’s largest employee-owned company used to say, “all of us are smarter than some of us.” A District noted for its educational mediocrity disagrees; it prefers a priesthood of pedagogues to the experience of parents.

In my recent sortie into the “math wars,” I noticed once again that parents have no effective way of involving themselves in the education which their children receive in school. Eketrina Moore, a parent concerned about mathematics instruction, wrote a guest column for the local daily paper because she had no better place to address her concerns and those of other parents. School personnel are expert in deflecting parental concerns or complaints about curriculum or instruction. So, too, School Board and District staff in ignoring them. Ms. Moore could have spoken for three minutes at a School Board meeting; had she done so, Connie Phillips, its chair, would have kindly thanked her, and the Board would have ignored her. Steven Sanchez, the Assistant Superintendent for education, would have listened but neither responded to, nor had any exchange with her about, her concerns.

When NMSU experts on mathematics or mathematics instruction wrote a column dismissing Ms. Moore’s concerns because she lacked the “big picture,” I learned that when they talk, the District—that is, Sanchez—listens. The District values controversial theories of experts to the clear and continuing record of mediocre academic results. It does not respect parents who are concerned about their children’s education, does not care that test scores justify their complaints, and ignores businesses’ criticisms that LCPS graduates lack basic knowledge and skills, and have poor work habits.

Since public participation can benefit public education, I wonder at the effective exclusion of parents and other citizens from participation—I do not even need the qualifier “meaningful”—in District affairs relevant to public interests: curriculum, instruction, athletics, health and safety, budgets, and facilities. Indeed, I worry that, given the recent conduct of the four women School Board members in the high school redistricting, the exclusion of the public from District affairs enables them to serve their private interests and those of their friends, as they intend, not the interests of the public.

Moreover, these four School Board members are personally fearful of allowing any public participation which might involve controversy or criticism however constructive. Recently, when some members of the redistricting committee criticized Rounds’s change in transfer policies, Bonnie Votaw complained that they made the redistricting decision more difficult! Obviously, these four members cannot handle opinions different from theirs, especially when, in this case, they wanted to advance private rather than public interests. Earlier, when they considered a suggestion to have open public meetings to listen to residents in their districts, they decided instead to go to some schools and meet with students. This decision makes clear that they can cope only with children and subordinates, and are fearful of dealing with adults.

It is worth noting that members Maria Flores, Barbara Hall, and Votaw were teachers and represent teachers. Anyone concerned about public education needs to remember that fact when teachers complain about the failure of parents to involve themselves in their children’s education. Teachers and principals rebuff parents, and School Board members, the Superintendent, and other District staff do likewise—and then complain about the lack of parental involvement and ask parents to bail them out when they fail. The District deserves the blame for the lack of public participation by parents and other citizens. It is late and lame for Rounds to ask for their participation when the District has flunked again after long going it alone.

There are ways forward, but they can work only if the District first mends its ways. I offer one way, with the following steps: Revise District policies to encourage and enable public participation by parents and other citizens. Terminate the Superintendent’s advisory committee. Encourage PTAs and booster organizations to form an independent, District-wide organization open to PTA and booster organization representatives, other parents, and other citizens; and charter advisory committees on a range of educational (curriculum and instruction), health and safety, and educational management issues (budget and facilities), among others. Initially, until the organization is widely recognized, require teachers and principals to report parental concerns to the District administration and require the District administration to report them to the leadership of this organization.

The important thing is to put the public back in “public” education. Increasing public participation would better inform parents and other citizens, encourage more support from them in student education, improve academic performance, enable better decision-making, and develop future leaders in the District and the city. The alternative is a continuation of the status quo, which disserves students, parents, and businesses.

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