January 17, 2013
An article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times demonstrates, once again, how nuanced and challenging the effort to improve our public schools is. There are no panaceas, no silver bullets that can magically solve the problems that plague so many of our schools--the problems seem almost intractable in their complexity.
In the instance recounted by the Times one of the hurdles that reformers must overcome was laid out in disturbing detail---recalcitrant parents.
The LA Unified School District has undertaken to remedy the deplorable situation at Crenshaw High but a large and vocal group of parents is attempting to block the reforms (transforming Crenshaw into three magnet schools while requiring that all teachers reapply for their jobs).
The Times reported that Crenshaw, one of, if not the worst performing school in the District, had parents arguing before the Board to not change the status quo. A status quo that found 17% of its students testing at grade level in English (a decline of 2% in four years) and 3% of its students testing at grade level in math (a modest rise of 1% over four years). Virtually every speaker that came before the Board, as it considered fixing the school, was a community voice arguing that situation should not be changed.
Given the role of unions and their need to represent their membership, one might understand if United Teachers Los Angeles were in opposition to the transformation of Crenshaw; that would be in keeping with the union’s mission to protect its bargaining unit and changes in their status. One could also understand administrators who might object to the change in the set up that they have grown accustomed to; they will now answer to different masters.
But it defies logicand common sense as to why parents in a manifestly dysfunctional school would argue against changes that just might have a chance of making things better. With 3% of the students at the minimal level of math competency one has to ask what is there to lose by trying something different?
Apparently, there were rumors that the school’s name might be changed, that the football program might be discarded and that other nefarious schemes might be hatched with the school’s change in status. But these rumors had no basis in fact and, even if true, ought not to stand in the way of changes that hold some promise of improving the abysmal educational program at Crenshaw.
Kudos to the Board for withstanding the dozens of speakers who opposed the move and persevering, by unanimous vote, to make Crenshaw into three magnet schools.
The lesson that should be drawn from the Crenshaw kerfuffle is that fixing a broken school is a VERY difficult task. Teachers need to be vetted and under-performing ones replaced or brought up to standard, administrators need to be monitored and evaluated, but, ultimately after all that is done if parents aren’t part of the process and supportive of a school environment that values academic success, the chances of reform are minimal; homework won’t get done, attendance will lag, behavior problems will persist and report cards will be ignored.
Sometimes, in the frenzy to reform broken and under-performing schools critics focus on those issues for which there are metrics---student test scores, teachers’ value added evaluations, administrators’ success rate---all critically important indices of how a school is performing. But it is the intangibles and the immeasurables (i.e. parent involvement and their support for change) which may trump all the other efforts and their associated numbers. Parents who are wedded to a manifestly broken system and buy into conspiracy rumors about what change will do may prevent virtually all the other efforts from making a meaningful difference.
It is parents who create the environment in which kids live for the seventeen hours/day that they aren’t in school---teachers, for all we expect of them, aren’t magicians or miracle workers. They can try and they can put their hearts into their curriculum and their interactions with students but if parents aren’t behind what is being done, it may all be fated to fail.
Let’s hope the noisy opponents of change at Crenshaw were simply a vocal minority and that “a change gonna come.”
The school board did what had to be done and now hopes for the best.