Education Panel: Emanuel, Villaraigosa, Bloomberg, and Sec. Duncan

I promise I’ll get to Super Tuesday tomorrow, but today I really need to discuss the Education Panel at which I was present.

The Panel was Education Now: Cities at the Forefront of Reform and consisted of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  The Panel was held at American University and was moderated by Andrea Mitchell.

Not being one to brag often, but this was a highlight of my life given I was sitting second row center with two open seats in front of me.  I’m really glad I decided to dress well that day.

On to the Panel:

As a California native, and mainly an Angelino, my heart goes out to Villaraigosa.  While I am not a major fan his style of governance; the fact that he has no direct control over the schools but is ultimately responsible for them, makes me pity him.  Emanuel agreed on this count, as both he and Bloomberg have control over their educational systems.

Villaraigosa talked about the process of electing a progressive school board as the back-up plan to not being able to win control of the system.  While this is working, it is not without difficulty.  He’s gotten the board to instate public choice and charters to help reduce the amount of failing schools.  While I’m all for improving education in this country – raise the salaries of good teachers, extend the school day, reduce class sizes, etc. I do not believe that giving people the choice of schools is the right idea.

All our schools should be the bastions of a healthy and intelligent society.  Removing the more affluent students (affluence in terms of parent commitment to the child) from a failing school and moving them to a successful school is counter productive.  What will be left are schools filled with students who’s parents are not concerned with their academic success: the failing schools.  Under the current shortsighted legislation of NCLB, these failing schools receive funding cuts for performing poorly – once again, counterproductive.

Next came Bloomberg, whose politics I frankly just do not agree with, but he is doing some good in New York.  He has closed the larger schools, only to open multiple smaller ones.  However, he is not a proponent of class size reduction.  I know first hand that this is effective for student learning.  My mother is an elementary teacher in a low socio-economic ESL migrant workers school in California; it doesn’t get much tougher than that.

With large classes, students are neglected, and all attention is given to the students who are falling behind and not leaping forward.  Those that are understanding and metastasizing the curriculum become bored, then disengaged, then fall behind.  The same happens to the midrange of the class, and eventually, the entire class is set behind with behavior problems and missed information; which leads to lower test scores, which cuts funding, which keeps the classes large and perpetuates the cycle.

I do agree with Bloomberg on the issue of accountability of our teachers, even if I find it to be an invasion of privacy for teachers.  We need to give our parents the tools to improve their child’s education, and posting the evaluation of teachers is a fair way of going about it.  My qualm lies within the method – do a whole school evaluation, grade level evaluations, and anonymous teacher evaluations.  That way the parents are armed with the information they need, but maintains the privacy of the teacher.  I think Bloomberg might call me arrogant on this issue – but his is for full transparency, I just want a veil of chiffon.

Onto my favorite person on the panel: Rahm Emanuel.  (I think I was a little too excited to see him, as I sincerely hope that he gets back into national politics.)  He stated that the first steps to success are teacher accountability and getting information to the parents.  An online report card of the school was also on his agenda.  This is how you hold people accountable, and in doing so principals across Chicago are enrolling in training programs, which are directly benefiting the students.  I love when I don’t have criticisms for policy makers – thank you Emanuel.

The discussion moved onto Sec. Duncan addressing the issue of minority communities and the poor.  The three Mayors represent 2.5 million students – and a majority of those fall into the above two categories.  The problem is the drop out rate of students, and the fact that is no longer okay to have just a high school education.  Students need either college, vocational, or technical training to be successful in this country and competitive abroad.

The mayors each addressed this issue, some more eloquently and succinctly than others.  Villaraigosa held: our students need to be career and college ready, that they need to learn the basics to be able to succeed.  He didn’t offer any real solutions, just a restatement of the problem.

Bloomberg talked about finding way to get students to stay in school and getting training for the jobs of the future.  In his contradictory moment he said “what makes the difference is the teacher looking at the kid face to face.  Class sizes are important.”  Why must you be hypocritical in one sitting Bloomberg?  I understand that you believe quality teachers are the key to success, but so does everyone else.  And no further solutions from the Mayor of New York.

Now for the breathe of fresh air on this panel, the Mayor from Chicago, Emanuel.  The facts are such: three-quarters of jobs require higher education, whether that is college, vocational, or technical.  The trick is to get students into those programs; which would not be hard, except vocational and technical colleges are not accepting our students straight out of high school because they are not meeting standards.  A solution:  the idea of continual education, the guarantee of a job upon graduation, the idea that high school can be combined with college.  How very liberal and European of you Emanuel.  But finally someone who gets it – our students who know what they want early on should be allowed to advance in that career and educational trajectory without impediment from rudimentary education.

Emanuel went on to parley about a participatory principal – offering a signing bonus for those taking over an at-risk school.  This was the major announcement of program for the panel, as he had yet to have a press release about it.  He’s a proponent of what I call the trifecta – a principal that participates, parents that are involved, and good teachers that want to be there.

The superintendents of these city school districts then joined the stage and suddenly Villaraigosa had an ally who could speak intelligent for him.  The LA Superintendent brought up the idea of youth rights being in a box with the four sides being negotiation, regulation, legislation, and finally litigation, all of which are needed to hear the voice of the youth.  He discussed that success is based in who is hired and who is fired, that good teachers cannot keep getting riffed while burned out tenured teachers are staying.  This brings up the issue of tenure – a sacred right to teachers across this country.  It is ultimate job security, you take that from them and you’ll loose them.

What I want to see is a rotating tenure program – tenured teachers required to move to a new school every five years as part of their contract.  This is where my mother and I would disagree, but think about it; this would keep teachers from becoming complacent and backing down.  They constantly feel that they are moving forward, instead of standing still.  It will reenergize the system.

Emanuel then lamented the plight of the Chicagoan students; they have 8000 less instructional minutes a year than NY, and 3000 less than LA.  A direct quote from Emanuel that I just couldn’t write any better: “We’re all competing, our children and our cities; Shanghai, Paris, London, let alone our own cites Chicago, New York, and LA. […]  Love Mike, great city, his kids are not more valuable than the kids of Chicago. […] Our first battle was getting a length of day and a length of year that was equal to their aspirations.”

Why does this country not have Federal legislation for schools?  I get it, I do, but I don’t agree with it.  Our children should be in school from 8:30AM to 5:30PM.  They should have more time at recess, access to arts education and physical education.  They need to get back the dying studies – Science and Social Studies.  My mother can only teach these once a week at best because of the length of day and the fact that she has to teach to a test.  It is not enough to look at the time spent in the classroom, it is imperative that we begin to look at the subject matter more closely and reform the school day.  Our children sit and learn math and language all day long – there is no release for them.  Meanwhile, the outside world that inspires wonder and imagination is shut off from them.  The length of day needs to increase from its agricultural time frame to the business time frame we have now.  The length of year also needs to increase – I am not suggesting doing away with vacation, but a drastic shortening is not going to hurt either the student (or a parents wallet).

Duncan made a fair point on this “we’re either going to invest in education or not, it comes down to the values.  Everyone has to step up or we’re going to struggle.”  Bouncing over to Emanuel, “The system was setup for adults.  The most important door the child walks through is that of their own front house.

And thus ends my rather long explanation of this panel.

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