For better schools, raise expectations

Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Public Schools


KAI RYSSDAL: The Democrats have gathered in Denver. They'll be partying and schmoozing and, yes, talking policy for the rest of the week. While the convention's in session, we've asked some prominent Democratic policy types to complain. That is, tell us where they think the party has gone astray on key issues. Today, commentator and education reformer Steve Barr says Democrats are behind the curve on education.

STEVE BARR: Check out any national poll on issues important to Americans, and they'll tell you the same thing: On education, voters trust Democrats more than they do Republicans. And it's been that way for decades.

But my fellow Democrats haven't done much in recent years to earn that trust. Party leaders aren't addressing education in a real way. And when they do, it's usually to condemn No Child Left Behind or to make a vague appeal for better schools. Rarely do Democratic party leaders offer a clear vision for what a 21st century education should look like.

Now, the Dems don't have it easy. There are two warring tribes in their ranks -- teachers unions and school-reform advocates who are wary of teachers unions.

So, let me offer a new progressive vision to my beloved party, so it can challenge these tribes to come together: Community-based, decentralized school districts composed of small schools.

Study after study shows that a smaller school gives a kid the best chance to succeed. A decentralized district would streamline money to school sites, where each school would control its own budget. School leaders, including teachers, would make the hires.

But the key is high expectations. All stakeholders must believe that every kid can learn and can be college and workforce ready. Autonomy is maintained based on student performance. And if the school fails to meet expectations, that local control can be taken away.

This model offers teachers better work conditions, more generous pay, and a say in what goes on in front of them. In exchange, the school asks for accountability. Because, contrary to perception, people want to teach. They just don't want a suckers' bet.

This all seems like common sense, so what's the problem?

Unfortunately, there's a great deal of institutional resistance built into the system. Too many urban school districts have deteriorated into instruments of patronage. And teacher contracts are written in reaction to centralized, outmoded systems.

With a new progressive vision, there will be need for a new unionism. And wouldn't we all love to see every cent of our tax dollars go directly to a small, public school in our neighborhood, with the best paid union teachers who believe in our children as much as we all do?

RYSSDAL: Steve Barr is the founder of Green Dot Public Schools. That's one of the leading charter schools operators here in Los Angeles. He's also a former finance chairman for the Democratic Party.

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Thanks...provocative as usual...both from marketplace and Steve Barr...that's the point...good teaching is the real answer in either small or medium or large schools, but that will take more than the last peace dividend.

Compared to the more successful education systems of some other countries, the American system is already much more decentralized. Our local control of schools is a huge impediment to increasing the quality, and also the equality, of our education system.

Our best small public school systems are a shameful mockery of the word, "public." The requirement for admission is living in a million-dollar home, making them more exclusive than any private school.

As a former urban school teacher I know that at the other end of the spectrum the idea that poorly educated people can do a better job than outsiders in running their schools, while facing insurmountable obstacles, not the least of which is the inability to compete with systems in more desirable areas in attracting the best teachers, is another shameful farce.

Now to suggest that it is progressive to give neighborhood schools even more autonomy, including the ability to do their own hiring of teachers, is astonishing. True progress will be achieved by making radical changes in exactly the opposite direction. We need very large school districts, run on the state or federal level. Only at such high levels can the best minds with the most expertise be assembled for adequate lengths of time to develop good curricula. And just as important, the ideal large school district needs to be able to hire teachers where they are most needed and to transfer them from one school to another to ensure that the best and most experienced teachers are fairly distributed among all the towns and neighborhoods in the district. Parents in affluent communities, and teachers, as well as their unions, will scream in protest, but such centralized control is essential for reducing the enormous inequality of educational opportunity in America. If successful, it would also remove one of the main processes underlying economic and racial segregation in our country: people with means considering the big disparities in the quality of public schools in deciding where to live.

Because making these changes towards true progress legislatively is a political impossibility, it can only be done by the courts. I hope I live to see the day.

Mr Barr fails to recognize the existence of the IQ bell curve; not all pupils have expectations of attending college nor are all capable of coping with college, either socially or academicly. And Mr. Barr wants small schools where there are only a few students separated by miles? Get real! Parents need to take care to encourage their children to read and write; this is not happening in the illegal immigrant population.

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