Reforming Public Education

Based on what I've learned from a public school principal, here are a few simple things that could make a big difference in the quality of public education:

  • Redistrict to create a more homogeneous student body: it's much harder to teach when students are drawn from diverse areas. Why can't high school districts match junior high and elementary districts?
  • Increase respect for teachers: Not sure how to best do this, but when we have teachers who are ashamed to admit they are a public school teacher, we are clearly in a bad situation
  • Increase control at the local level: For example, today, a principal can't fire a teacher. That decision must be made at the district level.
  • Bust the teachers union: It now takes several years and close to a million dollars in legal fees to fire a clearly incompetent teacher. That is ridiculous.

The bad news is that none of these is easy to change.

Gray Davis spoke in Aspen on this subject last summer; he talked about the power of the teachers' union, and how he worked with them to create a new process to fire teachers (and principals). The idea is that if a school underperforms over a set period of time, teachers and principals are replaced. Then, if the underperformance continues, the school is shut down and reopened with all new staff, admin., everything.

I have unanswered questions: But what is the timing on this? Years? Months? And who does the firing? Principals can already be fired by the district easily, but not teachers. Principals have associations and no union support. Teachers have union support and a different process for firing so to speak.

Some better alternatives
60 Minutes ran a story about Edison Schools in November 1999. I checked and there are several such schools in my area: two in East Palo Alto (which is the worst area around here), one in San Francisco, and one in San Jose. All told, Edison now has over 38,000 students in 79 schools in 16 states. They went public November 11, 1999.

On November 19, Dallas school trustees approved Edison to manage the 6 worst schools in the district. Edison would invest about $30 million over the course of the five-year contract, assuming it is not terminated, Roman said. The district would pay about $5,700 per student, or about $1,000 less than the current district average, he said.

Opponents of the plan say Edison does not have a proven track record and that the plan will only help a handful of students. Supporters say the program is needed to bring about academic improvement that the district is not currently achieving.

No matter how you look at it, the story is impressive. It is also impressive that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen invested $30M in Edison Schools (for 5.8% equity) and Donald Fisher, founder of the Gap,  gave California public schools $25M to be used soley for Edison Schools. I'm not very enamoured of Fisher's track record on the environment, but he appears to be right on on this subject.

Edison Schools are made possible in California though the work of Reed Hastings who paved the way for charter schools. In 1997, he sold his company at the age of thirtysomething for $750 million and ran an initiative campaign in 1998 to expand and liberalize California's charter school program. This forced the California Teachers Association, which fiercely resisted charter schools, to agree to a bill that accomplished much of what the initiative would have done.

Edison Schools become charter schools, which are financed by public tax dollars but are free from most of the rules and bureaucracy that govern public schools. An article from the San Francisco Examiner paints an encouraging picture for Edison Schools, as does an article from the Wichita Business Journal.

Hastings, along with John Doerr, Brook Byers, Marc Andreessen, and others run the New Schools Fund which helps provide funding to innovative charter schools and for programs such as Success for All, a well-known program created by Robert Slavin and Nancy Madden of Johns Hopkins University that already operates in some 1,100 schools (including Edison Schools). As Doerr describes it, ''For 90 minutes every day they turn the whole school upside-down, grouping kids by ability, not grade, and focus on the most important goal: reading."

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Some of our causes
Reforming politics
Supporting the CTBT
How we plan to clean up the air in California
Reforming public education
Hair loss research
Privatizing government