An open letter on education reform to Ben Cannon

By Lenny Dee of Portland, Oregon. Lenny is the co-founder of Onward Oregon. Previously, he contributed The climate crisis deserves a response equal to the challenge

Dear Ben -

I was pleased to hear of your appointment as the Governor's Education Adviser. Education reform can be a never ending quest that will require all of the skill, integrity and passion you'll bring to the task. In 1968 and 1969 I had my own brush with education reform and even though it was over four decades ago I believe there were some lessons learned that still have relevance today.

In an attempt to change an ossified New York City Public School System the Ford Foundation initiated a pilot community control school project in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Since student achievement was at abysmal levels, yet only 6 teachers had been fired for incompetence since 1945, the pilot mandated that the community control the hiring and firing of teachers. This didn't sit too well with the teachers union and 55,000 of the 60,000 New York City teachers went on strike to end community control.

As a first year teacher I joined with the African-American teachers and neighborhood parents in opening and running an elementary school. It remains to this day the most rewarding work experience of my life. Every morning I hopped out of bed looking forward to day of teaching and learning from my colleagues. Most importantly I saw the community intimately involved in the running of the school. If there were any behavioral problems that child was sent home with a neighbor who explained the importance of education to that students future. Rest assured attitude changes were quickly seen. In a school that had only seen two students reading on a grade level, accelerated learning became the norm. Unfortunately once the strike ended so did community engagement and the school returned to a sad status quo.

Oregon school reform is a very different enigma than the hard streets of New York City but the problems are no less daunting. We all have friends working valiantly in the public school system to provide the best possible education for our children. Most likely we know someone working equally hard in one of the excellent like Schools Uniting Neighborhoods, to strengthen families with children. Despite their best efforts over 40% fail to graduate in four years and nearly a third drop out altogether. Given that in a 21st century economy a high school education is an essential stepping stone, it’s clear that many of our families have little confidence that our education system will adequately prepare their children for the future.

There has been much written about the increased stratification of our economy, where the richest 1% earn in a year as much as the bottom 60%. This inequality is also having an effect on the perceived value of education. When three quarters of the job growth pay less than $15 an hour, we get an endless carousel of bad jobs at unsustainable wages that often becomes the fuel for highly toxic social and family problems.

Ben, as talented as you are, fixing our malignant economy isn't your job, rather it awaits a social movement yet to be born. But somewhere in Oregon there is a hard luck community that you could inspire, as that tough New York City one was forty years ago, by true community control of their schools. Not as critics and consumers but as co-creators, not looking at the deficiencies they may have, but rather finding the common possibilities through the gifts they bring.

Comments

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    News Flash: The social movement that you refer to as "yet to be born" was born a few months ago and is named "Occupy".

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    Oregon is not going to solve their education problems until they return to schools in small towns and poorer neighborhoods which focus on children's education. Right now we are focused so much on testing in these communities that the education has truly become very weak. And the Governor's new education committee (The Oregon Education Investment Board)doesn't seem to understand the problems. They are leaning toward more accountability, meaning more testing just of a different type, more state control (in what they call education compacts, which Ron Saxton slipped up last meeting and called education contracts), and an embrace of the failed reform movement (symbolized by the work of Chalkboard and Stand for Children).

    What all these types of supposed "reforms" do is use up the time schools need in which to focus on children. Teachers have a finite amount of time and if it is spent on testing and accountability then there is little left over to spend on children which is where real education takes place.

    People complain about education based on the idea that it doesn't work, but forget it used to work. The U.S. had the best education in the world. When we moved to the massive testing and standardization of the last several years then it has sky rocketed downhill.

    What we need is a return to the old child-centered education with comprehensive, relevant, and vibrant curriculums. This should then be coupled with the social supports of the new wrap-around ideas.

    Combine both of these with an emphasis on fixing what is happening in each individual school and you have a pretty good chance to fix the education where it is broken. Remember it is not broken in our more affluent schools which don't have to worry about the testing; they are still some of the best in the world.

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