^ we first suggested it, now others are joining us : John McDonough as Boston’s new school superintendent

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Note : what you are about to read is my re-write of a column that I posted to Here and Sphere a few days ago. This is why I’m doing it:

1. In the days since I first wrote, the Boston Globe published a full page editorial addressing the complexity of school reforms now taking shape as state legislation; and Globe columnist Larry Harmon added his opinion that current Boston interim superintendent John McDonough should be given the permanent position. (Two months ago, I posted the same opinion. I was glad to see others taking up my suggestion.)

2.The Globe editorial arose in response to a strong push by public schools advocates that the state’s current limit on charter school numbers not be lifted. As I wrote in my original article,

“It pains me to read news recently that the chief reason why Massachusetts got busy creating charter schools was that 250,000,000 Federal dollars were at stake. I had thought that the creation of charters — schools privately run but publicly funded — was a matter of policy, not purchase. But now we read that bills in the legislature to expand the number of charter schools allowed is stalling, not because the policy has changed but because the Federal dollars aren’t there any more.”

Charter schools cannot be seen as replacing standard public schools. They were never intended as such and aren’t used as such now. Teachers unions and their allies want to push the notion of replacement because they somehow feel that education reform threatens their jobs. Their fears have some basis. In many states there’s been much legislation cutting back on public employees’ bargaining rights; and some corporate interests, backed by right-wing think tanks, want to use charter schools as a wedge to eliminate public, taxpayer-funded schools for all children. That agenda has some presence even in Massachusetts. Some business interests want aggressively to control the education of their potential future employees and are determined to get as complete control of the process, from K to graduation, as they can — and if not, to move operations elsewhere.

My inclination is to let such corporations go, if they choose to. Massachusetts’s pre eminence in higher education, research, and finance assure that we will always have plenty of enterprises who want to stay here, move here, set up shop here and continue here. This, of course, assumes that our education of all children continues to be the most rigorous and productive in the nation. To that end, I suggest the following :

1. charter schools should be encouraged and their numbers increased on a one or two at a time basis, by application to the State Commissioner of Education. Funding for charters must come from a combination of user fees, local aid, and taxes assessed state-wide for the purpose.

2. charter schools should continue to act as experimental places, innovating curriculum, teaching method, teacher hires, and student homework loads. Charters might even in some cases be boarding schools ; why not ? Charters cannot become routinized in anything or they cease to be what they were created to do.

3. budgets for standard public schools must be separately assured and planned without thought of what alternative schools may cost. Rivalry for funds cannot be permitted.

4. what succeeds at charter schools — the so called “best practices” test — should be applied in standard schools where and as feasible, and no standard school should see its routines written in stone, ever. Teachers in unions cannot be permitted to cling to work rules — including short school days — that impede pedagogic improvement. In this regard, John McDonough has shown the way by imposing a teacher recycling system that has already produced pedagogic improvement in the schools where he has put it in place.

5. School principals must be free to choose every member of their teaching staff — and of their school support staff too.

6. all schools must educate for two goals : employment and citizenship. The reasonable needs of reasonable employers must be met; the employers want capable hires, and the children want solid employment. Citizenship is the role that children will play as adults in community; to that end, schools must teach cooperative study and play, emotional education, social knowledge — including the role and risks in sex play — and basic civics including the role and process of democratic politics and government.

7. Testing is the only way that we can find out where education is or isn’t succeeding and how well or not. Tests should be semi-annual — no more frequent. Tests should include essay writing, reading comprehension, spelling, mastery of concepts both spacial and philosophical; mathematics and computation; American and world history; basic sciences; civics; and social knowledge including manners and dealing with emotions.

8. Tests need not be given as rigidly as the MCAS. Each school course can conduct its own course tests which can then be fed into the MCAS process and added into the total test score.

9. Teachers should be given the lead role in compiling such tests.

10. As many schools as possible — charter schools too — should be dual-language. Students whose first language is not English need it, and students whose first language IS English need to learn another language. It’s vital if we are to encourage cultural diversity and free American kids from cultural isolation.

So there you have it. What follows is the rest of my original article, slightly revised:

Mayor Walsh has added 39.6 million dollars to this year’s Boston Public Schools budget. Most of it will go to fund teachers’ pay raises. There will some millions left over. So, what does the phrase “taking resources away” mean now ? Probably just that the increased dollars won’t be coming from Washington. they’ll be raised locally. And that means that some other local aid funded need will have to make do with less.

Such is indeed the talk. In the Governor election going on in Massachusetts right now, all the talk is of local aid : increasing it; releasing 100 million dollars of it already collected but held; increasing it again. Candidates running for the State legislature or Senate all talk of local aid needs. The Department of Children & Families is in crisis; State transportation repairs and service upgrades cry out for attention; drivers’ licences for undocumented immigrants must be done. All these get mentioned ; but the big talk is, local aid, local aid, more local aid. You hear it whether the speaker is a Democrat or a Republican. Local aid now; the other matters can wait.

Charter schools were meant to be an alternative to standard public schools, not simply public schools with a new name. If charter schools do not do the job they were intended to do — significantly improve student achievement — they shouldn’t be funded, whether the Federal money is at hand or not. And if charter schools do do what they were intended as, they should be funded regardless of money from Washington.

Legislation to increase the number of charters being stalled now, those that do exist are kind of on their own, to prove their worth. Charter parents will have to speak out; to organize. Democrats for Education Reform, the local chapter of a nationwide group deployed to power up the alternative schools constituency, will have to get talking.

Did I mention curricula ? The battle is raging already to reject the national education establishment’s “common core” as being too difficult for children to master and too narrowly tested. Myself, having read through the “common core proposal, I find it a trope, a slice of common sense. Every society with schools at all has had a common core curriculum; it’s how that society prepares its children for the jobs it offers. this was as true of Rome in year 300 A.D. as of western Europe in year 1090 A.D. and 1500 A.D., and it was the basis of the New England School Law of 1634. Children must learn a common basic curriculum in order to do the jobs that will need to hire them; and to be good citizens. Is it difficult ? It always was. Life, too, is difficult. Tears come to one’s eyes as well as joy.

Kids can manage. They really can.

As for teacher pay and standard school budgets, in Boston these look paid for — this year. After that, a lot depends on who the next School Superintendent will be. The “search committee” is already on it, but for me, the best choice is John McDonough, the current “interim superintendent,’ who says he doesn’t want to be considered for the permanent job : but whom all sides respect and who can therefore best steer “standard Boston public schools,” troubled schools as well, into the next phase, alongside charters as they are and all manner of experimental school set-ups that innovators may successfully propose — as they surely will, and should.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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