Change doesn’t come easily to any organization. Those of us who manage companies know that all too well. Hardest of all is change forced from the outside.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that our public school leaders struggle to make badly needed changes. A blizzard of statistics tells us California schools lag behind most states in the nation on measures of academic performance.
Yet many still refuse to heed the views of those who challenge conventional educational wisdom. I believe those are exactly the voices we need to hear if we are to serve the needs of our students.
Thankfully, there is an increasing number of groups and individuals right here in our region challenging the status quo. Take, for example, Students First, based in Sacramento and led by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.
Students First recently graded every state on laws and policies that promote student-centered schools. California and ten other states received a failing grade.
One of the most powerful critiques from Rhee and her team is aimed at California’s seniority-based system for layoffs. In tough times, the quality of the teacher means nothing, only the length of his or her tenure.
Of course, establishing quality is the sticking point. To do so would require a comprehensive teacher evaluation system, which our political and educational leaders have thus far rejected.
That rejection has cost us dearly. California recently lost its appeal for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind program, likely losing millions of federal school dollars as well. The reason? The state failed to respond directly to some of the federal government’s waiver requirements, most notably using student achievement scores to evaluate teachers and principals.
The state cited budget constraints as the reason for rejecting a new evaluation system, but at least as important were objections from politically powerful teachers’ unions. We need organizations like Students First to continue to push against such powerful entrenched interests.
Another force for change in our region, this at the classroom level, is Teach for America, which over many years has recruited, trained and placed more than 20,000 recent college graduates in high-needs schools. These individuals have strong academic records and leadership capabilities and commit at least two years to teaching.
TFA has generated much valuable research on how to improve teacher training and selection but has also garnered hostility from some parts of the education establishment. Two years ago, Sacramento City Unified turned down TFA help when the teacher’s union protested; that union continues to oppose any TFA partnerships.
But last year, TFA opened a regional office in Sacramento and placed its first teachers in the Natomas Unified School District and St. Hope Public Schools. Hopefully, more districts will follow their lead.
There are other nonprofits similarly committed to supporting and changing our public schools: City Year, for example, this year brought teams of young adults to work as tutors, mentors and role models in the Sacramento City Unified School District.
All of these organizations bring much-needed support, ideas and political activism that can help our beleaguered schools.
Change is never easy, but there are times when we have no choice other than to change. Our failure to act has already seriously damaged many children’s educational opportunities. Now is the time for all of us to hear, learn from and support these critical agents of change.
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For more than 40 years, Brice Harris has sat front row in the nation’s community college system. First as a part-time faculty member at a small campus in Kansas City, later as president of Fresno City College and since 1996 as chancellor of Los Rios Community College District. He has spent his career working within multi-college systems. This month, he retires.