MAKING THE GRADE: Public schools are a partnership we need to protect

By Daily News • Last Updated 1:57 pm on Thursday, January 30, 2014

Making the Grade | Janet Ralph

I have now been writing this column at the invitation of The Daily News for about a year. It has been a challenge, a privilege and a pleasure. The greatest gift my parents gave to me was the joy of learning and a passion for education. Today I am concerned that public education, one of the greatest accomplishments in our country, is under attack. There are those who disagree with me and believe that it should be replaced by a system run by the private sector, usually with a goal of making money on the enterprise.

Recently I received a publication from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy regarding the Highland Park school district being converted to a system of charter schools in 2012. They note that “Highland Park; charter conversion is one of the first of its kind in the state and even the nation.”

In conclusion, the publication states that the Highland Park program, known as HRPA “has had a promising first year. Officials and teachers have remained resilient, despite challenges. As the charter district continues operation, policy makers should watch carefully. If the charter conversion works in Highland Park, it could be a promising solution for other failing districts.”

No one wants our school districts to be successful more than I. No one wants all students to learn and all districts to be well managed more than I. But I am concerned that too many solutions are being brought to the table without a complete understanding of education and with little or no input from educators. The issue is far too complex to be treated this way.

Listen to the frustration of one teacher who asked not to be identified. This quote comes from a column by Thomas Friedman.

The teacher had been called to the principal’s office because about 10 of her 120 students had received Ds or Fs. This is what she reported.

“Eventually, the meeting came down to two quotes that I will forever remember as the defining slogans for public education: ‘They are not allowed to fail.’ ‘If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.’ What am I not doing for them? I suppose I was not giving them the answers. I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them. I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time. I was not excusing their lack of discipline. … Teachers are held to impossible standards, and students are accountable for hardly any part of their own education and are incapable of failing.”

Elsewhere in the article Friedman cites a quote from Amanda Ripley’s new book “The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got That Way” that was used by Arnie Duncan in a speech — “Amanda points a finger at you and me, as parents — not because we aren’t involved in school, but because too often, we are involved in the wrong way. Parents, she says, are happy to show up at sports events, video camera in hand, and they’ll come to school to protest a bad grade. But she writes, and I quote: ‘Parents did not tend to show up at schools demanding that their kids be assigned more challenging reading or that their kindergartners learn math while they still loved numbers.’ … To really help our kids, we have to do so much more as parents. We have to change expectations about how hard kids should work. And we have to work with teachers and leaders to create schools that demand more from our kids.”

I do not share this to bash parents or to blame students.  In fact, I prefer not to criticize anyone. I just want to get us all on the same page pulling together. Trying to find scapegoats is a waste of time. Education is a partnership. Until all the partners are fully engaged, we will not see the success we desire.

I am going to leave you with this thought today, but you can be assured that you will be hearing more about the issue of education reform in future columns because I am persuaded that citizens need to better understand the issues in order to communicate with policy makers. This is not a simple issue and education cannot be reduced to trite slogans. The education of our young people will have a huge effect on what the future of our country looks like. We cannot afford to get the solutions to current issues wrong.

Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.

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