My anger grew this past weekend as I watched teachers demonstrate and heard story upon story of obscene class sizes, schools without counselors and librarians, and young men and women being laid off because they were foolish enough to follow their passion to teach our children.
Anger is a funny thing, though. It can be the dark side of depression and hopelessness, or it can be the bud of strategy. While now is clearly the worst of times, it is also the very best time to think, plan, scheme, and politick about the future of public education. Three aspects of the current condition make it so:
First, the mind and psyche need to flee the darkness. At historic times of darkness, we seek the light, because doing so gives us hope. The 37th Congress, meeting in the depths of the Civil War, passed the Morrill Act, which underwrote public colleges and universities across the country; the Homestead Act, which opened land west of the Mississippi to settlement; and the Pacific Railroad Act, which provided funds to link the coasts.
Second, bad times offer the opportunity to build differently. When times are flush, the public instinct is to do more of the same rather than to design something new. During California’s last big period of flush budgets, it poured billions into unsustainable class size reductions. Those funds may have temporarily helped a cohort of students—some of the same students that are now being frozen out of places at the state’s college and university system because of cutbacks—but they didn’t fundamentally change or challenge century-old practices. (The prospect of money again “coming in buckets” has been forecast by analyst Rob Manwaring.)
Third, thinking anew is the first stage of political action. Public education, particularly in the cities, has become a bad brand, something that no one wants to buy. Only with a better idea, and a clear notion of how to move toward it, will a viable political coalition be possible. Taxpayers in general, and business interests in particular, need to believe that education is worthy of investment. Labor in general, and the California Teachers Association in particular, needs to believe that better jobs for teachers can be had by moving forward
It is imperative to move forward. In an earlier post in this series, I described Learning 2.0, the next full-scale version of public education, and in subsequent posts I will describe some of its elements in more detail. I was brought to think anew about public education by a realization that our current system, Learning 1.0, is unsustainable.
The current system is unsustainable
The current situation is surely bad. But those of us who have studied urban districts, in particular, know that it has been bad for a very long time. Los Angeles Unified has bumped from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis since 1969. Jeffery Mirel’s history of Detroit locates the seeds of decay as early as the 1940s.
How can this be? California, like other states, has put a lot more money into its education system over the last 40 years, and those dour economists who crunch the numbers look up from their databases and accuse educators of simply being “rent seekers,” economic-speak for these-people-are-out-for-helping-themselves.
But if one probes inside the gross numbers, one finds the reason that the current system is vulnerable. Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Paul Hill and Marguerite Roza show that the number of core classroom teachers per 1,000 students in 1999 was only slightly higher than it was in 1960. However, “other teachers,” which includes those in special education, increased from fewer than 2 to 37 per 1,000 students, and “other instructional staff,” which includes classroom aides, increased from 2 to more than 20. Overall, the growth of staffing in public elementary and secondary classrooms increased from around 40 positions to more than 100. Richard Rothstein has documented a similar change in school staffing patterns using data from district personnel records.
Much of the systemic cost increase is found in categorical programs, each with its own funding stream, and each with its own rules, enforcers, and expenses. A special education student, for example, is about twice as expensive as the norm. Current policy thinking, including Gov. Jerry Brown’s education platform, leans toward deregulation of categoricals, giving districts more control over how they spend their money.
Deregulation won’t do it. It will help, but the largest and most expensive of the categorical programs are guarded by both interest groups and civil rights law that trumps ordinary statutes and regulations. At best, deregulation will have a marginal effect. And even after deregulation, public education will still be saddled with the same system for producing learning that was designed in the early 20th Century. Our goal then was to someday graduate as many as 15 percent of our students from high school.
That’s why we need redesign.
Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. Readers can follow his writing at http://charlestkerchner.com/