Monday, January 24, 2011

Approaches to consider for a better educational system

I was disappointed by a recent interview Toledo School Board President Bob Vasquez did on the radio, because I was hoping to hear 'out-of-the-box' thinking from the committee tasked with "transformational change" of our schools.

As I wrote at the time:

"... if the school board members and the transformational change committee are not even looking at what other school districts are doing to actually transform,... I fear we will be right back where we started: declining performance of our students and increasing deficits."

Since our Board of Education doesn't seem to be seeking out the various ideas and approaches other school systems are trying, I thought I'd begin highlighting some of them to add to the discussion. If you like these ideas, I encourage you to share them with your friends and neighbors, fellow parents and elected officials - especially school board members.

I want to start with some information a blogger friend sent me about what's going on in Colorado.

Ben DeGrow is a Colorado-based public policy analyst with a focus on education labor issues at the Independence Institute. He sent me a link to the Douglas County School District's website detailing their school choice efforts. Yes, you read that correctly. This is a public school system looking at how they can enhance school choices for their students.

"The Douglas County School District (DCSD) is the third largest school district in Colorado, with nearly 60,000 students. It is a high performing school district that is fortunate to have quality teachers and a diverse curriculum. DCSD prides itself in innovative programs designed to meet the educational desires and needs of students, parents and the community. In recent years, DCSD has embraced school choice by offering a wide variety of neighborhood school programs, option schools, charter schools and on-line learning. With this history in mind, the DCSD Board of Education commissioned a School Choice Task Force (Task Force) in the summer of 2010 to explore ways to meet the increasing demand for choice in public education. The Task Force is made up of parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders.

The appeal of school choice centers around a belief that greater choice meets the desires of parents, and improves the quality of education by fostering innovation and competition. Students have different learning needs and styles and benefit from a variety of choices in schools and in curriculum.

The objective of the Task Force is to initiate the process of building a blueprint for a school district that desires to offer the greatest amount of school choice in Colorado. This will include not only more choices among neighborhood schools, charter schools, and magnet schools, but also partnerships with private schools."

Could you imagine such a discussion and task force in Toledo? Consider the purpose of the task force: " explore ways to meet the increasing demand for choice in public education." Would such a purpose even be uttered in Toledo???

Of course, when the school board held a meeting for public comment on the recommendations from the task force, the voucher proposal generated the most discussion. But, as one task force member said, “It’s not about private versus public, it’s really about more choice, and I see that great for kids, great for parents, and great for the district.”

Wow - what an approach! And it caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal which wrote:

"The proposals on the table in Douglas County constitute a bold step toward outsourcing a segment of public education, and also raise questions about whether the district can afford to lose any public funds to private educators.

Already hit hard by state cutbacks, the local board has cut $90 million from the budget over three years, leaving some principals pleading for family donations to buy math workbooks and copy paper.

"This is novel and interesting—and bound to be controversial," said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative, educational think tank in Washington, D.C."
"These days, you can build a custom computer. You can get a custom latte at Starbucks," said board member Meghann Silverthorn. "Parents expect the same out of their educational system."

Yes, bold, novel and controversial. But at least this school system is having the discussion - and they're focused on the correct thing: how to make the school system better for the students, by giving students a choice as to what suits them best.

Some may say the DCSD is not a good comparison for TPS because they have a much smaller population and higher income than we do, and they have better test scores. But just like school systems around the country, they have budget problems and are examining all kinds of options that would give their students the best education - even when those options are controversial.

This is what 'transformational change' is all about - and we should be willing to do the same if we want to ensure a good education for all our children.

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