Friday, March 21, 2014

A teacher-dad's thoughts on vouchers

My baby cousin messaged me last week to get my opinion on vouchers. Her college Econ class was discussing its impact on education, and she wanted my teacher thoughts! (Not so much a baby anymore, huh?). I will admit that I've always had a hard time connecting to economics, but from what I know, this is a great topic for a class discussion! Kudos to her Econ professor!

I will admit that my thoughts on the matter may be different than that of most teachers. As a teacher, I work hard to be the best, and expect the best of those that work with me in my school. I believe that I work in the best middle school in our area, and it would be foolish for any parent not to send their kiddo to learn with us. That said, if a parent thinks otherwise, why shouldn't they send their child to the school that is a better fit? Isn't learning about making kids comfortable, and teaching to their interests and strengths? If my classroom, or school isn't making a connection that will help a kiddo learn and grow, I think it is fair that the student leaves to go to the learning environment that is a better fit. I want to have that option for my own kids, and as a person passionate about opportunity for all kids, this just makes sense.

That said, we have to be realistic with what this means. I live in a small community. We are isolated in the center of Alaska, and even though we are the 2nd largest "city" in the state, our educational options are more limited. So, let's say we do vote-in a voucher system and everyone wants to use vouchers to go to our local Catholic school. The trouble there is Monroe is limited in space and resources. So, as demand goes up, and supply/space is limited the value increases. So, now this private school might have to raise tuition further beyond what the voucher covers to balance the demand, thus putting the school back in the same place it was (a school for the more financially secure). This is great for them, because maybe they can expand to take in a larger population of kiddos. But what if then the quality goes down? How will they manage the influx of students and maintain the high quality educational product? These questions apply to all of the private schools in our town.

Or, let's say my school's reputation becomes more widely known, and everyone wants to come to my school. Again, we have limited space, and we can't duplicate the success of individual teachers forcing others to be like us, because it's our unique personalities that make us the strong educators that we are. It's the leadership of our school that gives us the umbrella of comfort to teach our students the way we do. But, when our population increases compared to the other middle schools, won't they have to at least shift what they are doing? Won't their "product" have to improve? Isn't this creating a competitive edge that will start to drive improvement? Or at least shouldn't it?

In my opinion, the problem with education is that there isn't a worry about competition. Students in your neighborhood will go to the local school regardless of the quality. Unless, we throw down piles of cash to go to a private school, but that isn't much of an option for most of the population. Parents can also choose to stress about a charter lottery system to avoid going to their zoned school. In the end, many parents feel stuck. If we throw in a system that drives schools to work in the best possible way for the kids, then we will start seeing a shift in teacher quality, and more importantly education leadership. Principals will become more focused on mentoring teachers to improve the quality of the staff. Districts will have to start listening to what the parents are saying to understand what the community sees as the qualities that make a successful learning environment. If money is being thrown at private schools, then it would force the public education system to figure out why. Is it the lack of required state testing? Is the teacher quality that much better? How is it is better? If the vouchers are being applied to on-line education, how can our district better meet that demand? How can we better our value? Or, do we focus our efforts to be the best education option in another way?

All of these questions drive a concept of increased competition that, in my opinion, would lead to school reform and improvement. Schools would have to focus on what is best for the students from the kis' eyes and more importantly their parents' eyes. It's time to take away the idea that legislators and districts know what's best for all kids, and give that power back to those that truly know best, the parents.

I understand the issue of keeping state and/or federal money away from religious organizations. But this isn't necessarily about religion. This is about educating our youth. And if a community has an excellent school that is private and religion based, how can we say the dollars set aside to educate the kids in that district can't go to that school? We are giving recognition to a school for working at a high level, it just so happens that the school has a religious foundation. If the local public school doesn't like it, then it is up to them to buck up, and provide a better educational quality. A quality centered on students, and not on new standards and the test that supports them.

In the end, I spent over an hour catching up with my 20 year old cousin. Her opinions on education and life were so refreshing. I left our conversation knowing that if she represents even half of her generation, we're going to better off. We have to support opportunity for all kids to grow in learning environments that are best for them and their unique differences, instead of this one size fits all system. We both agreed that a little competition would be good for public schools, so I'm open for giving vouchers the opportunity to create that competitive spirit. And hopefully, help drive us to a better public education system.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Time to Trust the Process

There has been a lot of drama in our Fairbanks school district lately. The most recent bit that has scored media attention (and a social media buzz) is centered on the principal search of one elementary school (story click here, and principal union response click here). Basically, the parents feel that the process is too closed, and the superintendent didn't openly ask for staff and parent input. The district process for an admin search involves a small committee that includes a few teachers and staff from that school, a PTA volunteer or 2, a native association member, and a member of the central district office big wigs (e.g. assistant superintendent). There may be a few other individuals, but that's what I remember from my time as a member on an admin selection committee when my middle school had a long time principal retire.

When she left several years back, I knew that I wanted my voice heard, and thankfully, my co-workers agreed that I would represent their interests well through the process. We all knew the routine going in. This committee would be doing the research, setting up the direction of the process, and basically all of the leg work. However, the superintendent would make the final decision. That was the scary part. We had heard the stories of past superintendents hiring candidates other than the one the selection committee had suggested. We knew that was a possibility, so we took our roles on the committee seriously. This committee represented the interests of every staff member, every student, and every community member, so it was an honor to be given the chance to be that voice. I wasn't going to let anyone down.

Thankfully, we were able to narrow our pool of candidates to 2 very good options. And in the end, our number 1 was hired by the superintendent. We clearly listed the strengths that set our number 1 choice above the number 2, and made sure that no one would have been able to steer in the direction opposite of our suggestion. Our school gave faith to the process, selected individuals that we trusted, and it payed off. To top it off, we didn't have a PTA or a PTO at the time. Parent involvement at the middle school level falls drastically from elementary school. So, I don't remember having a consistent parent voice. But the teachers and staff at our school made it clear what was in the best interest of our students and their parents. Because we know. We're there every day.

I write all of this because the current drama comes from a strong group of parents that feel they are not being heard. They're faith in the system in not present, and they want more control. To me, the issue is a lack of trust in the decision making abilities of the superintendent. That fear that he might swing away from the committee's choice is overtaking them, and they are speaking out. The problem is the superintendent is the boss. He will choose the candidate he wants. But, honestly, we put him in that position. Our Fairbanks community voted in the school board members that selected him to be our "boss," the "decision maker." And if we aren't happy about that, then it's time to change up the school board. I know there are members that have been there for quite awhile and frequently go unopposed in the process. I also know that we have a new head of the school board that is mother of 3 in the district, so maybe that voice is growing. But truly, if parents are that un-happy it's time to make changes at that level.

So, while we are laying off teachers this week, we have this distraction which I'm sure the superintendent appreciates. The focus should be on all of the teachers that have received pink slip notices this week. It is instead, on the hiring process of one prinicpal. Which in the end, the parents already had their voices heard when the school board members were voted in and the superintendent was hired. So, it's time to trust the system that these parents have already shown support of in voting in these school board members, and to also trust those committee members that have been selected to be the voice of the school community. Regardless, the head of that school is changing. It'll be a new style of leadership, and new could be great. So let's keep it positive, people!