Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Torlakson’s Dream: Make California Schools Less Bad

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson is calling for a reform of California's education system. What’s new? Everyone and their mother are calling for reform. Most of them involve some combination of privatization and union busting, mixed in with a little high stakes testing and zero tolerance. Torlakson’s plan, refreshingly, involves no teacher or child bashing and even a few exciting and desirable goals. However, it is also naïve and overly optimistic.

The Union City Patch reported that Torlakson presented his plan last week to representatives of the Bay Area’s education, government and business sectors at California State University East Bay. At the meeting, Torlakson referred to the need to build back the $18 billion that has been cut from K-12 education of the past three years and called for a series of new initiatives like "No Child Left Offline." (California currently ranks 48th in the nation in using technology in schools.) He is also promoting an initiative called Team California for Healthy Kids, to promote health and fitness. There is also the Green Schools Initiative to promote more environmental education in the schools.

Let’s start with the fitness program, which is probably the easiest and cheapest to initiate. First one should ask why there is a shortage of fitness activities in California’s schools in the first place. Perhaps the most important reason is that NCLB places so much pressure on schools to improve their test scores that many have slashed or eliminated physical education in order to make room for more test prep. Budget cuts further hamper PE and athletics by impoverishing schools to the point that they can no longer afford to purchase or repair athletic equipment. The simplest solution is to abolish NCLB and mandate at least 45 minutes of physical activity per day for all students, through PE classes, athletics and dance. Torlakson, however, has made no overtures toward ignoring or resisting NCLB, nor has he proposed any way to restore PE and athletics where they have been cut.

Promoting environmental education is a commendable and necessary endeavor. After all, if we do not drastically roll back our carbon production, we will soon face dramatic food and water shortages, flooding, increases in infectious diseases, and general declines in our quality of life. However, achieving the necessary change in consciousness and behavior is much more complex than simply increasing the amount of environmental education delivered in the schools. Human behavior is influenced by emotion and habit, as much as (or more than) it is by evidence and rational thought. For example, knowledge that cars contribute to climate change will not make people stop driving unless public transit becomes cheaper, more accessible and more convenient. Nevertheless, environmental education could certainly help to improve students’ understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change and perhaps even influence some to take action. It also helps promote critical thinking and a better understanding of numerous other social problems, such as why the U.S.-Mexican border wall may contribute to the decimation of the jaguar, or why factory farming increases the risk of food borne disease.

In order to improve environmental education we need to get much better trained teachers in the classrooms. There are too many people teaching science who lack the practical laboratory experience to really teach the scientific process well, especially in the K-5 grades. Many teachers even at the secondary level could use professional development in the environmental sciences, especially to help develop hands-on, inquiry-based investigations. Schools will need an extraordinary influx of funding for equipment, too. At my school, my entire department of seven science teachers has an annual budget of $1,000, which is barely enough for office supplies and not even close to enough to repair our broken spectrometers and microscopes, let alone purchase new ones. Other useful equipment for an environmental program might include terrariums, lighting for plants, and biotechnology equipment like micropipettes, Petri plates, incubators and media. A quality environmental science program also requires field work at local ponds, sloughs, parks or landfills, which requires funding for transportation, supervision and substitute teachers.

Likewise, an improvement in technological education and tools is sorely needed, but cost prohibitive under existing conditions. Considering the growing emphasis on biotechnology in the economy and the growing reliance on biotechnological methods and equipment in all the life sciences, secondary schools throughout the state should be offering biotechnology courses or units within classes. However, the equipment necessary to start up the most basic biotechnology program costs tens of thousands of dollars (e.g., electrophoresis and imaging equipment, micropipettes, freezers, incubators, etc). Digital microscopy and probeware are relatively inexpensive, but require laptops to run them. Providing ready access to computers for research, writing, simulations, statistical processing and collaboration requires tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per school to buy computers, build lab space and hire support staff to maintain and repair them.

The only way for Torlakson’s plan to succeed is to significantly increase K-12 funding, something that will only happen with an increase in taxes, especially on the richest Californians who are currently contributing a lower percentage of their incomes to the state budget than the poorest residents. Without an increase in taxes, K-12 education will not only fail to get back the $18 billion lost over the last three years, it will likely see further declines. Torlakson does hope to get private donations to cover some parts of his plan, but this will only provide start up money, at best, as donations seldom cover ongoing expenses. Furthermore, donations and private investment often come with strings attached. A donation of Apple computers may come with a requirement to purchase expensive Apple software and accessories or annual upgrades. Software and technology contracts often tie schools and districts into long term financial obligations that are difficult to terminate even when they have reached the end of their pedagogical usefulness.

Yet even if Torlakson’s dream were to come true and ample school funding were to miraculously appear, it would mostly improve the quality of education for the privileged children who are already engaged in school and who already have the social and academic skills needed to succeed in school. It would not solve the problem of low test scores and graduation rates or end the achievement gap. These problems are primarily the product of the socioeconomic conditions in which our children live. More computers and lab equipment will not erase the effects of years of poverty, hunger, privation and absenteeism. Making the curriculum more exciting and hands-on will not suddenly make students more focused and diligent if they have a long history of failing at school, earning poor grades and giving up whenever challenged. Making learning more fun will not necessarily translate into extracurricular enrichment activities or self-motivated reading and learning during the summer.

Ultimately, if Torlakson’s initiatives translate into better funding for science education, better professional development, more computers and ample supplies, then I hope they succeed. More physical education and sports in the schools would also be great. However, if it means continuing to let the rich get away without paying their share of taxes and selling what’s left of our souls to tech companies and private education profiteers, then count me out.

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