UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Board candidates have much to learn

Discussing public education with people reveals an odd dichotomy – a majority of Americans have a negative view of education while at the same time viewing their own schools and personal education positively. That’s not surprising in a society which has nothing but contempt for politicians and politics in general while simultaneously re-electing 92% of political incumbents. Americans often criticize every politician and school in the country … except their own.

As ballots were delivered last week, and Coloradans considered local races and statewide initiatives, the school board elections in the south Denver metro area have been drawing attention. Two local school board candidates have created a website to explain their vision for how they would “fix schools” in their district. For them, it’s pretty easy – just identify the good teachers and have the “not-as-good” teachers simply copy their lesson plans and mimic their behavior after watching a video of the good teacher in action. 

There are two problems with this seemingly logical solution – one, it begs the question by suggesting teachers don’t already practice collaboration and modeling as part of their professional development; and two, it’s already been proven not to work. Back in 2012, the Gates Foundation had a similar idea called the Measures of Effective Teaching. Gates spent $600 million trying to identify, quantify, and replicate what it means to be a good teacher. 

After several years of study, the Rand Corporation concluded the experiment simply made no difference. That makes sense when looked at practically. For example, we’ve all watched master chefs work culinary magic on the Food Network yet failed to replicate those dinners ourselves. Most of us understand that watching a master do something successfully and even following the exact recipe for the dish does not always work out so well in our home kitchens.

Comparing schools and districts can also be misleading, though some candidates like to do that in their campaigns. Case in point: the stark contrast in test scores at two middle schools in the Cherry Creek District – The Challenge School and Prairie Middle School. Challenge, for voters who are unaware, is a magnet school for gifted and academically advanced students. It’s not a neighborhood school any student can attend, but instead a “magnet” which draws top students from around the district. Students must apply and are tested for advanced abilities prior to admission. By contrast, Prairie is a neighborhood school that serves any student in its boundaries.

Additionally, it’s worth noting the poverty rate for Challenge is 13% whereas the poverty rate at Prairie is 71%. Poverty is a significant consideration in judging schools for one simple reason – the most significant and accurate metric for predicting academic success is the socioeconomic status of the parents. Wealthier students simply perform better in school than students living in poverty. There are myriad reasons for the disparity, and while it doesn’t suggest poor students cannot be academically successful, it does warrant close consideration. 

All school board members and candidates are rightfully concerned about test scores. That said, there’s never been a time all students achieve at or above grade level. In 2002, Congress and President Bush passed an education reform bill with a goal that 100% of students would be proficient by 2014. Clearly, that didn’t happen, for it’s only in fiction like Garrison Keillor’s famous town of Lake Wobegon that “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” And regarding literacy scores, it’s worth remembering that Rudolph Flesch published “Why Johnny Can’t Read” in America way back in 1955. 

We should admire anyone willing to run for public office in hopes of improving their communities. However, we should also expect all candidates and elected officials to have deep familiarity with the schools they would represent. I urge all candidates for local school boards to begin by becoming actively involved in their schools. For example, they should spend time attending accountability meetings at the school and district level, as well as board meetings and the PTCO.

In fact, I would like to see school board members actually work in schools. I believe it would be enlightening if school board members were expected to have a substitute teacher license and work in the schools of their community at least one day a month. As one school board candidate acknowledged during a recent public forum, “I’m still learning a lot about the district.” Spending actual time in schools is a good place to start. 

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com