By Victor Menaldo
What is the essence of good teaching and good learning? What are the instructional methods and materials demanded by a high-quality education? Who should control what children learn and how they learn it? Who is to judge if a child’s learning experience has been successful and by what measure? What is the purpose of education?
For any society these timeless questions about education, entertained by great thinkers since the dawn of Western Civilization, are highly contentious. Public disputes shadow educational issues because questions about education are allusions to the type of knowledge that is socially valued and the social function performed by that knowledge. Thus, at the end of the day, the people who control the content of education shape our children’s minds, spirits and bodies. In essence, those who control education control the future.
Broadly, questions about education summon the ends of social life, because these ends dictate what is to be learned, how it is to be learned and what the pace and price of learning shall be. Specifically, in America education molds citizens, by shaping their ability to make democratic decisions. And, for better or worse, education churns out the nation’s future workforce. Consequently, it is not so surprising that in America, because of the high stakes involved, education is always highly politicized and often times divisive.
Local school boards are the slaughter bench of children’s education in America. In San Diego, the San Diego Unified School Board controls what is taught and how it is learned. And, with a 3-2 majority locked in on the board, Alan Bersin and his so-called Blueprint for Student Success has tallied $250 million worth of novel answers to the perennial question about “what should be taught and how should it be taught.” For his part, Jeff Lee has ideas that starkly diverge from Bersin’s about the current state of education in San Diego Unified and about what the future course of education in the district should be. And his thoughts should really matter to the Latino community, because in the current educational environment bilingual aides have been dismissed in droves and low-performing students, a majority of which are Latino, have been tracked into three-hour literacy and math blocks.
Lee is running in a citywide election for the San Diego School District B Seat, which includes Allied Gardens, Del Cerro, Mira Mesa, Miramar Ranch North, Murphy Canyon, San Carlos, San Diego State College area, Scripps Ranch, and Tierrasanta. He is attempting to succeed Sue Braun, who is retiring. During her tenure she has been instrumental in “rubberstamping” superintendent Alan Bersin’s educational regime, allying herself with fellow Blueprint supporters Trustees Ed Lopez and Ron Ottinger to give Bersin a majority 3-2 vote on education policy. In a way, Lee’s election bid is an assault on the Blueprint and Bersin’s dictatorial approach, in an election that many envision as a referendum of Bersin and his Blueprint. However, lest Lee’s impassioned opposition to the Blueprint confuse Lee for someone who is opposed to improving student success, he is actually a passionate reformer who is intent on improving education. Lee sees this occurring through the implementation of rigorous standards in core subjects, under auspices of the California State Academic Content Standards reform.
Lee seriously laments that the Blueprint has diverted time and money previously dedicated to art, history and music. He is running against Catherine Nakamura, who by and large supports the Blueprint and feels that the school board’s role is to provide oversight but not meddle in every aspect of education Conversely, for Lee, the school board should be a proactive agent that sets policy and direction. Likewise, Lee believes that board members should be representatives of the district they serve.
Alan Bersin’s much-maligned Blueprint for Success has a simple, seemingly incontrovertible answer to the primordial question about what constitutes a good education: students should read, read and read some more. On the surface, this seems like a great idea. After all, who opposes reading? And who would deny that reading is the foundation of critical thinking skills? However, even Lee’s pro-Blueprint opponent, Ms. Nakamura, admits that the implementation of the Blueprint in the San Diego Unified School District so far has left a bad taste in teachers’ mouths.
Critics of the Blueprint claim that teachers who are primarily blamed when students under-perform in the classroom, yet rarely praised when students excel have been forced to implement a monolithic program that leaves little room for discretion. Teachers have not, at least not since the Blueprint was introduced formally 2 years ago, been requested to share feedback. In addition, morale in the district has flagged because many teachers and principals were immediately fired when Bersin came on the scene. Many principals have since retired or been fired and some teachers have relocated, while the ones that stuck around are chastised if they deviate from the blue-print’s dictatorial educational prescriptions.
“Peer coaches” are hired to enforce Bersin’s Blueprint regime with paternalistic zeal, constantly monitoring teachers’ performance. These outside consultants who are considered by many as pseudo-educational experts with half-baked ideas about education reform exhort San Diego teachers to use only Blueprint- jargon. Likewise, Blueprint doctrinaires have been accused of blindly pushing Blueprint curriculum and its unorthodox academic timetable on all teachers, no matter their students’ unique needs.
San Diego’s 182 public schools are composed of 140,000 kids. District school kids are 40 percent Latino. One-third of all students are in the midst of learning not only how to read, but how to speak and read in English. Sixty-two percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals and out of those who qualify, 82 percent are Latino which means that there are a lot of poor Latino students. The four-year high school dropout rate stands at 13.8 percent, 2.8 percent higher than the state’s. And in the 2000-01 school year, 51 percent of all dropouts were Latino. Out of those students who took the High School Exit Exam - Math Portion, 1/3 of these students were Latino and only 24 percent of Latino students passed. Similarly, out of the students who took the High School Exit Exam - English Portion, 1/3 were Latino and only 51 percent of Latino students passed. And out of the few who graduate, most fail to take the required courses for college study.
Ed Lopez, the sole Latino on the school board, has been steadfast in his support for the Blueprint. Lopez has maintained that the education reforms that he has led have focused on improving achievement for all students and especially students of color. He has likened efforts to stifle the Blueprint to efforts to oppose student achievement and close the achievement gap for Latino and African American students.
However, at the end of the day, it is hard to ignore the fact that the “Blueprint” has gutted a once-comprehensive public education system, which included social studies, science, art, music, physical education and vocational education. And, in all honesty, Blueprint reforms have not really narrowed the achievement gap between poor children of color and their white fellows. Some estimates predict that it will be 40 years before Anglos and Latinos are on equal footing. Recent reading test scores at the middle and high school level show that the Blueprint has not made a dent on test-failure, despite being structured around literacy-improvement.
Jeff Lee believes that the path to eliminating the achievement gap starts with having high academic standards and good academic programs, in every classroom, in all core subjects (math, reading & writing, science and history) in every grade level. He also believes that high learning goals must be supported by holding people accountable for results, flexibility at the school to help students meet those goals, parent involvement and teaching methods that work. A well rounded education includes music, art, foreign languages and physical education.
He stresses fiscal prudence: effective educational strategies should be sustainable cost-effective ones also. Lee has been highly critical of what he has called “wasteful approach to planning professional development”, in which there is no distinction in training between successful teachers and those that can benefit from further fundamental training.
Lee vows to assess each school’s strengths and weaknesses on a school by school basis, according to each school’s needs. He extends his pragmatic approach to each classroom, preferring to let teachers use methods that they are good with and that have proven to be effective.
Lee believes that if we want our students to have the best teachers, we must make our San Diego public school system a place where the best teachers want to teach and stay. Latinos and the community at large must decide if these are the values that should frame questions about what should be taught in San Diego’s classrooms and how this knowledge will be implemented.
(Victor Menaldo is a graduate student at Claremont Graduate University studying for his Masters Degree in Political Economy)