May 5, 2014

Parents needed, not some teachers

Education can’t be fixed without traditional public schools.

The “education reform” movement has been on-going for more than two decades yet has not produced significant improvement in student achievement, especially in inner-city schools.

Now many seem to think the solution is to shift the effort from improving existing public schools to increasing the number of public charter schools.

Such thinking really does little to help communities improve existing public schools.

High-performing public charter schools and high-performing private schools are valuable assets on the diverse landscape of pre- K through 12 education.

But there is insufficient capacity for them to replace traditional public schools in the near term.

Meanwhile, traditional public schools, especially in inner-cities, are struggling and families and communities are suffering.

Before we conclude that to improve student achievement we must replace traditional schools with charter schools, let’s ask a question: Why do public schools fail and high-performing public charter schools with similar demographic populations succeed?

Conventional wisdom is that charter schools succeed because they carefully select, admit and retain only the “best” students.

As many school leaders lament, “They cherry-pick our best students.”

I’ve explored three high-performing public charter organizations in Texas and am convinced that this conventional wisdom is wrong.

To better understand their success, I’ve questioned the leadership of these organizations and received remarkably consistent answers.

Without exception, they attribute their success to (1) significant parental involvement, (2) governance by an apolitical board and (3) exemption from legislation that makes separating ineffective teachers unnecessarily difficult.

Perhaps traditional public schools could adopt the model of successful charter schools.

Parental involvement is essential. Charter schools attract parents who have a demonstrable interest in their child’s education.

Interest in one’s child’s education and involvement in one’s child’s education does not just correlate, it is causative.

Traditional public schools strive to engage parents, but they enter the quest for that involvement too late.

More effective efforts must be found to enlighten prospective parents of the importance of prenatal behavior, infant care and early childhood education.

Such efforts must be community-based; public schools are not involved in this aspect of education.

Good governance is essential to good schools. If schools continually fail, who is responsible?

The only thing preventing a change in the governance structure of a traditional public school district is the elected school board.

However, history reminds us that the elimination of an elected body by that body is highly improbable.

Therefore, change in governance depends on the electorate to demand better educational outcomes and hold the governing body responsible.

Continual failure of a governing body to improve the education outcomes of children should result not only in the expulsion of individual board members but a rethinking of the philosophy of governance.

Legislation enabling the dismissal of ineffective teachers is paramount if the education outcomes we seek are to be realized.

In Texas, this will be difficult because of the power of special interest groups and individual ideologues.

Still, we must face these truths:

• The most important determinant of students’ academic growth is an effective teacher in every classroom;
• The quality of life in communities correlates with the level of education of its residents;
• The quality of life of each individual depends in large measure on his/her level of education;
• Our very form of government depends on an involved, educated citizenry.

Given what is at stake, how can we not demand that elected officials take all necessary action to insure an effective teacher in every classroom?

Students’ academic success requires nothing more but certainly nothing less than adult decision-makers putting the interest of children above their own.

Bill Koehler, a former TCU administrator, was president of the Fort Worth school board from 2004 to 2008.

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