The Fractious Politics of Education, part II

Hundreds of Huntington Park High School students walked out of class yesterday, and marched 7 miles to the Los Angeles School Board’s headquarters.  The Board of Education was discussing a radical reorganization plan for the school, which would include reassigning half of the teachers to other schools.  [The Board approved the plan yesterday afternoon.]

The student walk-out makes for a dramatic scene.  The students know that massive firings and hirings are going to disrupt their lives, and that the teachers they might like might be among those who leave for other schools.

The school’s performance, however, has been dismal by any measure that anyone could use to evaluate schools.  More than a quarter of the students drop out; less than half of the graduates post a record that makes them eligible to apply for a state university, and the results on increasingly important tests are pretty dismal: 5% rank proficient in math; 24% reach proficiency in English.

The teachers union asserts that the poor results reflect years of underinvestment and neglect, and with sufficient resources, things could turn around.  Teachers doubt that the massive overhaul, absent serious investment, is likely to make much of a difference.

The Board sees a history of failure and is understandably impatient about progress.

But what about the students?  If the overhaul actually turns around the school, it is still likely to create no discernible improvement for the students who are already there.  They’ll face the disruption, but if there are improvements, it will be their little brothers and sisters who see them.

The marchers’ crappy school experience is likely to get crappier.  Their protest makes sense.  The students are trying to stand up for themselves, likely guided by those adults who are closest to them.  Their perception of their interests is quite likely very different from those of adults charged with designing curricula and running schools.  (In my house, the necessity of math in a world with ubiquitous calculators is an ongoing discussion topic.)

So, here’s the problem: Everyone (students, parents, teachers, business) shares an interest in a strong public school system in the United States.  Everyone does not share a definition of what that would look like, how to get there, or who should pay for it.

We live with the results.

Note: This continues a theme from yesterday’s post, which was cross-posted at orgtheory.net, where there’s some interesting discussion in the comments section.  I’m cross-posting there this month.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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