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Students aren’t lumps of clay

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Jeff Johnston

Jeff Johnston, president, Lodi Education Association

“My friend put it best when he said, ‘This was the wrong case trying to solve the wrong problems by the wrong people in the wrong venue.’”

Posted: Monday, November 7, 2011 12:00 am

For some time now, there has existed a misperception that schoolchildren are in some manner similar to an automobile. Or maybe blueberry syrup. Whatever it is that is fabricated and produced.

Some people have this (erroneous) vision of students as some nebulous lump of clay which enters kindergarten unshaped and leaves high school ready for Harvard or UC Berkeley. Further, these same folks believe that the same forces which govern the success or failure of the automobile manufacturer or the blueberry syrup producer will also work successfully in our public schools.

I have news for those people: It doesn't work that way.

The Lodi News-Sentinel ran a nationally syndicated column by John Stossel on Oct. 26. Mr. Stossel argues that when infused with government input, a system is doomed to fail. He points to the Soviet bloc producing cars as an example. Further, he states that choice and competition creates better products: Just look at cellular phones, automobiles or any other product available to the American consumer.

In case nobody bothered to check, students are not cars, cellphones or any other product. They are unknown quantities that come to schools with a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds, mastery of the English language, mental disabilities and all of the other facets that make them unique individuals.

And unlike the automobile industry or the blueberry syrup producer who gets a bad batch of raw material and rejects it, American public schools take any and all students who walk in the front doors.

In May 1954, the Supreme Court issued an historic decision which ended racial segregation in America. Brown vs. Board of Education declared that separate was not equal. There were schools and districts across America, and even in our own backyards, that claimed they would never integrate.

It was at that very moment that the "choice movement" began. What better way to ensure the continuation of segregation than by offering choice to students and parents? The schools claimed they were offering freedom of choice yet, at the time, white students stayed in white schools and black students stayed in black schools. And heaven help any who dared cross the lines.

Dr. Diane Ravitch, in her acclaimed book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," tracks the issue of school choice. What began as a racial issue in the 1950s and '60s morphed under the Reagan administration into a national debate on school vouchers. The voucher debate centered around the government allowing parents to use public funds to send their students to private schools.

What this boiled down to was affluent parents receiving government subsidy to offset tuition costs at private schools because, at the end of the day, those with the means would continue to send their children to private schools leaving the public schools with the poorest and most disadvantaged students. Those students left had neither the means nor ability to either pay for the difference in tuition nor the costs of transportation necessary to attend those private schools.

Today the argument of choice has again been transformed. Today the conversation is not as much about vouchers (although don't think that issue has ever left the public consciousness), but about charter schools and competition. The idea is that if we make public schools compete, then the quality of education will improve. However, charter schools, like private schools, also are very selective in their admission standards. In many cases, data concludes that charter schools are no more successful that public schools.

Given the unrealistic expectations of the Bush administration's attempt at educational reform, called No Child Left Behind, it is to be expected that every school, public or private, is failing by 2014. NCLB calls for every student (100 percent), regardless of background, condition, or ability, to be proficient in our high-stakes testing game.

This is blatantly unrealistic. It would be like Congress telling every city be crime-free by a certain date, or we will begin closing police departments for being unsatisfactory.

Stossel's article points to Washington, D.C. as the epitome of voucher and choice success. Really? Isn't this the same district that Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's wife, Michelle Rhee, fled from following a cheating scandal involving those same high stakes tests?

So what are the answers? There are many great ideas out there for improving education, and teachers are part of that conversation. We welcome the dialogue. And we welcome you to be part of it.

The Lodi Education Association, in cooperation with local CTA chapters from Sacramento, Elk Grove and Stockton, invite the public to attend a speaking event by Dr. Diane Ravitch on Jan. 20, 2012. Anyone who cares about our students, the future of public education and the future of our country is invited to attend. Tickets are $5 and are available at the LUSD district office or from Lodi Education Association. For more information, call 477-2425

Jeff Johnston is president of the Lodi Education Association.

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