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Scott Harris: Education Triage

The state needs to set clear standards, focus on core competencies and prepare students for a world that's changing faster than at any time in history.

There are two things that almost all Californians agree on. First, our public education system is failing its most important constituents — the students. Second, the California Legislature, California Teachers Association, along with entrenched bureaucrats and administrators scattered throughout the public school system, have effectively blocked incremental, meaningful reform.

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Scott Harris
Efforts to stop significant and lasting change could not be any more staunch or selfish than those that have thwarted mere incremental reform, meaning we’ve seen the worst the irradicable can do. Therefore, it’s time to be bold and enact four dramatic measures that would transform public education in California and make it a source of pride, not embarrassment.

» Competency testing: every year, every grade. While we have instituted a high school exit exam, it is too little, too late. We don’t meaningfully test students until they are seniors, and by then, it’s too late to repair the damage done by automatic grade promotions and a lack of standards and expectations.

We need to establish a set of core competencies for every grade, and only when those standards have been met does the student move onto the next grade. My plan would take 12 years to implement, starting next year with first grade, then adding a new grade (second, third, etc.) each subsequent year so that 12 years from now, every student graduating high school will have met 12th-grade standards in a variety of subjects.

» Terminate tenure. Tenure does one thing: protect bad teachers. The CTA refuses to acknowledge what even Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama acknowledges: Some teachers are bad.

Obama recently told Reader’s Digest that if bad teachers are given the resources and still do not improve, “they should be removed.” A successful example of this took place in Queens, N.Y., at Public School 49, which in only 10 years went from 37 percent of fourth-graders reading at grade level to 90 percent. When Principal Anthony Lombardi was asked how this happened, he responded, “By getting rid of incompetent teachers.” Give school principals the responsibility and the authority to have the best teachers possible.

» English only. The CTA consistently reminds us of the unique challenge faced in California of having so many students who do not speak English. They are right, and it needs to end.

Multilingual teaching is a drain on finances, and having to teach class in two (or sometimes more) languages waters down the education process. California public schools should teach in English only, period. If students are not capable of comprehending, reading and writing in English, they should be withdrawn from class, regardless of grade, and entered into a separate program designed exclusively to teach English. When they reach a defined level of English competence and are capable of reentering the classroom, they can do so at the appropriate grade level.

» Focus. Our public schools have strayed too far from their core. We need to focus our attention and resources (time and money) on three critical areas: communication, (reading and writing), perspective (literature and history) and relevance (economics, math and science). Everything else is secondary. Public schools should be about education first and sports, the arts, clothing, food, health care — and anything else — secondarily. Leadership is about priorities, and ours are screwed up. Until we can teach our children how to read, write, add and subtract, we shouldn’t be worried about teaching them how to throw a football.

Public education in California is proving incapable of dealing with its mounting challenges. Most classrooms haven’t changed in 100 years (rows of desks facing forward, teachers lecturing, tests based predominantly on memorization) and for a rapidly growing number of Californians, education now has very little to do with traditional public education. Home schooling is now mainstream, charter schools are exploding in number, online schooling is becoming popular and the idea of vouchers is gaining in acceptance.

The time has come to dramatically improve our public schools, or abandon them. We need to establish clear standards for teachers and students, focus on core competencies and earnestly prepare our students for a world that is changing faster than at any time in history. The one thing we can all agree on is that we owe that much to our children.

Scott Harris is a political commentator. Read his columns and contact him through his Web site, www.scottharris.biz, or e-mail him at [email protected]

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