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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My thoughts on the 'Waiting for Superman' community forum

By Jaxson, Guest Writer

This past weekend, I attended a memorial service for a teacher who made a difference in my life when I was in junior high school. Looking back on my transition from elementary school, I am eternally grateful to Mary DeSerio for reaching out to me and helping me adjust to this giant step in my life. I made a point of attending her memorial service not because she was the best data farmer in the district. I attended her service to pay respects to someone who cared enough to mentor me in difficult times.

This brings me to the Jacksonville Public Education Fund's community forum on "Waiting for Superman." Leaders from the education and business sectors shared their perspectives on what it takes to improve our education system. I walked away satisfied that all sides received a fair hearing. I also walked away disappointed that many people still do not understand how we can truly involve everyone in reforming education.

On one hand, our business community is correct when they say that pointing fingers and naming villains is not productive. They are right when they tell us that parents do not leave their best children at home. We need to teach the children who show up in our classrooms. On the other hand, many business types do not shy away from playing the blame game with our educators and their favorite villain - the teachers unions.

The first mistake is for us to assume that "Waiting for Superman" paints an accurate picture of our school district. We should note that Duval County is nowhere mentioned in this documentary that exposes the errors of other urban school districts. For example, while it may take nearly two dozen steps to terminate a 'bad' teacher in some school districts, it only takes six in Duval County. And, while tenure is a favorite target of these reformers, tenure does not exist in Florida. Teachers work under continuing contracts. We are comparing apples to oranges when we try to assume that failings of other school systems somehow apply to our area.

I am optimistic, however, about our next steps. At my table discussion, I pointed out that education seems to be the only career field where we seek to radically change the profession without direct input from those who are most directly affected. Remember health care reform? The greatest criticism was that government bureaucrats were not listening to doctors and nurses. I resent the idea that reform is something that is imposed by distant and remote politicians from the corridors of power in Tallahassee and not from the grassroots level.

Think for a moment how things are going in Duval County. For the last six years, Duval County Public Schools and Duval Teachers United have pioneered peformance pay. Florida's Department of Education has even lauded Duval County's proactive stance on performance pay. If this can happen in Duval County, why can't it happen in other counties without excessive interference from the state?

I do not believe that I am asking for much when I challenge so-called conservatives to live according to their own ideals. In our federal government, conservatives proudly point to the 50 states that serve as laboratories for innovation. In our state government, I believe that we have 67 counties that can best serve as incubators for the best ideas to move forward through best practices and community involvement. We expect differentiated instruction for students, yet we accept cookie cutter solutions for our school systems. What works in Duval County may not pan our for DeSoto or Dixie Counties.

Besides revamping teacher pay, we need to look at the folks who are teaching our children. Yes, we have 'bad' teachers.' I take issue with the manner in which we seek to weed out the bad teachers. Let's compare education to other professions. While one percent of doctors lose their licenses to practice each year, over two percent of teachers lose their certification each year. Does this mean that we tolerate too many bad doctors? You make the call. This is not my point, though. I am asserting that if we are to fire teachers for the sake of making a political point (Due process be damned), we will need to get rid of up to 600,000 teachers a year across the country. And how many teachers would be available to fill the gaps? Maybe Teach for America can help. Not quite. Only 10,000 educators are available using this route. This leaves us with 590,000 empty classrooms begging for a warm body. Instead of being trigger happy with the pink slips, we need to figure out how to create good teachers for the future.

Most importantly, the above issues can be addressed when we collaborate more and condemn less. Our local teachers are game for a more positive process, is our community ready to join?

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