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“We see what we are looking for”

December 8, 2012

In yesterday’s L.A. Times, Sandy Banks has a column detailing a visit to Jordan High School.

[On] Wednesday, state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson visited the school with certificates announcing its improvement. Jordan’s 93-point jump on the state’s academic performance index was the biggest of any urban high school in California this year.

That’s why Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa showed up after working “56 hours straight” on trade missions and labor deals. “No way I’d miss this,” he said. His Partnership for Los Angeles Schools is the architect of Jordan’s reforms.

And it’s why philanthropist Melanie Lundquist, whose $50-million contribution keeps the partnership going, showed up ready to celebrate the return on her investment in this city’s struggling schools.

You can read the column to learn more about the turnaround, and what it is that the school is achieving beyond higher test scores.  But there was one line that jumped out at me, in which Banks reflects,

We see what we are looking for — and that sends a message to students at schools like Jordan. They know we don’t expect much of them.

That line prompted me to compose and email this response:

Do you think that the same lesson applies to the public, or journalists, or legislators, and the messages they send to the faculty and staff at struggling schools?  I don’t mean to make excuses for anyone, but is it possible that an honest assessment of the challenges they face should include the burden of social apathy, distrust, even hostility?  I know a lot of teachers and more than a few  administrators, and you can probably infer from my question what I think the answer is.

Oh, I know Californians say we actually have lofty expectations of teachers and schools, but when it comes to showing our expectations, we ought to be ashamed.  It’s been said many times that budgets are moral documents; judging from our investments in children and schools, “we don’t expect much of them.”  We provide precious few librarians, counselors, or nurses, inadequate facilities, inadequate teacher prep time and professional development, inadequate care for students’ medical and mental health needs, too few social workers, paraprofessionals, janitors, other support services personnel.  Early childhood education investments would cut later spending on corrections, but look at our incarceration rates and costs.  For schools and students, our mouths say “achievement!” but our budgets say “sorry.”

In spite of all that, hundreds of thousands of teachers, administrators, and other school personnel are going to work each day and doing their best, helping millions of students.  Their jobs are more difficult because the message comes through to children and adults alike: we don’t expect much of them.

Just a thought to carry along as we all consider how we might improve schools, and children’s lives.

By the way, does money make a difference?  $50-million in philanthropy to support the turnaround efforts of 22 schools means an average of roughly $2.27-million per school.  Multiply that by roughly ten-thousand California public schools, and we’d be looking at $22,700,000,000 in additional resources.  Yes, I think twenty-two BILLION dollars in additional school spending might help.

[EDIT: Those 22 schools serve roughly 15,000 students, meaning that the $50-million provides a per-pupil benefit of $3,333.  Extrapolated to a statewide level for 6.2 million students (2010-11 statistics), that would be about $20.7 billion - added to a budget just under $40-billion].

For more regarding California’s gross inequities in expectations, as reflected in educational programs and spending, see my remarks to the federal Education Equity and Excellence Commission (2011).

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