How To Change Public School Corporate Culture

Steven Brill writing in the New York Times Magazine (“The Teacher’s Unions’ Last Stand”) has a fascinating, albeit lengthy, analysis of where we are with public school reform.

Brill believes that the Federal Race to the Top program plus charter schools is reaching a tipping point for widespread improvement in public schools. If true, this is great news and could only be pulled off by Democrats, as all anyone would do is resist and ridicule reform efforts under any Republican administration.

What Brill concludes is that the quality of school principals and teachers counts. He does a paired comparison of a public school and a charter school housed in the same building in New York (P.S. 148 with 438 K-8th graders and Harlem Success Academy with 508 K-4th graders). He found a significant difference. Brill concludes that the difference was attributable to three factors in the charter school: the absence of a teacher’s union, no administrative bureaucracy concerned with jobs programs and consulting contracts, and high expectations placed on disadvantage students which entails studying more days and hours than typical public schools.

On the public school side of the same building students on the same day are found wandering the hallways and watching a video in the school auditorium. On the charter school side of the same building the students are hard at work, dressed in school uniforms, and self-disciplined.

The Charter School teachers are paid about 10% less, are expected to work longer hours, and are required to be available on a pre-paid cell phone for conferences with parents. Teacher’s union labor agreements limit working extra hours without extra compensation as well as being available on cell phones for parent contact. Pay had nothing to do with it as the public school teachers were paid about $1,000 more per student which mostly went toward larger teacher benefit packages.

And what was the academic result? The Charter had 72% reading at grade level compared to 51% in the public school. In the Charter 5% were reading below grade level and 23% were reading above level compared to the public school where 49% were below grade level and zero were reading above grade level. The Charter third graders were tied for the top in math in the state.

Brill doesn’t tell us if the students in the Charter were from those parents who were more involved or not. Brill does indicate, however, that in some cases the same parents have children in both the Public and Charter schools. But if his comparison is valid, it indicates why no large public school district in the U.S. has found any magic formula for improving school performance of disadvantaged students: the presence of teacher’s unions and their insidious influence on school boards. By the way, in New York they spend $18,000 to $19,000+ per student with no better results than in Pasadena for about half the unit cost.

Maybe the magic formula for public school achievement is becoming more apparent: school discipline, longer hours in the classroom, more parent contact made easier by cell phones, teachers willing to work past typical school hours and on weekends without additional pay.

This isn’t the formula that teacher’s unions, school boards loaded with members selected for spreading the wealth by jobs patronage, university departments of education, state departments of education, or legislators want you to hear. But it is staring us in the face at P.S. 148 and the Harlem Success Academy.

Pasadenan Ross Selvidge who successfully defeated a school parcel tax (Measure CC) on May 4 has called for a change in the organizational “culture” of the Pasadena Unified School District. That can only start by getting the teacher’s union and the school board elected on the basis of patronage out of the way.

Can it happen? Yes. Will it happen? Doubtful in Pasadena as long as the amount spent per student is the only measure of reform. In Pasadena, one would have to reform the entire city governmental mindset and cultural values in both City Hall, the Board of Education, all the non-profits and consultants which are dependent on governmental largesse, and the party of government that sustains it, an unlikely prospect. Even liberal Common Cause couldn’t reform City Hall.

What we can look forward to in Pasadena is some well-choreographed and Astro-turfed fake efforts at reform by A.C.T. and the PEF using churches for moral legitimacy. That is the problem with tying any school tax increases to change in the corporate culture of PUSD. The establishment can always construct some phony reform program that can be legitimated by the local newspaper media and local “feel good” churches, both liberal and conservative, as real reform. We now know what works. Anything less is not reform and should be rejected by the taxpayers and those who really want better for our children.