Doug Wells is a product of public schools and is the proud parent of a rising high schooler in Portland Public Schools (PPS). Doug chairs Oregon’s Quality Education Commission and is also President of the National Board of Directors of Parents for Public Schools. His other past education involvement includes chairing the PPS Citizens Budget Review Committee for five years; being a member of the Mayor/County Chair’s Education Cabinet; being actively involved with public school advocacy issues with Stand for Children; and serving in varying capacities at his daughter’s school. Professionally, he is Chief of Staff and Chief Financial Officer for the Children’s Institute, a statewide organization that focuses on early education as a key to ensuring that every Oregon child arrives at kindergarten ready to learn and is succeeding by third grade.
We all know that to best serve Oregon’s kids, we must create an integrated education system from birth through early adulthood. We also know that one of the strongest predictors of children’s school success is parent and family engagement. While most of us have known this intuitively for a long time, it is now clear that how we engage parents, families, and other caring adults is absolutely essential. As an example, I am heartened to see the Oregon Education Investment Board lists parent and family engagement as one of its top five priorities for education in Oregon.
Early childhood practitioners get this. They do a remarkable job of engaging and involving parents in every aspect of their work—from home visits and encouraging reading with children at home, to decision-making in the school and classroom and providing basic supports and tools. They build this into their practice because it works, and because the children are much more likely to succeed. (more…)
It’s the middle of summer (OK, not quite the middle, but it feels that way) and I feel tired, a bit cranky, and frankly, lacking inspiration. Witnessing the never-ending and farcical tragi-comedy being performed in DC, I feel more than ever that we are a nation—and state—of silos.
Many of us hide in our narrow ideological bunkers, and peek out only long enough to lob disdain on our neighbor in their own tidy little world. “You said this, so you must be anti-teacher”; “Oh, you said that, so you’re one of those who want to stick with the status quo”; “You’re rich and want to support schools? You must be trying to corporatize and do away with public schools”; “You’re a parent advocate? Well, you’re just being a pain in my butt”; “Raise taxes in this economy—are you kidding?”
I have spent a little more than a year sharing on this blog what I think and believe in. Hopefully I’ve challenged some of you and made you think—it certainly has caused me to think more deeply. Now, I want a thought experiment from you, those reading this blog. What do you believe in? What do you want to talk about? What inspires you? What are you passionate about? Frankly, I don’t want to hear what you’re against, I want to hear what you want and what you’re for. What do you want for your kids, and for all of our kids? What gets you excited and keeps you up at night?
Tell me. Respond. Help me as I struggle not to stay cozy in my own silo.
. . . Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Lately I’ve been thinking back to an earlier part of my life and using those experiences as a lens for our current efforts around school system change. For about ten years, I was a teacher with Outward Bound. OB’s name has nautical roots—when a ship leaves the safety of the harbor and heads out in to the unknown it is said to be outward bound. Their motto “To Serve, To Strive, and Not to Yield” comes from the amazing Ulysses by Tennyson (as does the quote above). It is about balance—between self-reliance and being part of a larger community; between tenacity and sensible self-denial; and between compassion for others and taking care of one’s own. So, with that in mind…
Let’s take a moment to celebrate. I am truly excited by our opportunity to begin the process of public school system reform that is possible through SB 909. All is not fixed, everything didn’t go our way, there is so much to do, but there are moments of beauty in small victories. As I often find myself saying these days, we now have the possibility of possibilities. Once we’re done with this brief self-congratulation, let’s get to work.
One thing I know is that commitment is not enough. In my heart of hearts I believe that we are all committed to our kids—the work ahead will require determined single-mindedness, and it will certainly take a deep collaboration that is unusual and unlike any other we have attempted. It is not left and right, rural and urban, black or white, across this or that aisle—it is a moral imperative and it is for our kids. We are leaving the safety of this moment, the security of this small but important victory and heading into uncharted waters. We must build and maintain unwavering collective capacity for systemic change and we can accept no excuses. The legislative session that brought us to this time was filled with moments of political will, charismatic leadership, and fierce advocacy, while we also glimpsed petty infighting, fear mongering, misinformation, and other devils of our nature.
With much of the education and political news grim, with gridlock and pettiness the norm—how are we to move forward? How do we move past the wringing of hands and gain or re-gain our belief that we can do this? (“This” is doing every damned thing we can to prepare our kids for what lays next in their lives—and through them, our own lives.) I have two suggestions.
First, we must be bold and move forward with new ideas that place our kids’ interests at the very heart of our processes and systems. Business as usual must go, gridlocked politicians and political processes must be chiseled apart and forced in to the bright sunlight (please, give us some bright sunlight!). We must find a balance between our need for local control, and the clear and convincing reality that the larger system is broken.
How do we solve a school funding crisis when the decisions of how the state doles out our money has little to do with the actuality of what is happening locally in the schools? When cutting school days from our pathetically short school year does not change the amount of funding our districts receive? When local school boards can negotiate contracts that push off to another generation the very difficult conversations that the adults need to have in order to ensure our kids’ success? When our various systems, well intended to help our most vulnerable, are often uncommunicative and dysfunctional silos?
Where are the candidates? In Multnomah County in the upcoming May election there are 25 school board positions up for election. As of less than one week before filing deadline, in 15 of those races there are either zero or one candidates for the open seat! Now, not ever having been a school board member, my impression is that this is one of the most difficult and often thankless jobs out there. Everyone cares about education and many people think they know why things aren’t as good as we as our community would hope them to be. That said, school board members are exceptionally important decision-makers and leaders for our kids, schools, and communities.
Not only is the position hard, but elections are expensive – so we should be happy to have one candidate and then not have to endure a heated and costly election, right? I know some of the folks running for the open seats. I can’t imagine they’ll be too happy to have me encourage competition, but we need the dialog. Our schools are underfunded and are facing difficult and momentous decisions that directly affect our kids and communities. We need to have meaningful discourse about our schools, who will lead them, and how we will focus our resources to be most effective.
There are no open school board seats in my zone, so I can safely write this from the sidelines.
- Should we, as a community, have a discussion about the job of school board? Should we change these positions to be a paid job, much like a city council person, rather than a volunteer?
- Socio-economically, how would anyone ever be able to consider being on the school board if they have one or more jobs or an employer who won’t give them the flexibility to volunteer for another full time job?
- When we talk about equity in our schools, it seems fundamentally flawed to have a leadership system that for all intents and purposes excludes so many of the people who care so deeply about our schools.
I woke up one morning last week fully expecting for there to be snow on the ground as that’s what the weather report the night before said. Hmmm…it was sunny and 42. Then I got to thinking, after decades and decades of precise data on weather patterns in Oregon, we are still only able to predict the weather some agonizingly small amount of time. Yet, I still believe it every time I see the news report, I yearn for that predictability and clarity in how the world around me is going to be. Sometimes I long for this ability to make things simple and clear and somehow with this simplicity and predictability a little more within my control.
So, why am I talking about the weather? It’s my imperfect analogy to the school reform debate. It sounds agonizingly desirable for the solutions to be simple and clear.
Should we have charter schools? I love the thought of simple and straightforward neighborhood public schools that take all kids and give them all a world-class education. Yet, I believe in a family’s right to choose what is best for their child and I know that there are charter schools doing amazing work for kids and families, using new techniques and ideas to stimulate learning.
As teachers are one of the key factors in our kids’ success, shouldn’t I support their union without question? I believe in the right of workers to gather together, to demand conditions, wages, and benefits that might otherwise be lost as a part of a large and inflexible institution. Teachers deserve this strong voice. Yet, to protect those who should not be teachers, to insist on a system that promotes bureaucracy over effectiveness, to not participate fully in the difficult navigation of today’s schools, and to continually harken to the perceived and real wrongs of the past as we perpetuate wrongs of the present is unacceptable.
Don’t we need to know how and whether our kids are succeeding? Of course! We have to have both formative and summative indicators that help drive our decisions, our hiring, our resource allocations, our teaching methods, and our strategies as parents and caring adults. Yet, we must design a system that is kid-centered, that takes in to account all the good and bad baggage that each of us carries around – our race, our socio-economic status, our history, our faith, our trust.
What I fear in our debate is that we are all too busy seeking simplicity and clarity. We are sticking to our guns and drawing lines in the sand – and as we do, many of our kids are literally disappearing before our eyes. Simple would be nice, clarity would be wonderful, and one right answer would make decisions delightfully easy. I did not live in other times, I live in these times – and in these times, there is very little in my life that seems so simple.
We must stop being surprised each time the weather report is wrong. Life is not simple, educational answers are not clear. We must have strong convictions, and be willing to adapt and change to find the answers that are best for our kids. We must seek idealistic clarity through a lens of pragmatic gray.
Recently I attended a community forum to educate parents and community members about why the contract between the teachers’ union and the school district matters for our kids. It was an excellent meeting, well-attended by parents, teachers, students, union members, district personnel, and reporters – nearly 200 people. The panel did a thoughtful and thorough job of articulating why this was so important for our kids. They used the recent successful negotiations in Seattle as a springboard for making the case for meaningful change in Portland. The audience asked interesting and important questions. The moderator ended the night by saying that she hoped that we were ready to make a profound impact on education for our kids’ sake.
I’m now hung up on that word – profound. Thoughtful, deep, reflective, insightful – these are all qualities that should be readily apparent as we figure out how to best serve our kids.
So, when did we undergo a profoundectomy? One of the questions from the audience was something like “Since we all seem to know what the problem is, and what is best for kids, why is it so hard to make change?” What a great question! Only slightly over half of our kids even graduate from high school – with the numbers far worse for minority and low income kids. The latest I have heard is that more than three quarters of all new jobs will require a college degree as a minimum. We know that this is unacceptable, and we know what we have to do to fix it. Will we?
Hey parents and other caring adults – do everything in your power to help your child succeed. And, if you are fortunate enough to have the means and opportunities that others do not, then focus some of your advocacy on those who do not.
Hey Legislators – have the political and personal will to reform Oregon’s revenue system so it focuses our very limited resources on those that need it most – our future, our kids.
Hey teachers’ union – listen to your teachers. Stop putting up roadblocks to reform and come to the table ready to put kids first. Your membership, your best teachers, are in this profession because they care profoundly about our kids – make that your first priority, it currently is not.
Hey school districts – make sure that the principals and administrators in your schools and offices are of the same quality that you are demanding of your teachers. And you need some political will too – every single thing you do should be about our kids.
Hey community – get involved and remember that our kids and schools profoundly affect our neighborhoods and communities, and directly affect our economic and social well-being.
Since when does common sense and doing the right thing become profound? I’m not sure, but personally, I’m ready to be a part of bringing profound back in to our schools.
Recently I came across the following words:
What do the good schools have in common? Good schools enjoy some core of community support and recognition that the public school is an essential building block of that community. Good schools enjoy positive action, not just lip service.
The spirit of public school reform must be adopted by the whole community if it is to make a difference. We will continue “at risk” as long as public schools are abandoned by the very constituencies they need to survive. These grassroots activists – parents and others – are essential to reversing erosion, promoting excellence, and demanding equity.
How long must the wake-up call echo before it is heeded by the citizenry as a whole? In towns all across America, persistent criticism, massive flight and despair – especially by the middle class – continue to drain our public schools and our urban centers of important energy, resources, and diversity. How long before we agree that equity in education (i.e., good public schools for everyone) is the solution to most of our ills. And how long before community-minded individuals, not just public school parents, begin to own this problem?
How long indeed? These words were written by former Parents for Public Schools Executive Director Kelly Butler more than fifteen years ago!
That brings me to the debate over school reform – or more aptly stated – the lack thereof. Is it any wonder that many in our communities look upon school reform with an arched brow and skeptical frown? What has brought us to this culture of intractability? This head-in-the-sand ethos is selling our kids short and is a luxury we can no longer afford. When the keepers of our educational systems spend months and years arguing about how many minutes it’s okay to teach kids. When we argue over whether parents have the right to fully participate in improving student achievement at their school or their district. When any mention of evaluation draws cries of standardized test and not a concerted effort at determining what and who is effective for our kids. When every question from every side is met with vitriol and defense, and every answer is hissed at and spun to oblivion. Then the debate becomes intolerable.
The mantle of this debate must be taken up by the very people who have long been left out – parents. (more…)
The genesis of this blog comes from many conversations that I have been having with friends and colleagues about education reform. Some of these have been difficult conversations and I often find folks with very similar passions and desires for our schools feeling like they are on different “sides.” For me, I have tried to stay away from absolutes like I have heard both from education pundits and politicians on both sides of the political aisle. I don’t look at Race to the Top (RTT) and other similar reform efforts and jump to them being an attack on teachers or a push to privatization or other absolutes. I see them as an entrée to opening a discussion about making our public schools better – especially for kids who are being lost through the cracks (and actually putting some federal $$ towards it).
There is a huge amount of rhetoric around how we might “fix” our schools. There are many things that I don’t know – these are some things I think I know:
- Our system is failing many of our kids – that has to change;
- Our system is adult-centered rather than kid-centered – that has to change;
- It seems that many or most of our political and education leaders do not have the will to have the difficult conversations and then take meaningful action to make a difference for our kids. Rhetoric is old and cheap and isn’t doing a damned thing for us – in fact we’re losing many of our kids before our eyes; (more…)
Today at the NAACP convention in Kansas City, Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan indicated a change in direction with regards to meaningful parent and community participation in strengthening and reforming our public schools. His comments included:
You also made it crystal clear to us in recent meetings at the department and at the White House that the community must be at the table when decisions are made around how to improve struggling schools. And we agree.
So, today, I’m announcing that—based on your input and the very productive engagement we have had around the school improvement grant program—we will revise our ESEA reauthorization proposal to require parent and community input.
That means notification, outreach, public input, and honest, open discussion about the right option for each community. This is really common sense, and most superintendents understand this. But we also know this is very hard work, and it’s a challenge to build consensus around these very tough interventions. (more…)