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Originally published October 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 28, 2007 at 2:01 AM


Guest columnist

Fix public education

I believe public schools are the most important institutions in our society. Being educated is essential for a productive life and it is...

Special to The Times

I believe public schools are the most important institutions in our society. Being educated is essential for a productive life and it is also essential for the preservation of our democracy. Failing to educate our children puts our very way of life in jeopardy. Today, as a nation, we are failing to adequately educate a majority of our children.

Our present education system is obsolete and it has become increasingly obsolete as decades have passed. Because we are failing so many of our children, we are creating an enormous underclass of citizens who will prevent our country from competing in the world economy and, perhaps more importantly, will put our democracy at risk.

The present situation:

Most economists and business leaders believe tomorrow's jobs will require a minimum two years of post-secondary education. Currently, only a small percentage of our children are attaining that level of education.

Of 100 students who enter high school:

• 71 will graduate from high school;

• 42 will go on to post-secondary education;

• 20 will graduate from a two-year program within three years or from a four-year program within six years.

In other words, if only 20 percent of our children receive the education needed, then 80 percent of our children will not be adequately prepared for the world in which they will live.

Today, there are 50 million children in our public schools. If we don't change the above results, 40 million of those children will become adults without the skills and training necessary to compete in our society.

It is not a pretty picture, but it will definitely occur if we fail to make changes in our school system. Here are three ideas that, I believe, will begin to fix the current obsolete system.

Idea No. 1: Change the way leaders are selected and trained

Creating competent, gifted leaders for our schools and our districts would be the single most important move we could make to enhance the education of our children. Effective schools and successful districts can be created only with capable principals and superintendents in charge.

Today, we get leadership by accident, not by design. Any teacher, with three years of experience, can decide to become a principal. You don't have to be a leader, you don't even have to be a good teacher. You simply need to apply to an education school where you would complete a one-year principal training program. Because there are so many education schools, to apply is to get in, to get in is to graduate, and to graduate is to get hired as a principal. Once hired, in three years a principal earns tenure and the schools and the students could be stuck with that person for the next 20 to 30 years, regardless of his or her competency to lead.

I am not saying we don't have good principals. We certainly do, but most of them will tell you their principal training did not adequately prepare them for the job. One of the best principal training programs in the country is right here at the University of Washington, called the Danforth Educational Leadership Program. That program accepts only 32 candidates a year. There are several thousand public schools in the state of Washington and almost 100,000 schools in the nation. Turning out 32 well-qualified candidates a year is not going to make a dent in the need.

Virtually the same situation occurs at the superintendent level. Principals can unilaterally decide to become a superintendent. They attend an education school and go through the process of certification. Only a few states, including Washington, do not require superintendents to be certified. That provision is what allowed us to hire John Stanford.

There are no superintendent programs in the country that adequately train people for the tasks a superintendent faces, particularly an urban superintendent. Superintendents must lead complex organizations, create an effective education program, work with unions, manage capital projects, infuse technology into their management systems and education programs, deal with political leaders, raise money for bonds and levies, know about how children learn, and have an appreciation for adolescent development.

A superintendent-preparation program should include professors from the fields of education, business, public policy, architecture, computer science, psychology and medicine. No such comprehensive training exists. It is time to change the selection process and put forth the effort and money to identify and train competent leaders for our schools.

Idea No. 2: Modify certification laws

"Certified" is no guarantee of "qualified"!

Our present certification laws focus on teacher training, not subject-matter competency. We train our education students how to teach content — as opposed to training content-competent people how to teach. We have it backward.

In our state, 50 percent of our math teachers have neither a minor nor a major in math. Forty percent of our science teachers have neither a minor nor a major in science. However, all of our teachers are certified. Is it any wonder that our children do not do well in math and science? For a student to become interested in a subject, you need a teacher who is passionate about it and who can stimulate your interest and curiosity. Teachers without subject-matter competency simply cannot do that.

Certification laws also keep competent people out of the profession by requiring everyone to go back to college to become certified to do something they may already know how to do. For example, Gerard Schwarz (conductor of the Seattle Symphony) could not teach music in the Seattle Public Schools. Bill Gates could not teach technology. Bonnie Dunbar, a former astronaut and the current president and CEO of the Museum of Flight, could not teach science. You see my point.

Certification laws also give education schools a monopoly over the supply of human capital that is allowed to enter our schools. Though there are some excellent education schools (three here in Seattle, at the UW, Seattle Pacific University and Seattle University), the vast majority are mediocre. There are 1,200 education schools in this country, an average of 24 per state.

In a recent report, Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University, calls for "remaking teacher education." His study describes most education schools as "programs that teach outdated curricula and have failed to keep pace with demographics, technology, global competition, and pressures to raise student achievement." He also states that "universities have exacerbated the situation by continuing to treat teacher-preparation programs as 'cash cows,' leading them to set low admission and graduation standards for their students."

Despite this situation, our schools have some wonderful teachers, but not nearly enough. Most teachers will tell you the program they attended did not adequately prepare them for the job they now occupy. This is particularly true for teachers who teach in our cities and who teach children whose native language is not English.

I believe certification laws should be modified so teacher certification is based on performance, not spending time in an education school. If I could have my way, certification would be something earned after three years of teaching and only after proving that children learn under your care. If one failed to be certified after five years of teaching, one would be invited to engage in another profession.

Idea No. 3: Appoint school boards in urban systems

About half of our children, approximately 25 million — and substantially more than half of our minority children — attend school in our largest cities. In most cities, the graduation rate is even lower than the 71 percent national average mentioned earlier. It is closer to 50 percent. Our urban schools must start performing at much higher levels. This will require years of sustained effort to develop educational environments that meet the needs of today's students. It will require superb leadership, detailed plans and time enough to implement those plans.

Urban school boards are the gov-erning entities for huge organizations. Seattle, which is a relatively small urban district with only 46,000 students, is a $500 million a year concern with almost 8,000 employees. Most urban systems are multi-billion-dollar enterprises.

School boards, particularly in cities, tend to change every two years, causing a change in policy and direction. This often results in a change of superintendent, which further exacerbates the difficulty of any long-term improvement. The average tenure for an urban superintendent is 2.5 years. Washington, D.C., has had seven superintendents in the last 15 years. Seattle has just welcomed its fourth in the past 12 years.

Moreover, the people who choose to run for office in our cities, particularly for school board, are often unqualified for the position. Running for public office has become so unattractive that qualified people tend not to run. This is particularly true of school boards where there is little or no status, no compensation and where board members are regularly assailed by irate citizens.

Currently, Seattle has four very attractive candidates running for the School Board, but that is not the norm. More often than not, school-board races attract candidates who are social activists, single-issue fanatics or union sympathizers. This combination creates a volatile mixture of special interests. The situation we have been facing in Seattle is not unique; it is becoming the norm in urban systems.

It is unlikely we can, anytime soon, improve the attractiveness of running for public office. Even if we could, it would take time, and our children cannot wait for us to make that change. Our children need a learning environment that improves every year. They need leaders who put children first, and they need alignment of an academic program that will get them the education they both require and deserve. That cannot happen with our current system of school governance.

Today, there is hardly a single urban system, with an elected school board, that has put together a sustained, multiyear program of improvement in its schools. Going to an appointed school board — with prominent civic leaders providing competence and stability — gives us some chance that we can change that statistic.

To sum up, our schools need gifted leaders, competent teachers and effective governance. With those ingredients in place, a great school system can be built. Without them, we will continue to fail our children.

Let me conclude by referring back to 1983 and the famous report, "A Nation At Risk." Its preamble included the following comment: "If an unfriendly foreign power had forced our present schools upon us, we would have considered it an act of war!" That was 1983. The performance of our nation's schools has not materially improved in the intervening 24 years.

If we, as a society, believe we need to educate all of our children, then, my friends, it's time for us all to "declare war."

Donald P. Nielsen is a former president of the Seattle School Board and remains active in the education field. E-mail him at

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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