Van Schoales is executive director of Education Reform Now, a Denver-based national advocacy group.
The scariest part of watching “Waiting for Superman” for the first time a couple of weeks ago in New York City (it finally opens Friday in Colorado) was seeing the school where I started my public education career 22 years ago. I’m not sure what was worse, seeing how little Woodside High School’s (California) data had changed or reflecting on how much I had aged. While it was nice to see that the school has a nice new performing arts center, the student results were similar to when I started teaching science there nearly a quarter-century ago.
Only about half the students at Woodside high are at grade level in reading and math, much the same as the state of California. The school’s dropout and college success rates mirror the Golden State. The school’s student demographics are similar to California’s with about half the kids Latino and the same number being low-income, which was what originally attracted me to the school.
While Woodside is located next to one of the richest towns in America (Woodside), the long list of billionaires who live there – like Oracle’s Larry Ellison – don’t send their kids to Woodside High. The school is in Redwood City adjacent to East Palo Alto, from where kids were bused to Woodside. East Palo Alto had the dubious distinction of having the highest homicide rate in the US in the late 80’s. It has changed a bit with the new development that pushed the poor out but it is still largely an impoverished community.
Back when I entered teaching, I naively thought you could redesign a big school from within if only you had the right structured conversations to surface problems and propose solutions. It all seemed fixable with given the right curriculum, pedagogy, schedule, new structures and conversations.
Oh to be young.
I spent the first five years of my career working tirelessly to become an effective teacher while I also led Woodside’s reform efforts. It was the school reform equivalent of being a new marine in Vietnam in 1968. I worked with my fellow teachers, students, the union, parents and the administration to make schedule and course changes in an attempt to make an impersonal 2,000-kid school a bit more kid-centric but it was overwhelming given the culture and history of the school.
The problem was that there were too many parts to change with far too many vested interests. The administration was only willing to support changes that didn’t fundamentally alter the system, while the teachers’ union was fine with any change as long as it didn’t affect our contract. Aand parents (meant to say PTA leaders) were supportive as long as it didn’t negatively affect the AP track or the sports programs for their typically privileged kids.
I started teaching my first day on the picket line over a contract dispute and later became the building leader for the union before I lost faith in the “union” when my fellow district union leaders killed a plan to change the school’s schedule (in spite of our school’s faculty support) that might have implications for the rest of the district’s teachers’ contract.
I realized then that I was member of a union of factory workers, not a guild of professionals as I had envisioned when I started. I knew that labor unions brought working people a living wage, healthcare and a safe work environment, all things to celebrate. But I learned first-hand at Woodside that modern teacher unions had become almost perfectly designed to protect teachers from any meaningful change and create a culture of victimization among teachers, rather than a culture of professionals serving kids. My experience at Woodside gave me a hands on education in what brilliant historians like Ted Sizer , Larry Cuban and David Tyack have so well described in their books about the fixed “grammar” of schooling and the remarkable power of the system to deflect reforms while it “tinkers towards utopia” (must read for any educator).
I couldn’t wait another century so I left to start other organizations and schools that were free from much of the existing inertia of these 20th Century big factory model schools.
Seeing “Waiting for Superman” and Woodside High School was a reminder of how hard it is to change existing public schools while also a hopeful vision of what’s possible with some of the new schools described in the film. While I’m not looking forward to the state of my body in 22 years, I’m more hopeful than ever about the future of public education in this country a decade or two from now as I’m just passing, I hope, the mid-point of my life.
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