Last week I was at a forum for school board candidates from around the region.
Someone asked one of the candidates, a suburban board member seeking re-election, for his opinion of school choice. He said he supported a parent's right to choose a school for their children by moving into the district of their choice.
That may work well for his district, but that attitude doesn't serve the interests of the City of Tulsa, particularly the older sections of the city which are in the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) district.
While Tulsa shouldn't ignore the interests of young adults, the future of Tulsa depends on families. We can't achieve the population density we need to keep retail and jobs in the city's center unless we can keep families here.
As urban observer Joel Kotkin noted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed back in November: "Indeed, if you talk with recruiters and developers in the nation's fastest growing regions, you find that the critical ability to lure skilled workers, long term, lies not with bright lights and nightclubs, but with ample economic opportunities, affordable housing and family friendly communities not too distant from work.
"There is a basic truth about the geography of young, educated people. They may first migrate to cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston or San Francisco. But they tend to flee when they enter their child-rearing years. Family-friendly metropolitan regions have seen the biggest net gains of professionals, largely because they not only attract workers, but they also retain them through their 30s and 40s."
Here in Tulsa we see that same pattern in miniature. A young couple falls in love with a house in a tree-shaded midtown neighborhood. The quality of the local schools is far from their thoughts as they sign the mortgage. They enjoy the convenience of living close in and the more urban environment.
But then children come along, and as the first one approaches school age, the young mom and dad face a difficult choice: enroll their children in a TPS elementary school of questionable quality, shell out thousands of dollars a year to enroll the children in a private school, or move out to the suburbs, where the schools seem to be in better shape and school boards are more responsive to the concerns of parents. More often than not the 'burbs win.
It was not always thus. There was a time when TPS was head and shoulders above every other district in the county. In the 1950s, residents southeast of 21st and Yale voted to deannex from the Union district and to join the Tulsa district. The change made the new subdivisions on the outskirts of town much more attractive to young families.
TPS calls itself the District of Choice, but these days TPS is more like the District of Hobson's Choice: You can have your pick of failing schools. Six of TPS's nine high schools are on the "needs improvement" list. Parents at the "good" schools are upset because transfers from at-risk schools are causing crowded conditions.
Some people say TPS gets a bad rap.
One friend who argues that TPS' poor reputation is a matter of perception also said that, when he found out his kids were admitted into an elementary "magnet" school, he felt as if he had won the lottery.
We aren't going to keep young families in the TPS district if they feel that quality education is a gamble.
The problem in the TPS district is an educational bureaucracy that is more focused on process than content and highly susceptible to the latest educational fads.
The roots of the problem go deep. Back in 1982, Richard Mitchell, a famed educational critic writing as "the Underground Grammarian," took aim at comments by TPS Superintendent Larry Zenke, who was waxing enthusiastic about the idea of an educational future without information:
"Teachers, for example, will no longer be disseminators of cognitive information--machines will do that. Teachers will be program developers and/or facilitators of group membership, helping students develop interaction skills. Some educators, of course, will be found too rigid to survive this metamorphosis, but those who do will find excitement and fulfillment in their new 'teaching roles.'"
(You can read Mitchell's blast at this notion online: http://www.sourcetext.com/grammarian/newslettersv06/6.1.htm)
21 years later, Zenke's dreams seem to have come true. In 2003, one TPS parent passed along to me an e-mail he had received from his daughter's French teacher. His daughter had complained that, a month into the school year, they were not yet studying the French language, so he wrote the teacher to ask if this was so, and if so, why.
The teacher explained that she had been through training that summer on the Tulsa Model for School Improvement and was seeking to implement what she had learned:
"After a summer of asking the experts what they would do/how they would do it, I decided to introduce the new learning in English to enable the students to more easily and quickly grasp the concepts that we will be using.... To this end, I have been teaching the 7 Learning Community Guidelines and the Life Skills, class and team building activities to teach the new strategies and structures. Teachers are also expected to teach students about the 8 Multiple Intelligences and how they learn best, the 7 Learning Community Guidelines and the 18 Life Skills which are the basis of the Tulsa Model discipline plan. This is what we have spent the first several weeks concentrating on....
"We have been working on class and team building activities and stressing mutual respect and attentive listening since research proves that students learn best in cooperative groups.... What does this have to do with learning French? It is setting the background for the rest of the year and the rest of their lives. It is also part of the Tulsa Model for School Improvement that I am expected to teach the students in addition to teaching them French."
As far as I know, TPS still uses this model or something like it. Process displaces the acquisition of knowledge. No wonder the educrats think we need to add hours to the school day and days to the school year.
There is an effective model for instruction, time-tested and focused on content and on developing the mental discipline needed for clarity of thought and expression. It's called "the classical model", and it focuses on learning facts and basic rules for manipulating those facts in the early grades, when the mind is geared toward memorization; developing skills of logic and argument in the middle years; and developing skills of expression in the upper grades.
The classical model, rooted in antiquity, is gaining new popularity, with "The Lost Tools of Learning," an essay by author Dorothy L. Sayers, serving as a sort of manifesto. While many Christian schools have adopted a classical curriculum, there's no reason why it couldn't be used in a secular public school environment, and indeed it was--until modern educational theory took hold. At the very least, parents in the Tulsa district ought to have classical education as one of many choices for their children.
The great advantage that cities have over small towns and suburbs is variety and choice. Tulsa offers more types of homes and types of neighborhoods, more sorts of jobs, more doctors and medical specialties, a broader variety of religions and denominations, more entertainment choices, more cultural opportunities, more clubs and organizations than Oklahoma's small towns. Why shouldn't Tulsa also offer a wide range of affordable K-12 options?
The idea that choice is a city's principal attraction is what led John Norquist, the former Democratic mayor of Milwaukee and now the president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, to push for private school vouchers and other forms of school choice in his city.
Norquist's words, from a recent interview with columnist Bill Steigerwald, need to be taken to heart by Tulsa's city and school officials alike:
"When I was mayor of Milwaukee, I wanted people to live in the city -- to want to be in the city -- so the city would be prosperous.... I wanted them to look at it as a place where they could get what they wanted in life. So changing the schools was really important and just trying harder under the monopoly system didn't work....
"Milwaukee's become a place with a variety of choices. The perception is that there are enough positive choices that you don't automatically decide to leave the city when you have school-age kids."
If they're serious about boosting Tulsa's population, property values, and retail climate, Tulsa government and business leaders ought to be at the State Capitol pleading for legislation to allow more Tulsans to opt for private and charter schools. Instead of propping up school board members who want to shut down charter schools, city leaders should be working to elect new board members who will embrace and expand them.
February 5 is the first opportunity to help TPS truly become a district of choice. Those of us in District 5 -- roughly between 11th and 51st, Yale and Riverside -- will pick a new board member to replace charter-school obstructionist Cathy Newsome.
The candidate who can credibly promise to support new and expanded charter schools, to oppose the district's suit against the charter school law, and to work against nonsense like the Tulsa Model for School Improvement will have my vote.
Share this article: