We asked readers “If the state put you in charge of San Diego Unified School District, how would you fix things?”

Before a discussion on how to fix things, we first need to narrow the list down. While the list might be very long, and well beyond the scope of what can be discussed in the space provided, it is probably best to limit the discussion to two of the most controversial issues in education (as evidenced by the discussions in this series).

They are the quality of the education our children receive in public schools and the state of public school funding.

Schools across the state of California are guided by the State Standards. This ensures that students up and down the state are introduced to the same material, with the same rigorous expectations, at approximately the same time. The question becomes how well are the students prepared for those standards, and how well are those standards are presented.

The cold truth is that not all students come with the same dedication to their own education, that schools are not equal (very often dependent on the communities they serve), and teachers have varying levels of competency.

Students need to be held accountable for their own education, and toward that end we should eliminate social promotion. In SDUSD, a student is eligible to be retained only if they have F’s in English and math, as well as Far Below Basic ratings on the California Standards Test. And, even then, they can be promoted if the parents refuse a school’s recommendation for retention. Before any student should be promoted, they should show proficiency in all subjects. They may well be more motivated to try if they know the retention policy has teeth.

Schools are not equal and it does the parents, students and communities they serve a disservice to pretend they are. It would be disingenuous to suggest that throwing more money at under-performing schools would solve the problem.

When taking into consideration federal, state and local funding, these schools often receive two or three times as much money as other schools. It is a question of student character and teacher quality. As to student character, it falls on the parents to send a child to school ready to learn with the proper motivation. Society has to find a way to help parents become more involved in seeing that their children respect the education process. Parents sending children to school who think it is okay to smear excrement on bathroom walls or bully other students share some responsibility for the failure of the education process. Parents need to be held accountable.

Unions share in the responsibility and should also share in the solution. Don’t begrudge the unions for the salaries and benefits they have negotiated on behalf of the teachers. It is, after all, what they have been tasked to do, and from the teacher’s point of view, has been done well. They should however see that it is time for a change. Go to any school campus and ask the major parties (parents, students, teachers and administration), who the three weakest teachers are on that campus, and chances are you will get the same three names.

If they can be identified, there must be a way to quantify those sentiments. A realistic, objective system of teacher evaluation needs to be devised. The union and the district share responsibility in getting those teachers the training they need to become effective. When under-performing teachers are identified, administrators should also have the power to replace them quickly for the benefit of the students.

Imagine the motivation to improve as an educator if you knew that your job placement was not guaranteed. Qualified teachers who choose to serve in the most challenging of schools also deserve to be compensated for their efforts. It is not easy, and often times not safe, to work in some of the worst schools. Those teachers who take on that challenge deserve more.

On the subject of teacher salaries, there is no reason to throw out the current system of step and education. There are 7,000 teachers in the SDUSD working for a wide range of administrators. These administrators are neither experienced nor trained in salary negotiation.

Having a scaled salary serves the purpose for which it was designed. Are those salaries excessive? I pose the question this way; do you want the most qualified, highly trained professional teaching your child? If you do then you need to be ready to pay for it. But, if teachers want not only respect but also the pay commensurate with other professions, they need to acknowledge that not all of them should be in a classroom. It is time to stop protecting unqualified teachers.

Talk of bond issues or tax increases for teaching and teachers would be much more palatable by the public if they knew they were getting the best for their money.

Funding of schools is as convoluted an issue as it is a process, with deadlines that conflict and sources that take a masters degree to understand. But, the mess we are in should not have been news to anyone and especially the SDUSD Board.

The superintendent and his staff have been warning the Board of the impending crisis for years. The board chose to ignore those warnings and at times seemed to do just the opposite of what was required. The board was elected to make the hard decisions and it is time for them to do so.

Nothing should be off the table (i.e. school closers) until spending is brought under control. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing everything we as parents, teachers and administrators have worked so hard to achieve. It is also time for the state to own up to the promises they made to education and provide the proper funding. There is no excuse that justifies what they are putting our children through.

A final note on the blame game; this series on fixing schools has been dominated by numbers and statistics aimed at belittling teachers and calling into question their worth as professionals.

The vast majority of us are doing the best we can with what we are given. We don’t produce a product and would never insinuate that your child was some production line output. They are young people with whom we spend nearly every waking moment worrying over and trying to do the best by them. When that bell rings, our attention is on teaching and making these children ready for whatever the future may hold for them. After the bell we’re evaluating what has been, and preparing for what comes next.

Yes, there are those among our ranks who are not as qualified, but please stop lumping all of us into the same basket of blame. Find reason and time to compliment the teachers who you recognize are doing a fine job. But don’t blame us all for the ills of education, work with us to find a solution.

John Rick lives in San Diego.

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Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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