Fred Dickey

Fred Dickey is a writer living in Cardiff, CA, USA

FORMER CHIEF OF SCHOOLS SEES WAY TO FIX EDUCATION ILLS

Nothing straightens the back so much as when a boss you don't trust comes through your door. ...

What can I do for you, Mr. Filner?

It's 1982, and Tom Goodman is superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. Bob Filner is the new board president and has gained control by heading a majority coalition of the five members.

Goodman says he recalls Filner telling him with his usual bluntness that he can have a job for life if he is willing to do Filner's bidding. Goodman foresees spending his time fighting alligators if he says no, and becoming a toady if he says yes.

Goodman resigns and takes his final contract year as a payout. He moves on to three decades as an educator far from the tar pit of that situation.

Years later, Goodman says he and his wife, Cindy, are at an education meeting when Filner, then in Congress, walks up to their conversation group and says to Tom, "I guess they'll let anyone in here." Quick to respond, Cindy says, "Well, they let you in, Mr. Filner."

Bob Filner responded by email to Goodman's comments.

"The first never happened. The second was an attempt at a joke." Filner goes on to say: "I was elected (school board) president for one reason: To fire Tom Goodman, a superintendent who had lost all touch with the community and all credibility with the teachers. He presided over a bureaucracy where cronyism was the only path to promotion, where loyalty meant all and merit nothing."

If Bob Filner's nose for prey belonged to beagles, there would be no more rabbits. Anyway, as they say on TV: We report, you decide.

***

Goodman, 86 and holder of a Ph.D., was San Diego schools superintendent for 11 years. After leaving, he lived out of an occupational suitcase. He served in educational leadership roles on four continents, including several in California.

He left the San Diego job proud of progress made in complying with a court order to reduce neighborhood-school segregation, which he says was achieved without court-ordered busing.

"During the '70s, when we were under court order to integrate schools, we came up with a plan (to smoothen the process) that involved training parents to guide and supervise children, and for community outreach. It had success and helped achieve our goals."

His last job, and perhaps his proudest, was as superintendent of Los Angeles charter high schools purposed to serve mainly minority at-risk students. He retired from that job in 2009.

"We had 65 learning centers," he says. "We took the kids that were kicked out, dropped out or failed in public schools. We got them high school diplomas. We veered them either onto a college track or helped them get into vocational training.

"When I started, we were serving 7,000 students. Six years later, when I left, we were serving 33,000. If the regular public schools were doing the job for them, they wouldn't have needed those charter schools."

That last job imprinted on him the belief that the decline of vocational learning is one of the great failings of current public education.

Goodman is a strong proponent of charter schools, which he says can be tailored to the needs of individual students, their interests and levels of achievement. All made possible, he adds, by freedom from bureaucratic foot-dragging and teachers' union control.

***

Now in La Jolla retirement, he can sit back, draw on his seemingly endless experience and pontificate on the state of education without a board to answer to.

Goodman recalls that to begin his teaching career, he left a good-paying job as an Oregon lumberjack for one-third the money just for the "privilege" of becoming a schoolteacher. He decries that more teachers today don't share the dedication that was common when he started.

He also believes strongly that schools need more tax money, with a good chunk going to better teacher pay. "I think we would get the best students for teaching if we offered better compensation. That would be a statement to them that we consider teaching to be a true profession."

Here's my question, Tom: You went into teaching at a pay sacrifice because of your dedication, but teachers today are far better compensated. Doesn't that suggest dedication has little to do with pay? If dedication means commitment to doing a good job, we routinely expect it from the woman who does our taxes, the man who repairs our car, the youth who rings up our hamburger. Why do you think we have to worry about the same from teachers?

Not necessarily, he says, because unionization of teachers has had a negative effect on professionalism and protects teachers who fall below acceptable standards.

As an example that he thinks reflects poorly on professionalism, he says that walking into a school today, one is likely to see teachers wearing jeans and T-shirts. He thinks that erases much of the status that separates teachers from students, who need and desire to have adult supervision that stands apart. Clothes can't make teachers good, but it can make them look professional.

Goodman is obviously no fan of teacher unions. He probably has invisible scars on his psyche from doing battle with them through the years.

He decries "the power of the unions and their representatives that control school board members, the Legislature and the executive branch."

"To get almost any teaching job in California under current law, you must pay into the labor union and be bound by its actions," he said. "To me, that takes away the focus on being a professional. Why do they need a union if they have civil service protection?"

He points out that presidents Roosevelt and Truman, liberal Democrats who strongly backed organized labor, refused to support the formation of public worker unions - and the right to strike that went along with it.

Another question: California schools used to be the best in the nation. Now, according to studies, they're down at the bottom with Mississippi and the District of Columbia. What happened?

Goodman thinks the huge, almost instant influx of foreign-language, lower-income families has caused a severe disjointment to California schools. Also, activists who fight English-immersion learning and political groups that elect union candidates to school boards are leading causes of decline.

"Having said that, I want to emphasize that I support excellent and equal education for every person. That's why I believe as I do."

***

He thinks political correctness, which decides what can and cannot be spoken in a school or university, is anti-education. It's destructive to the goal of free inquiry, which should invite discussion of differing ideas, even those that make some people angry - maybe especially those.

The same for multiculturalism, which he says could be a good thing if it brings understanding and respect to people of different groups. However, Goodman believes it has been hijacked by those who see profit by dividing people into tribes, which tears apart the fabric of a unified public.

In an aside during a free-wheeling interview, and still thinking about that tight tax dollar, he says spending hundreds of millions on a new football stadium in San Diego would be "politically immoral," considering all our other needs.

Goodman is an avowed sports fan but is dismayed by the salaries paid to football and basketball coaches at universities.

"In many cases, they are the highest-paid public employees in the state, earning more than the governor and five or 10 times what the university president makes. I think it's ridiculous. It's just a distraction from what the purpose of the university is."

Do you think that patriotism is adequately taught today?

"Not as it should be. We have to go back to the days where we start the day with a salute to the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance. We ought to observe our national holidays with appropriate observation rather than just going to the beach. We ought to instill our young people with why we're a great nation and a great society.

"I believe there is a lack of understanding of the importance of what and who we are as a nation and how we got here, and what we should do to maintain being a leader in the world."

You know there are people who will read this and smirk.

"Yes, they will. They will call me an angry old man, but I ignore them."

There is a wide and fractious gulf in education philosophy today, as with everything else, and Goodman's words will cause a lot of molars to grind.

Agree or disagree, frown or smile, Tom Goodman brings a lot of standing to any discussion about public education. To dismiss his words as fog from a fogey is to invite counter-smirks from those who scorn smugness.

 

Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]

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