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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

October 28, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Former Seattle board member offers controversial school fixes

Relatively rare are the moments when education reformers and die-hard public school staff find any common ground.

But Donald Nielsen, a former Seattle school board member who counts Jeb Bush among his acquaintances, shares an important observation about the problem in our public schools with teachers union firebrand Jesse Hagopian.

Donald P. Nielsen. Courtesy photo.

Donald P. Nielsen. Courtesy photo.

In a word (or three): the cookie-cutter approach.

Both men have new books out, and in many ways they could not be further apart. Nielsen, a wealthy corporate honcho who writes of casual phone chats with former U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, says the fundamental structure of public education is the problem.

Hagopian targets standardized testing.

Yet each offers a passionate call to stop treating students as widgets on a factory assembly line.

“No two students are really alike, yet our present system treats them virtually the same,” Nielsen writes in “Every School: One Citizen’s guide to Transforming Education.” “Our present system has never effectively educated every child, and it never will.”

At the best public schools, leaders must “regularly break the rules in order to educate their children,” he says. “Frankly, it is the only way excellence can be achieved.”

Pulling no punches, Nielsen lays much of the blame for these irksome rules — including the 180-day school year with its six-hours-per-day of instruction — on the teachers union.

Jesse Hagopian, author of "More Than a Score," discusses Garfield High School teachers' decision to refuse to the give the MAP test to their students in 2012. Photo by Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times.

Jesse Hagopian, author of “More Than a Score,” discusses Garfield High School teachers’ decision to refuse to the give the MAP test to their students in 2012. Photo by Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times.

His answer? Do away with the teacher-certification process, make school superintendents part of the mayor’s cabinet and, most controversially, obliterate urban school boards. “The education of our children is too important to leave to amateurs, local activists or political junkies,” he writes.

Nielsen offers several dozen pages backing his assertions. But he also makes some contradictory leaps of logic. More money is not the answer, he insists. Yet he also believes that if the $15 trillion put toward anti-poverty programs in the last 50 years had been spent on improving schools, we would have many fewer social problems.

Perhaps education finance is not this author’s strong suit. During his own years on the Seattle board, from 1993 through 2000, Nielsen hired Superintendent Joseph Olchefske, who overspent the district’s budget by $23 million and then needed to make $12 million in cuts — among the worst scandals in this district’s storied history.

Comments | More in News | Topics: Donald P. Nielsen, education reform

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