Public Schools that Work: Discussion with Amy Perruso, Part 2

I had been thinking about writing on public schools, particularly the ones that just seem to work. This got me thinking of doing a second discussion with Amy Perruso. Originally from Southern California, she is a graduate of USC. She is Social Studies department head at Mililani High School and has a Ph.D. in Political Science. She was recently elected as the Treasurer of the Hawai’i State Teachers Association (HSTA) on a progressive slate that is seen as a kind of upheaval that could lead to radical changes in the direction of the union. She is an award-winning teacher, recipient of awards from Walmart and the Hawai’i Council for Humanities History Teacher of the Year in 2012. Her students perform at a national level in History Day, Mock Trial and We the People, all of which are social studies civics and history competitions. She has taught, among other things, AP US History, Modern Hawaiian History and Participation in Democracy. We had a second chat on what works (and doesnʻt work) for public schools. You can read Part 1 of our discussion here.
UPDATE: Since this interview, Amy Perruso declared her candidacy as a progressive Democrat for the state legislature in District 19.
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Umi Perkins (UP): One thing thatʻs so strange about Hawaiʻi is that you can pay $1 million or much more for a house, and end up in a bad school district. On the “mainland” what youʻre paying for, often, is precisely the schools in the district. In Hawaiʻi, there are good public schools in moderate income communities. From what I can tell, Mililani High School is very successful across a range of academic measures, as well as athletic and scholastic competitions – you appear to be good at everything. Moanalua High School is similar, and both districts, which are moderate to middle income, are solid from elementary through high school. How do you account for this success, such as it is?
Amy Perruso (AP): I think there is a direct correlation between the relative success of the students in Mililani and their socio-economic status of their families. Not only did higher ‘original’ test scores when NCLB first rolled out buffer our Mililani schools from the most draconian measures for a long time, but those buffers (protection from intrusion of privatizing corporations like Edison, imposed mandated curricula, and hyper-control of teachers that pushed the most experienced and professional out of the classroom) continued to allow for exciting, interesting and student-centered approached to learning, focusing on inquiry and interdisciplinary exploration. This began to disappear even for us with Race to the Top. Any signs of academic excellence you now see are either echoes from the past or tightly tied to the corporatist neoliberal agenda.
UP: But that doesnʻt explain the relative mediocrity of other schools in affluent districts…
AP: I see your question. It is interesting and has everything to do with the ways in which public education is funded in Hawaii. We are funded not by property tax but primarily by General Excise Tax (GET). This a direct result of a historical refusal on the part of the socio-economic elite in Hawaii, beginning with plantation owners, to allow property taxes to be used for education of workers. In Hawaii, we have a radically segregated education system (public v. private), divided both along class and ethnic/racial lines. The public schools educate primarily the children of the ordinary worker, while private schools have flourished by appealing to more affluent families, especially in urban areas like Honolulu. Did you know that almost 40% of all school age children in Honolulu attend private school? From my perspective, children are the most important element of a school, and public schools in places like Honolulu are being robbed of a huge chunk of the children whose families are most focused on and supportive of education. We do not struggle with that problem as much in Mililani in part because of geographical distance from private schools.
UP: One more question (and itʻs admittedly a hard one): what do you see as the biggest challenge in Hawaiʻi public education and the best solution to this problem?
AP: I think that the most important problem facing public education is that we have unfortunately adopted of a model of educational reform that has been clearly debunked by international research. We need to move away, as rapidly as possible, from the model instantiated by NCLB, that is, a model based on competitive ranking, standardization, test-based accountability, deprofessionalization of teaching, and privatization. I agree with Pasi Salberg and other international advocates of progressive education who argue for investment in equity (not just excellence), collaboration and teams, time for play and creativity, existing and available innovation, and creating a culture that encourages resilience by celebrating the importance of risk-taking and failure. I think in Hawaii that means we have to do something we have never done before, and that is to fundamentally and systemically challenge the injustice of how young people in Hawaii’s public schools are being treated and educated, as if they don’t deserve the kind of education afforded to private school students.
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