Learning Matters: Public educational reforms can sometimes lead to unintended outcomes

Most Christmas seasons since I was a child, I’ve sat down to watch “Miracle on 34th Street,” one of my all-time favorite movies. To me, it’s a story about people doing the “right” things for the “wrong” reasons: acts of generosity or kindness undertaken for profit or personal benefit.

For example, the human resources director of Macy’s (played by Maureen O’Hara) hires the kindly Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwynn) — without looking closely at his job application — to replace the Santa who’s falling-down drunk on the Thanksgiving Day Parade float.

An attorney offers to let Kringle stay in his apartment primarily to improve his own chances of becoming better acquainted with the Maureen O’Hara character. Mr. Macy decides to replicate Kris Kringle’s customer-first approach (like sending customers to rival stores) when he sees its positive impact on Macy’s image and sales.

The judge who presides over Kringle’s sanity trial is motivated by his own desire for reelection. Throughout the movie, generous-seeming behaviors prevail among some of the most self-interested characters.

Public education reforms occasionally seem to work in the opposite way, with good intentions resulting in unintended or even peculiar outcomes. Two reforms come to mind.

One is the gradual demise in many districts of electives such as metal shop and wood shop. As educators rightly began attending more closely to the needs of academically struggling students, they noticed that many electives had become credit-recovery programs for students not considered “college bound.”

Those classes, though often popular among students, were not seen as helping them succeed academically in a global economy that increasingly requires higher levels of academic proficiency. Counselors began scheduling students into double doses of English or math, and “vocational education” electives began to disappear from master schedules. Machines and equipment were scrapped and classrooms repurposed.

Now, as academics and industry representatives alike see the benefit of preparing all students for college and career, schools are trying to rebuild school-to-career classes that link to the core curriculum.

Some schools that saved their tool benches are putting them to use again. Classes in technology and engineering are on the rise, not in the old style of vocational education, but in career-technical pathways that teach real problem-solving skills. That’s the hope anyway, the next good intention.

An odder outcome of school reform, to my mind, is California’s Transitional Kindergarten program. It was created a couple years ago as part of the legislative package that is gradually changing the date by which incoming kindergarteners must turn 5 years old, from December to September.

Ensuring children are 5 by the time they start kindergarten is a reform long sought by parents and early education advocates. Legislators added Transitional Kindergarten to the bill as an additional state-funded prekindergarten experience for children born in the fall who suddenly became ineligible for kindergarten.

Advocates touted Transitional Kindergarten both as preventing a long-term cut to the state education funding formula and as being revenue neutral. Many applauded it as a first step toward universal preschool.

I haven’t heard that Transitional Kindergarten has an end date — when I asked I was told it doesn’t — so I’ve never understood how it could be revenue neutral after the first three years. But what I find quite funny is the idea of classes made up entirely of children with fall birthdays (Libras, Scorpios and Sagittarians for those who follow astrology).

They’re the only group — one quarter of each year’s children — offered an extra year of publicly funded education. It’ll be interesting to follow their progress and read the research that will surely result… along with the questions about equal opportunity for, say, June or August birthdays?

Public education is an enormous undertaking, requiring continual adjustment to address society’s changing demands and demographics. It is both art and science. I know there are dedicated professionals all over the country working tirelessly with too little support, trying to help students succeed.

It’s easy to find fault with reforms. But I believe fully in the cause, as fully as the “34th Street” characters came to believe in Santa.

--JOYLENE WAGNER is a former member of the Glendale Unified School Board. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.

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