From Sisyphus to Prometheus: California's Challenge

Article excerpt

In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus is sentenced to an afterlife in which he must push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again just as he reaches the top. It's a story of frustration and futility that is a fitting metaphor for school reform efforts in California.

That Sisyphean scenario is evident in a new report released in February, which describes the long, uphill effort California faces in moving our public schools toward excellence. The annual Educational Opportunity Report by UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA) examines the educational achievement and conditions in California's public schools. Its findings would have been shocking a decade ago. Today, they are almost taken for granted by a public used to bad schools. But the findings are worth noting.

* California ranks 48th among all states in the percentage of its senior class that enrolls in a four-year college.

* California schools have more than 15,000 non-credentialed teachers, and they are disproportionately concentrated in schools that serve low-income students and English learners.

* Even before recent budget cuts, California spent $2,000 less per student than the national average.

As with all great tragedies, there is ample irony:

* California needs 12,000 new nurses by 2014 and 100,000 new teachers in the next decade to replace retiring teachers.

* Forty-four percent of California's 170,000-plus prisoners do not have a high school diploma or GED.

* Each year, the United States issues thousands of H1-B visas and imports thousands of temporary skilled workers (195,000 in 2004; 85,000 in 2008), many to work at California tech companies.

The data adds up to this: California is desperate for skilled labor, yet is undereducating its future workforce. It spends millions on a prison population that can't contribute to the state's income or growth. Then, to add insult to injury, California imports labor to make up for the deficit of educated workers.

At the ground level, we as grassroots community organizers and advocates see the results of the education crisis every day. An immigrant student in Fresno attends an overcrowded school, where some of his classes are held in a gymnasium and his math teacher is trained to teach history. …