Breakfast with Professor Lawrence

25 Mar

Tuesday was another spectacular day in southern California and I was cruising up old Highway 101 to meet Larry Lawrence for a late breakfast. We met at the Ki café just south of Swami’s and the Kook. Swami’s is a famous surfing spot in Encinitas, California and the Kook is an often redecorated statue near the San Elijo State Beach. The Ki specializes in smoothies, juices and healthy meals prepared from organic products including the coffee I had with breakfast. Larry is a regular there. He directed me to a seat at his favorite table with an awe inspiring view of the Pacific Ocean. A scintillating three hour conversation about saving public schools ensued.

Professor Lawrence has reservations about standardized education. He illustrated them with a personal experience.

In 1962, he attended a class during the summer put on by the University of Illinois Committee on the School of Mathematics. In December 1951, the Colleges of Education, Engineering and Liberal Arts and Sciences established the University of Illinois Committee on School Mathematics (UICSM) to investigate a new pedagogy for high school mathematics. When he returned to Morningside High School in Inglewood, California, Larry convinced a colleague from the middle school to go take the course with him the following summer.

Two years later, Larry was teaching geometry and one of his classes was composed of the students out of his middle school friend’s honors algebra class. Larry soon discovered that this teacher had gotten so bogged down with teaching new ideas like set theory and algebra properties that he had not completed most of the fundamentals of algebra. His students were lost. Therefore, Larry changed the class he was teaching from geometry and made it algebra I. The administration supported his decision with almost no reservations. In today’s standardized environment, Larry is quite certain no professional educator would be allowed to make that kind of call.

The weekend of February 28th Professor Lawrence was at the United Opt Out conference in Philadelphia. He sees opt out as one of the most effective means of fighting today’s mean spirited greed driven education reform. He says the destruction to Philadelphia’s public school system by test driven reform and privatization is pervasive and profound. He called it truly sad.

On March 3, he was in Los Angeles at a meeting of TEAch (Transparency, Equity and Accountability in CHarter schools). He estimates an attendance of 80 people including Joan Kramer (retired teacher, activist, author of the Turtle Learning blog), Jackie Goldberg (former California State Assemblywoman, founding member of the progressive caucus and former student of Professor Lawrence at Morningside High), Steve Zimmer (President of the Los Angeles Unified School District), Scott Schmerelson (LAUSD board member) and the Red Queen of LA (The well known blogger). The moderator was Susan Phillips. These activists gathered to form strategies for saving public schools from the destruction caused by the billionaire financed charter school movement.

On March 8th, Larry was in Anaheim where Superintendent of Schools, Michael Matsuda was hosting a viewing of “Killing Ed.” He says, “This is an excellent documentary about the Gulen Charter Empire that needs to be shown to everyone.” On this occasion he also got to speak with Tina Andres (Southern California BAT leader).

On March 9th, he represented the Occidental Alumni in Education and toured the original High Tech High in San Diego.   After a brief meeting with the schools CEO and philosophical guide, Larry G. Rosenstock, Larry and one other Occidental alumnus were lead through the High Tech schools by two student “ambassadors” for almost two and a half hours.

High Tech schools were started with the support of Qualcomm founder, Irwin Jacobs and Bill Gates in 2000. Larry saw a very casual environment with small classes. Curriculum at High Tech is all presented using problem based learning, also known as the constructivist approach which derives from the thinking of John Dewey. High Tech has a robust professional development program for teachers which supports the constructivist ideal. It also confers a  masters in education, through the profession development program.

During the tour, Larry noticed that everyone was taking the same math class. When he asked the “ambassadors” about it, one of them said “yeah, that’s frustrating. I am good at math and I am not being challenged.” Overall, he rated the school as first rate but did see a few warts.

I have had a few students come into my classes from High Tech High who really hated it and a teacher friend of mine at Southwestern Community College says the students from High Tech struggle with a non-problem based learning environment.

Professor Lawrence shared some personal experience and knowledge that leads him to believe that High Tech system will eventually fail because it has no robust structure in place like public schools.

UCLA started a lab school in 1882. In 1925, Corinne A. Seeds was hired to lead the school. She like Larry Rosenstock was a Dewian and was a dynamic forceful personality. Seeds became a key figure in developing and promoting progressive education during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. When Seeds was in charge, the school flourished. Seeds retired in 1957 and for three years the school floundered.

Then fortune shined on the school again with the arrival of another dynamic personality in 1960, John Goodlad. In his New York Times obituary it said, “Professor Goodlad proposed a radically new model of schools, in which elementary school students would not be divided into specific grades and their work would not be graded.” Larry worked with Goodlad at what was then called the Seeds school and he still promotes this idea. I see a lot of merit in it as well.

In 1987, Goodlad left UCLA and the Seeds school. After that the school, suffered tremendous financial duress without its charismatic leader. In the 1990’s, Seeds tried to solve its problems by becoming a charter school and today it is a private school that calls itself a lab school.

Professor Lawrence thinks that when the charismatic founding leader of High Tech is gone it will face a bleak future as well. Not being part of the democratically supported and supervised system will eventually catch up with High Tech and undermine the good work being done there.

On March 19th, Larry got an email from Karen Wolfe (education activist and parent) inviting him to Sunday morning breakfast in LA with Diane Ravitch. At 6 AM Sunday morning he was headed north on Highway 5 for breakfast with Karen, Diane, Tina Andres, Ellen Lubic and Josh Leibner. His commitment to public education and energy to fight for it has inspired me.

We left lunch challenging each other to think of some way to bring together the disparate activists in San Diego who support public education. We are hoping that we might be able to join with other southern California activist at the National Public Education conference this April in Raleigh, North Carolina and advance our struggle for the salvation of public education in our part of the country.

One Response to “Breakfast with Professor Lawrence”

  1. Joan Kramer March 25, 2016 at 6:16 am #

    How can I sign up for regular emails?

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