Former school superintendent says education is everybody's responsibility

Dr. Ramon Cortines, a familiar, even controversial name in education, spoke on "the community's capacity to improve schools" at last week's Morning Forum lecture in Los Altos. True to form, his appearance left some inspired and others unimpressed.

Cortines, a former San Jose schools superintendent, was forced out as chancellor of schools in New York City after a fallout with the mayor, before assuming his current role as special advisor to the U.S. secretary of education.

"Education is everybody's responsibility," Cortines said. "Our commitment is continuous improvement, and we have to understand and recognize those responsibilities."

Cortines said children are often lost in the shuffle of all the competing education ideologies. He said our future depends on educating every child well, and equity and excellence must be treated together because everyone needs to work together.

"We have to remember that good ideas come from talented people when they work together. We have to empower teachers to explore new techniques in the new technology. With new technology, learning at school will link with learning at home," Cortines said.

"The bottom line is student improvement. All students must be helped to master the elements of education."

In the ghetto, Cortines said the only thing many children can count on is school, and he related a saying from the ghetto: "'Somebody find me. Reach me. Teach me.'

"In addition to the three R's in education, we need a fourth R and it's called 'the arts.' Art is a powerful tool because it changes many students' interests, whether it is a new ballet step or a paint brush."

In a concluding remark before the question-and-answer period, Cortines spoke about his involvement in the San Jose Unified School District.

"I didn't get the San Jose School district out of bankruptcy," Cortines said. "This was the first school district in the country that went bankrupt and the responsibility rested with the people and their children, so we got out of it together."

Unusual for most Morning Forums, when Cortines completed his lecture more than half the audience left. Some complained that he virtually read his presentation.

"He offered no new suggestions and he rehashed the same old thing by using statistics," said Phyllis Rutner, a Morning Forum member from Los Altos.

"I think he wrote this speech for some other group and any college junior could have written it," said Jean Taylor, another Los Altos member.

In answer to questions from the audience, Cortines commented on the state's reduced class sizes in elementary schools.

"I applaud the governor's effort to reduce class size, but teachers need skills and information on the multiplicity of issues and don't need the responsibility to baby-sit them," Cortines said. "Loving children and liking kids is not enough. We could have phased in the class reduction. We need to invest in schools, but more money is not the answer."

With regard to the Oakland school board's controversial Ebonics decision, Cortines said: "Ebonics is not objective. When students came to first grade and talked baby talk, we corrected them and we helped them learn the proper pronunciation of words. We should spend time to teach them."

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