On this said day, when the mayor of Chicago has closed nearly 50 schools, Daily Kos links to a great profile of education reformer Michelle Rhee. The former head of Washington D.C. schools, Rhee makes strong decisions that seemed based on belief rather than fact, especially the belief that teachers’ unions are the biggest problem facing public schools. Instead, she favors an unproven market model that depends on charter schools. There is no clear evidence that charter schools perform better than traditional public schools. In other cases, as Diane Ravitch documents in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, reforms have clearly failed, only to have billionaires pour more money into some new model as well as funding union-bashing PR. Is this reform really about children or busting unions?
Daily Kos’s Laura Clawson is a great writer on labor issues. Sometimes, she can also be very funny. In a recent post, Clawson speculates what it would be like if the Teach for America model were applied to other professional fields.
The real point is, of course, that attacks on teachers are absurd. Many corporate reformers are looking for ways to break unions and pay teachers less. To do that, they have to create a boogie man of the “bad teacher.” Am I claiming there are no bad teachers? Of course not. There are unqualified or incompetent people in every field. The attack on teachers serves a political agenda. In her funny piece, Clawson call out the absurdity.
[On Sundays, this blog explores life and work in Sabbath.]
The Big Game and a Bigger Game
Over the last week, tension has built day by day as the Big Game – the Super Bowl – approaches. Now it’s the day of the Big Game, and in a week most people will not remember the score or which team was the winner.
Hype makes people pay attention in America. Let me offer proof in one word: Kardashian. Education? It’s more important than a football game or a celebrity, but it doesn’t get the hype. It’s just a policy issue, one that most politicians only discuss in sound bites.
I recently read a book that takes the subject very seriously, Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Ravitch was an advisor to the first President Bush and President Clinton. She was an early champion of charter schools and testing as a way to measure performance. A few years ago she did something we almost never see in contemporary America: Ravitch said the ideas she championed were wrong.
Examining data and results, she found that all charter schools do not perform better than public schools. Charter schools have produced mixed outcomes: Some achieved better results than the average public school, some are worse – most show no real difference in outcomes. At the same time, they often achieve success by cherry-picking students and leaving students with learning or behavior disabilities to be educated in the public system. Ravitch’s evaluation of testing was even more disturbing. As programs like No Child Left Behind judge schools by test scores, principals and teachers began to teach to the test, ignoring the broader curriculum that fosters a real education. Some schools have even cheated to raise their test scores.
Ravitch criticizes the political and philosophical positions that support “education reform.” She notes that both political parties have embraced charter schools as a solution. One of the reason they have done so is that billionaires and foundations have poured millions of dollars into programs to support charter schools. Those schools, however, must follow the philosophy of the funder. If that philosophy doesn’t work – as in Bill Gates’ support of “small schools” – the model schools are no better than the public model they have replaced. Who loses? The students who were the subject of experimentation.
Who is at fault for failing schools? Teachers. We hear that claim made again and again. Ravitch examines it and demonstrates how it is flawed. She clearly states that bad teachers need to be replaced (just like bad CEOs). However, many of the people who say the teachers are the problem are often motivated by a desire to bust teachers unions, not improve learning. They point the finger at teachers, ignoring administrators, parents, and social factors, including poverty.
Earlier, I compared education to a game, and in a sense it has become just that. Different reform groups “compete” to see who has the best model. President Obama rewards funding to schools that rank highly in his “Race to the Top” program. Reformers and politicians – including the alleged liberal Obama – want to replace pay based on seniority with merit-based pay, a form of competition. Ravitch criticizes all of these measures as an attempt to bring a business mentality to teaching. She shows why these logical-sounding ideas fail miserably as a way to measure learning.
Education in America is a multi-billion dollar game that will shape the future of this country and its individual citizens. Most people don’t take the time to think about the ideas that are reshaping our schools and the people who are spending tax dollars that are meant to educate children. Diane Ravitch doesn’t offer a simple answer. She does shine the light on some very bad ideas, which is the first step to building a school system that will be a winner.
Teach for America? How about teaching for free? Think Progress reports on teachers in Delaware County, Pennsylvania who have chosen to teach for free. State cuts to education mean that the school district cannot pay their salary. Pennsylvania’s governor has refused to help the district, blaming it for not being able to pay the teachers. Who cares more the teachers who work for free or the governor who cuts funds to pay for teachers? The next time someone blasts a teachers’ union, please remember this story. The problem isn’t teachers or unions. It’s greedy politicians who need to feed their wealthy contributors (many of whom also support the scam called “school reform.”).
Writing in Daily Kos, Laura Clawson examines the claim that charter schools give parents more choice. We have to ask if school reformers are really changing things for the better - or just cutting revenue for public schools. Why would they want to do that? To break the “evil” teachers unions, of course.
Some charter schools are very good, but the overall concept is a Trojan horse that will reduce another middle class profession with longer hours, no protection, and less pay. We also have to ask where the money that isn’t paid to teachers and principals is going. The Chicago Reader investigated local charter schools. Most refused to give information about their budgets or payrolls, information which Chicago public schools are required to make public. Ruining teaching as a profession, hiding how taxpayer money is spent – that doesn’t sound like reform.
The labor page of Daily Kos features an interesting article that examines the motive behind some school “reform” measures. A proposed measure in Pennsylvania would take money from schools and give it out as budgets, which give parents “choice.” This policy would drain money from public schools and kill teacher’s union. There is no evidence that vouchers will improve learning. Common sense says that they will eventually destroy public education.