Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday's Five - Education "Reform" Lies

Here's a statement of the obvious:  In the world of politics, very rarely to people mean what they say, say what they mean, nor tell you the whole truth.  With the objective of achieving their political agendas, many catch phrases have become popular with politicians to describe "reforms" they are trying to make to public education.  Of course, all of the phrases are designed to sound positive, even though they are meant to destroy the very public education system that has allowed this country to thrive for centuries.  The real objective of this "reform" movement is change public education from a way to educate students from all backgrounds and demographics into a money making venture.  Don't believe me?  Take a look at the bios of some of the people pushing for "reform".  You'll find plenty of CEOs and hedge fund managers.  You won't find a single former teacher.  Let's take a look at a few of these phrases and see what they really mean.

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  1. "School Choice" - When students are allowed to change schools and take funding with them, a few things happen.  First, the school that they left loses revenue.  In many cases, the revenue lost is more than what it would cost to educate the student who is leaving.  When you factor in that the most expensive students to educate are those with special needs, and many private schools are allowed to ban such students, the inequity here becomes more stark.  For example, if it costs a school district $9,000 on average to educate a student, that number is a combination of the $25,000 it costs to educate special needs students and $4,000 it costs to educate regular education students.  If a regular education student transfers, they take $9,000 with them to their new school and the public school they left is short $5,000.  Secondly, the schools that students are transferring into are subject to different rules than the public school they left.  One such rule is that the school can be run by a for-profit company, resulting in tax dollars going to that company.  A glaring example of how this destroys public education as we know it can be found in Chester County, PA.  The public school district there has run out of money because of budget cuts and 50% of their students switching to a charter school.  While the company that ran the charter school handed out laptops to its students earlier this year and pocketed a $5,000 per student fee, the teachers at the public school are working without pay.  This cannot be what a good public education system looks like, especially when 4 out of 5 charter schools that are taking money from our public system do not outperform the public schools they are bankrupting.  In fact, many perform worse.
  2. "Teacher Accountability" - Let me start by saying that everyone should be held accountable for doing a good job, teachers included.  I welcome the opportunity to be judged on whether I am doing a good job teaching.  The problem is that the methods of evaluating teachers being discussed are not measuring whether we do a good job of teaching.  Should policemen be held accountable for the number of drunk drivers in their town?  Should firemen be judged by the number of fires in their area?  Should the effectiveness of a doctor be based on how obese his/her patients are?  We all know that you cannot control the behavior of others.  Teachers should be judged on their own behaviors, not those of their students and their students' parents.  Since there is no cheap and easy way to do this, politicians have decided to use student standardized test scores instead - despite the fact that those tests were not designed for that purpose and research has been shown that parents are the primary factor in predicting student success on those tests.  I don't think it's a coincidence that standardized testing companies have made billions of dollars in the past decade from both the tests themselves and the test prep materials they have sold to schools.  Once again, public tax money that should be going towards educating students is ending up in the hands of those looking to make profit on the backs of our children (and with close ties to many politicians who are pushing for these policies).
  3. "Alternative Certification" - Every student deserves an excellent, qualified teacher helping them learn.  Recently, some states have begun to allow people from other professions to take "alternative certification" courses, which last a few weeks and allow them to teach.  As someone who takes my profession very seriously, this is the highest of insults.  We should be making our teacher training programs more rigorous and raising our expectations of those coming into the profession.  Our students deserve nothing less.  Of course, the reason for these alternative programs is to reduce teaching from a profession to hourly job.  If teachers are not trained as professionals, they don't have to be paid as professionals.  And when teachers don't have to be paid as professionals, more tax payer money can be diverted into the pockets of those looking to profit off our children.  
  4. "Merit Pay" - Two heads are better than one, right?  And three are better than two.  If you want to accomplish a goal, getting many people to invest in finding a solution and collaborating together is desirable.  If your goal is getting students to learn you want teachers share their successes and failures with each other.  That's not what educational "reformers" want, though.  Teachers overwhelmingly oppose the corporate takeover of our schools.  Having them working together makes it difficult to change to a for-profit public education system.  Merit pay is a way to ensure that teachers compete instead of collaborate.  If only the teachers with the best scores get paid, teachers will be much less likely to help each other.  If your family's wellbeing depends on your students scoring higher on some test, you can bet that you'll be more likely to fight for the kids who have steady homes, affluent parents, and no learning disabilities.  Wouldn't it be better for our students if the best teachers were encouraged and rewarded for working with our most needy students?  
  5. "Education Reform" - I've used the term "reform" throughout the post, and each time I've put it in quotes.  Our education system does need to change.  For over a decade we've been testing students more and more, asking them to think less and less, and the results by every measure show that we have stagnated.  Every student deserves the opportunity to have a great education in our country, regardless of their zip code or economic background.  We need to improve the effectiveness of our teachers by increasing the training we give them.  We need to reform our pre-service teacher programs so that teachers coming into the profession are more prepared.  The United States is one of the few countries in the world that gives less resources to schools that are most in need.  That needs to stop.  We need to look at finding ways to fund schools equitably so that students attending schools in economically depressed areas have a chance at success.  Instead of letting for-profit companies create charter schools with tax dollars, thus leaving many of our students in bankrupt public schools, we need to make a commitment to fixing those public schools so that ALL students have a chance to learn.  Most importantly, we need this revolution to be lead by educators, not by CEOs, hedge fund managers, and politicians.  Nobody wants politicians and insurance company executives making decisions on their health care instead of their doctors.  Likewise, nobody should want politicians and company executives making decisions about their child's education instead of their child's teachers.  Don't tell me there's no money to do these things - the billions of dollars being sucked out of the system by testing companies and for profit management companies will be plenty. 


  1. Thank you for sharing your viewpoint. It is a crying shame that so much goes to those who don't need it. I'm not one for Socialism, but if we want to "level the playing field", then let's do it for all children equally.

    1. Rodney,
      If we're starting to view free public education as socialism, we're really in trouble. That thinking leads to a society where the rich live behind barbed wire walls and paid armed guards while the rest of the populace lives in slums on the outside, much like in many Banana Republics. I agree that all need to have the opportunity for a great education. Thanks for commenting.

  2. What's disturbing about your post is not its intensity or accuracy. Simply put, it is that those who have no idea what the education profession really requires are the ones making the decisions; and those who wish to turn this around don't have the time or energy to fight this fight.
    State Teacher Union leadership does not always represent the interests of its membership in the most intellectually or academically sound ways. Yet, these are the ones we turn to to fight our fights for us. That is, in fact, what we believe we pay dues for. Sadly, when they fight political leadership, our education leadership too often defaults to petty slights and outright name-calling (I believe we teach our students that this behavior is bullying), rather than the high-road of negotiation and collaboration. In the end - as we have seen in NJ - the hard-working, PROFESSIONAL teacher gets hurt and the union leadership continues to draw its pay with no penalty.
    And, as a professional educator, I think we need to be honest with ourselves. We could have minimized many of these issues if we had handled some issues more professionally and responsibly. Did it really require a Governor Christie political agenda to identify problems with and force changes to tenure? It didn't take much to see the obvious: our profession - like EVERY profession - has weak links and ineffective well-wishers. This is far from an insult. It is what it is. And what it is is obvious. Why then didn't the political arm of the union leadership (in each state) and nationally (ie, the NEA and/or AFT) set about to make the changes that would strengthen our political and bargaining power and publicly demonstrate the seriousness with which we take our profession.
    To be sure, this rebuttal hardly touches on your other points. But let's consider the ripple effect. 20 years ago we change tenure rules, by our own hand. We dismiss those teachers who are unable to handle the room and are unwilling to learn new effective teaching & classroom management methods. IN the process of reforming tenure (to something like NJ is now proposing), we force the teacher prep programs to step-up their requirements, making them more rigorous, including the depth/breadth of courses as well as the number of pre-service hours required. On top of which, in an effort to improve the quality of teachers and prevent turnover, mentoring programs are revamped and aligned with state and national EA standards relative to new tenure requirements.
    NOW, we have kept the best and most willing. We have weeded out - with multiple opportunities to improve - those who are unwilling or unable to achieve an appropriate level of professionalism. And we have increased our own political and professional capitol within our local communities, not to mention state associations and at the national level.
    Instead, we buried our collective heads in the sand and hoped no one would ever call us out for having people teaching who should not be in the classroom working with their kids, collecting larger and larger paychecks, and collecting full benefits for having survived an ineffective career at the taxpayer's expense.
    We cannot control others - the kids we get, their abilities and weaknesses, the parents' involvement or not, or the SES of the communities are public schools are in. But, to be frank, we didn't even control the things we COULD HAVE controlled. And that is on us. Nobody else.

  3. Karl, Thanks for commenting. I don't disagree with much of what you said. I'll freely admit that I'm not all that knowledgeable about the specifics of Nj. I think the problem with the "bad teacher-tenure reform" argument is that there aren't a whole bunch of great teacher on the sidelines waiting to take their place. I think everyone would agree that kids deserve great teachers. The best way to do that is for admins to do their job with evals, and for us increase our focus on developing the talent of the teachers we have in the classroom now. It's not like bad teachers can't be fired now. They can. Often the fault is with weak leadership in admin positions not having the kahunas to do it. Other times, the fault does lie with unions protecting those who need to go. Overall, though, I think that on the list of problems facing education, too many "bad teachers" is pretty low on the list. We've got much bigger fish to fry.