Saturday, November 23, 2013

Putting Students First: What Does that Really Mean?

We can see, if we care to look, that the way we treat children – all of them, not just our own, and especially those in great need – defines the shape of the world we will wake up in tomorrow. – Barbara Kingsolver

My wife, Cindy Mershon, and I were talking over lunch about the perceived and real issues related to education. Cindy said to me, “The real issue is that we don’t value children in this country.” While I tried to digest that statement she went to the library to pull out a book. Then she read me an essay, part of which I quoted above, from Barbara Kingsolver’s collection, High Tide in Tucson.  And so, I began to think about the education reformer battle cry, “We must put children first.”

The so-called education reformers like to say that they want to put children first. And so we get organizations like Students First, Kids First, Achievement First, Just for Kids and we get rhetoric from reformers like Steve Perry, who seems to accuse every reform agenda critic of being anti-child and racist. For the reformers, “Education is the civil rights issue of our time” (Edna Bush, 2013). The clear implication is that educators have not been putting children first, or as Steve Perry puts it, they “put jobs first.”

Reformers look at the dire conditions in urban schools and they decide that the poor teaching and intransigent unions are the cause. Citing the oft repeated shibboleth that the “teacher is the single most important in-school factor in a child’s learning”, they base their remedies on so-called “school choice”, staff “churn” and stripping union members of job protections.

Here are the chief tenets of the reform agenda as I can best discern them:

·         Parents deserve choice in the school they send their children to. Children should not be relegated to a poor school because of their “zip code.” Vouchers will allow parents to choose better schools for their children.
·         Charter schools will use public funds to create “healthy” competition with regular public schools and create replicable models for public schools to follow.
·         Teacher accountability measures must be tied to student scores on standardized tests, so that we can make judgments about the most effective teachers.
·         Teachers whose students score well should receive monetary rewards to “incentivize” high performance.
·         Tenure and seniority rights must be stripped from union negotiated contracts, so that “bad” teachers can be more easily removed.
·         Public schools should adopt a business model of “creative disruption”, where staff “churn” is a featured part of improving performance by a regular removal of the lowest performers.
·         States should loosen teacher certification rules, so that more people can come into the profession without the burden of extensive training in teaching.
·         Curriculum should be tied to a set of national standards that will be the basis for a yearly standardized testing regime.

Sound good? Well, apparently it does to many people judging by what is going on across the country in the name of putting children first. What would be funny, if it were not so horrifying, is that all of the things listed above do not put children first. What they put first is a corporate agenda to privatize public education and profit from it. If the corporate reformers were really serious about putting children first, they could look at the thousands of schools in the country that have strong unions and a wide variety of teachers and who are doing a terrific job of educating children, better even than Finland. How is it that so many schools in the country are doing well, if the problem is teaching quality and unions who want only to protect poor teacher’s jobs?

While the United States is leading the developing world with 22% of its children living in poverty, we have wealthy reformers telling us the problem is lack of school choice and poor teachers. Let’s ask ourselves who profits from a narrative that bashes unions and demonizes teachers. Could it be those famous union bashers like the Walton Family and Michelle Rhee and the other plutocrats behind the pillaging of public education? Or how about that “creative disruption” maven, Bill Gates?

In the U.S. our social programs for children are hands down the worst in the industrialized world. – Barbara Kingsolver

What would an agenda that actually put children first look like? (Many of these were enumerated in Diane Ravitch’s excellent book, Reign of Error.)

·         Excellent pre-natal care for all expectant mothers to be sure every child got a healthy start in life.
·         Excellent child care available for every working mother.
·         Social workers and child psychologists available to advise parents on parenting activities that will help prepare the child for learning.
·         Paying working parents a livable minimum wage so that they can feed, clothe and spend time with their children.
·         Universal quality health care
·         Universal Pre-K education
·         Public libraries in every community
·         Health clinics in every urban public school
·         School counselors in every public school
·         Librarians in every public school
·         A rich curriculum for every child in every public school that includes physical education, the arts and lots of after school enrichment activities.
·         A curriculum that is broad, rich and deep and not narrowed by an overreliance on standardized testing.
·         Strengthening the teaching profession by attracting top level candidates, preparing them well in both content knowledge and pedagogy and encouraging them to work in areas of greatest need through competitive salaries and improved working conditions. Merit pay does not incentivize teachers. It has been tried and it has failed. What professional educators desire most is good working conditions. Good working conditions means reasonable class sizes, a workable schedule, a physical plant in reasonable repair, helpful supervisors and friendly, open colleagues.
·         Improving teacher evaluation so that it is a valuable and integrated part of the profession, which provides meaningful feedback that the teacher can use to improve performance. This requires viewing the teacher as a professional and not a cog in a testing machine.
·         Employing sufficient administrative staff, who are experts in teaching and learning, to provide valuable feedback
·         Working with teacher unions to provide needed support to lower performing teachers until the desired improvement is either made or the teacher is counseled out of the profession. (Yes, this can happen and does happen, see Montgomery County, Maryland’s PAR program for instance.)

What we get from reformers is an easy to sell, but deeply flawed narrative that puts children first in words only. If the agenda of the education reformers is to put children first, where is the outcry from these people when budgets for urban education are slashed as they have been in Philadelphia? Or when 30 neighborhood schools are shut down in Chicago? There is no outrage from the reformers because the denial of funds to public schools plays into reformers hands. They can again point to public education and say it is not working. In corporate parlance they are “starving the beast.” And where in any reasonable sense of "putting the child first" would we be subjecting young children to battery after battery of standardized tests? 

If the reformers really wanted to put children first, they would be fighting for every public dollar that could be found to support quality, neighborhood schools for all children and for living conditions that allow every child to arrive at school secure, healthy, well-fed and well-prepared to learn. When I see education reformers fighting for those things that will truly benefit children, and not their own corporate agenda, I will believe they are willing to put children first. The way we care for our neediest children, in and out of school, is the civil rights issue of our time.

[Children] thrive best when their upbringing is the collective joy and responsibility of families, neighborhoods, communities, and nations.” – Barbara Kingsolver


Barbara Kingsolver quotes from “Somebody’s Baby” in High Tide in Tucson (1995). NY: Harper Collins.