Sunday, July 6, 2014

Putting Students First: Reformers Don’t Know What that Means

 If you want to put children first, you must also put the adults who are working closest with them, their parents and their teachers, first.

The corporate education reformers love to talk about putting students first. Uber-reformer, Michelle Rhee, loves to say it so much she named her multi-million dollar non-profit StudentsFirst. When reformers attack teachers and teacher unions, they say it is because they are putting students first. When they support lawsuits attacking teacher job protections, it is because they are putting students first. The reformy state appointed superintendent in Newark, NJ, Cami Anderson, says that too many adults are getting in the way of her plans to close neighborhood schools and hand them over to charter operators “for the kids.” Even Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, who has systematically decimated public schools in Philadelphia through budget cuts, claimed he was putting students first with an agreement to raise a cigarette tax to aid Philly schools.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You reformers keep saying students first, but I don’t think you know what that means.”

Allow me to explain what it means.

I suppose most of us have flown so often by now that we don’t really pay attention to the flight attendants’ safety patter as the flight is about to take off. On a recent flight though, I listened enough to hear this: “If in the unlikely event an emergency causes a loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen bag will fall down from above you. If you are travelling with a small child, please put your mask on first and then assist the child in putting on a mask.”

The airlines get it. Children need adult assistance to succeed and if those adults are under extreme stress, say from lack of oxygen, or from poverty, or from stupid tests and evaluation schemes, the children will not thrive. If you want to put children first, you must also put the adults who are working closest with them, their parents and their teachers, first.

Parents living in extreme poverty are living lives under stress. The stress may come from being unable to provide food for their children, or from debt, or from violence in or outside of the home, or from abuse of drugs and alcohol. Whatever the causes, these stressors make for poor conditions for raising children who are able to learn. As Jeff Madrick, writing in an article titled Inequality Begins at Birth in the New York Review of Books, recently noted:

“[T]here is new biological evidence that a high-stress environment for very young children does not simply affect cultural and psychological conditions that predispose the poor to failure; it can also affect the architecture of the brain, changing the actual neurological functioning and quantity of brain matter.”

These studies generally [agree] that persistent neglect and inadequate nurturing are primary causes of brain deterioration.

If corporate education reformers are truly interested in putting children first, they will need to confront poverty. We already know how to do it. Our social programs like food stamps, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits have all worked to reduce poverty, but they have not gone far enough and they are under constant political threat of being reduced. Professor Madrick recommends giving poor adults with children cash allowances as is done in many countries in the world right now. A frontal attack on poverty will reduce adult stress and increase children’s ability to learn.

Teaching is a stressful job under the best of circumstances. Everyday a teacher faces hundreds of decisions, large and small, that impact student learning. Whether it is classroom management, lesson planning, assessing learning on the fly, dealing with a student who is ill or traumatized or being bullied or being the bully or struggling with a new concept, stress is all around.

Media reports blaming teachers for the issues, real and imagined, of public education, hare-brained evaluation schemes using student standardized test scores to measure learning, and attacks on teacher job protections only increase the stress. When teachers are put under the kinds of stress that threatens their job status for arbitrary reasons, they will make bad decisions. On one end of the scale of bad decisions is altering test booklets, such as happened under Michelle Rhee’s stressful tenure as Chancellor of the Washington, DC schools. At the other end of the spectrum of bad decisions is narrowing curriculum to focus on what is tested and subjecting students to endless rounds of test prep.

If education reformers really wanted to put kids first, they would try to make the job of teaching as attractive and rewarding as possible. Teachers would receive the respect that they have earned for spending years of good service in the profession. Teachers would be made an integral part of whatever evaluation system is put in place so they could focus on growth rather than job loss. Finally, the emphasis would be taken off standardized testing and placed on the valuable, daily formative assessment that teachers must use to insure each student is learning.

So there is a formula for the corporate education reformers:

1.    Combat poverty so that parents can focus on parenting and students can come to school ready to learn.
2.    Elevate the teaching profession so that teachers can focus their efforts on the child in front of them and not on some specious external test and flawed evaluation system.

How do the corporate reformers want to put students first?

1.    By calling for “no excuses” and claiming poverty doesn’t matter.
2.    By calling for “school choice” that drains needed funds from public schools and worsens conditions for most poor children, while providing no appreciable learning gains for those who do attend charter schools or use vouchers.
3.    By turning our public institutions into testing factories, so that public school children and teachers can be held to a false accountability.
4.    By placing thousands of students in front of Teach for America recruits who are neither trained for teaching, trained for working with children with learning disabilities nor interested in teaching as a career.
5.    Insuring that children in urban environments are exposed to scant resources, high teacher turnover and disruptive school closings.
6.    By turning schools over to for profit corporations who by definition put making money ahead of educating children.
7.  By destroying teacher job protections in the name of weeding out "bad teachers" identified by discredited statistical measures.


Education reformers, if you want to have the audacity to tell life-long educators that you are putting children first, than please be ready to tell us what you are doing for the parents of children living in poverty. A poverty that robs children of the opportunity to learn. Please tell us what you are doing for those other adults in children’s lives, the teachers.  Tell us what you are doing to insure that the thousands of highly qualified, appropriately certified, hard-working teachers out there are working in an environment that does all it can to insure their success.

Students first? Bah. Reformers don’t know the meaning of the term. I dare say that any single teacher out there has put more students first in one day than any of these reformers have in a decade of reformy, anti-public education, teacher bashing babble.