Sunday, March 23, 2014

What Education Reformers Can’t Do (And What They Should)

The corporate education reformers love to tell teachers what they need to do, what they have failed to do and where they need to place their focus. One of their favorite pieces of advice to teachers is that since teachers can’t fix the problems outside of school (such as poverty), they should focus on what they can do in school, which is improve instruction and learning.

I am all for the continuous improvement of teaching and learning, in fact, I have dedicated my life to it, first as a classroom teacher and later as a teacher leader. I believe that most of us who are in education are dedicated to continuous improvement of practice; that is the very definition of professionalism.

To believe, as we are told by the corporate education reformers, that education is the only or best way to end poverty in this country, is to believe in magical thinking. Poverty is not the fault of lax education and poor educators and it cannot be fixed by focusing on the classroom.

But, since the reformers like to tell educators what they can and cannot do, I would like to return the favor. Here is a list of things that various reformer groups can’t do, along with some suggestions for what they can do.

Education Reform Plutocrats

What they can’t do: Improve the quality of public education through market forces.   
            These plutocrats love to spend their tax deductible dollars in an attempt to reshape public education in their own narrow corporate competition model. The model will not work. Study after study has shown that effective school improvement comes through a strong collaborative process that involves teachers and school leaders working together on continuous improvement (Anrig, 2013). The corporate competitive model, which includes charter schools, vouchers and teacher accountability based on test scores kills collaboration and turns public education into a reality TV version of The Hunger Games.

            The “market forces” paradigm will enrich a few corporations and a few individuals and destroy public education, without improving teaching and learning.

What they can do: Spend their money elsewhere for the public good.

            1. Support wrap around programs that provide for prenatal health care for all children, universal high    quality pre-school and health clinics in schools in high poverty areas.
            2. Support a livable minimum wage
            3. Pay a fair share of taxes, instead of hiding behind tax dodges, and support the spending of those tax dollars on making sure poor people have more money. This country significantly reduced senior citizen poverty through Social Security. Similar programs would reduce poverty much more significantly than a focus on schools could. Making sure people have more money is the only way to attack poverty (Bruenig, 2013).

The US Department of Education and Arne Duncan

What they can’t do: Test and punish schools into improvement.

            No Child Left Behind established that test and punish was a bankrupt educational reform plan. By bribing states to double down on that false idea, through Race to the Top, Duncan and Obama have insured a narrow curriculum focused on what is being tested and a toxic school climate where teachers and supervisors view each other as enemies rather than partners.

What they can do: Get out of the test and punish business

            Since the 1980’s the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has shown to be a rigorous and reasonably valid and reliable assessment of how our nation’s school children are performing. This is the only assessment with which the federal government need concern itself.
            Once out of the test and punish business, the US DOE and Mr. Duncan can  focus on building partnerships for innovation with public schools aimed at collaboration and professional development aligned to sound educational practice.

Charter Schools

What they can’t do: Claim to be public schools

            As long as charters use methods to exclude struggling learners from their rolls, maintain unusually high attrition and suspension rates, use draconian discipline policies and fight audits of their finances, they cannot claim to be public schools and they should not receive public funds.

What they can do: Become partners within the public school system and centers of innovation

            This would mean reverting to the model of charter schools envisioned by Albert Shankar, where public school educators joined together to try out innovation with hard to teach children in charter schools and then shared the ideas that work with teachers in other schools.

What they can’t do: Improve education by attempting to destroy teachers unions, raiding pensions and denying teachers due process rights.

What they can do: Insure that urban areas get their fair share of tax dollars so that they can provide a quality education in an adequately staffed, fiscally stable, safe, clean learning environment.

Teach for America

What they can’t do: Teach (unqualified and uncertified)

What they can do: Remake themselves as Teacher Aides for America (TAFA) and work as valuable teacher aides in the classroom, while taking coursework toward teacher certification (if they do want to make a career of teaching).

Michelle Rhee

What she can’t do: Run a school district

What she can do: Go away. Please.

I will end with this quote from Matt Bruenig, “I can’t tell if education reformers are stupid, riddled with ideology, or just trying to make their projects seem grander than they are. But when they say you can’t solve poverty without education, they are wrong wrong wrong. If they don’t stop saying it, they should rightly be understood as antagonistic to the interests of poor people”

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