Saving Schools from the 'Supermen'

The kind of school reform that gets significant airtime right now is a corporate one, and the corporate interests that created it are also funding the PR campaign to sell it.
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"There is a Crisis in America's schools," the story goes. In 1983, the Reagan administration told us that our nation was at risk. Since then, we've been told loads of distressing things about our public schools. We've spent more money and more attention on education in response. Still, the story goes, our schools are failing, failing, failing. The teachers are terrible, their unions protect them, and we need superhuman efforts in order to stop them and save America! (Cue the cape-wearing Supermen wielding the powers of free market forces, centralized decision-making, test-based accountability and standardization!)

If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm pretty skeptical of this story. I'm even more skeptical of some of the people telling it.

To understand why, it's helpful to know a little bit about me. I'm an elementary school teacher who worked in a so-called failing school until this past May. I became a teacher because I believed certain elements of the story (namely that bit about bad teachers). I believed schools were in crisis, and that the best possible use of my time would be to work to change them for the better. I still believe in the urgent need to improve schools, and I still plan to devote my life to doing so.

But do I buy this crisis narrative? Am I waiting for Superman? Absolutely not.

From my experience working in a "failing" school, I can say that you'd be hard-pressed to find more committed, intelligent, and caring people than the public school teachers I feel privileged to call my colleagues. Teachers work tirelessly to do right by their students. It is not for lack of skill or effort that some schools "fail." And teachers' unions don't necessarily inhibit excellence. States whose teachers are mostly unionized tend to outperform* those whose teachers aren't, and some countries that outperform America have unionized teacher corps as well.

So what is this really about?

The kind of school reform that gets significant airtime right now -- a combination of school closures and/or conversions, merit pay, test-based accountability, executive control of schools, and standardization -- is a corporate one, and the corporate interests that created it are also funding the PR campaign to sell it. The Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations, along with for-profit education organizations and hedge fund managers, have helped fund the creation and promotion of movies like "The Lottery" and "Waiting for 'Superman,' " events like NBCs Education Nation, and "grassroots" activist groups like Stand for Children, Education Reform Now, and Done Waiting. They donate to politicians as well.

Now, some will say, "Who cares? What's wrong with applying business concepts to schools?" Three things, mainly.

One: None of these reforms work. (Note that corporate reformers never subject their own children to these gimmicks.) We're embracing "reform" strategies the rest of civilization is trying to escape! Consider how Finland, currently on top of the world, accomplished that feat:

The process of change has been almost the reverse of policies in the United States. Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around the very lean national standards. This new system is implemented through equitable funding and extensive preparation for all teachers. The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes.

Remember, these people are not education experts -- they're businesspeople. It shouldn't surprise us that their reform agenda doesn't systematically improve education, but does present greater business opportunities.

Two: This very ideology -- "ditch the old regulations, weaken worker protections and let the free market work its magic" -- brought the rest of our economy to its knees. The sacred ideals of the business crowd failed us in the business world, and that's their area of expertise! Do we seriously want to hand them our public schools -- the cornerstone of our democracy -- and just hope the children fare better?

Three: Speaking of democracy... whatever happened to democracy? Corporate elites became unspeakably rich by gaming our democratic and economic systems. They used their money to create legislation favorable to their interests, then gambled away our jobs, our homes, and our financial security. Their plunder eroded the tax base that supports public institutions like schools. Now that schools are starved for resources, some are offering us a portion of our money back in the form of grants and donations -- if we accept their un-proven reforms or un-democratic reformers. (We then have to hope that these new education leaders have good ideas, or that they'll resist the temptation to implement whatever faulty reforms their wealthy patrons offer in the future.)

We deserve better. What's more, we can have it -- if we focus our attention on the real problems we face. The inconvenient truth about school "failure" is that it's a symptom of the greater problems affecting our society. We've stopped investing in the common good, and created a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many. The countries now "surpassing our educational attainments" did just the opposite.

Corporate reform strategies created this mess -- they will never solve it. We can have the real reforms championed by actual educators and communities (like resource equity, smaller class sizes, better teacher training, increased teacher collaboration, and so forth) if we resist this corporate reform agenda and stop wasting money on gimmicks. Don't be conned by the "Supermen." Unite with your fellow Americans to demand the kind of equitable, humane educational system we deserve.

*ETA: Regarding unions and school performance, the suggestion here is that unions do not inhibit student performance, as is often argued; but I also don't mean to suggest that they increase student performance, either.

Take action! Join me, and accomplished teachers nationwide, in asking our leaders to support real education reform! Sign the Support Education petition sponsored by Teachers' Letters to Obama.

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