While watching part of NBC's Education Nation (aka the week-long made-for-TV ad for Waiting for 'Superman) last month, I tuned into the Teacher Town Hall where a teacher from a charter school was asked what made her school successful. "Teachers at our school are given the freedom to innovate!" she replied brightly.
Hmm, I thought. Sounds great. So why aren't the teachers in my children's public schools given that same freedom?
Instead, they are increasingly being slipped into the full nelson of a standardized curriculum measured by an ever-increasing barrage of computerized tests, all imposed by a top-down district management. (It feels stifling just to write about it.) Then the education reformers point an accusatory finger at our schools, call them "failing," and hold up charter schools as exemplars of "innovation."
And that's one of the first ironies -- or hypocrisies -- of the current national dialogue on education reform.
The biggest players in ed reform -- President Obama, Ed Secretary Arne Duncan, billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad: the "Superman" crowd, let's call them -- keep pushing privately run charter schools as the answer to all that ails our public schools (the central theme of 'Superman'). One of the main winning traits of charters, they say, is their freedom to "innovate." Indeed, free of public and school district oversight and mandates, privately run charter schools are granted the right to create their own curricula and empower their teachers to, allegedly, "innovate." (They've also been allowed to exclude and expel students who don't perform to their liking, a serious flaw of charters that even Secretary Duncan has acknowledged.)
Understandably, charter operations like to tout this precious autonomy they are given. Green Dot School's site states:
3. Local Control with Extensive Professional Development and Accountability
Principals and teachers own critical decisions at their schools related to budgeting, hiring and curriculum customization.
Now, why aren't our non-charter public schools being given the creative and managerial autonomy that these reformers value in charters? Instead, when it comes to influencing or running our school districts with their corporate management trained superintendents, or their agenda-laden grants, these same reformers impose strictures on our schools and kids that quash innovation.
For example, here in Seattle, why is our district, led by a reformist Broad Academy-trained superintendent, taking autonomy steadily away from individual schools and principals and centralizing it? Why is it telling our teachers they need to follow the central office mandated curriculum exactly? Why is it sending "visitors" from the central office to escort the school principal on pop-ins into classrooms to monitor teachers? (I've heard these are called "Learning Walks" -- apparently a trademarked term.) I can understand a principal checking on her/his staff, but why the accompanying Thought Police?)
I can't help but wonder if it isn't an intentional Catch 22 that some people are trying to trap our public schools in: setting them up to fail, making it impossible for them to be creative or independent, and then saying: "See! They're losers! They don't innovate! Let's sell these schools to the private enterprises of KIPP charters, Green Dot charters, Billy Bob's Acme Charters & Co.!"
Unfortunately this is just one of many conflicting messages coming from this latest breed of ed reformers. Those who are driving the national dialogue about the direction of our kids' public education -- from President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and lurking in the shadows with their open checkbooks, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Waltons, the Fishers and the Dells -- are saying one thing out of one side of their mouths and another thing out of the other.
Here are some other examples of ed reform doublespeak:
"CLASS SIZE DOESN'T MATTER (except in charters)"
How many times have we heard the reformers declare that "class size doesn't matter"? They claim that an "excellent" teacher can somehow transcend overstuffed classrooms and reach all kids. If this were true, then why do private schools and charters tout smaller class sizes and individualized attention as a key advantage over public schools?
Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone reportedly has a school with class sizes that average 15 kids, with two licensed teachers to every classroom! That's a private school -- and every parent's -- dream. From the Oct. 13, 2010, New York Times:
In the tiny high school of the zone's Promise Academy I, which teaches 66 sophomores and 65 juniors (it grows by one grade per year), the average class size is under 15, generally with two licensed teachers in every room. There are three student advocates to provide guidance and advice, as well as a social worker, a guidance counselor and a college counselor, and one-on-one tutoring after school.
And from the Green Dot charter company web site:
1. Small, Safe, Personalized Schools
All Green Dot schools are small (no more than 560 students when fully developed), ensuring that each student will not go unnoticed. In addition, small schools are safe and allow students to receive the personalized attention they need to learn effectively. Classes at each school will be kept as small as financially possible with a target student to teacher ratio of 27:1.
So apparently class size does matter to ed reformers when it comes to charters, but somehow not when it comes to the rest of the kids in regular schools.
"AN 'EXCELLENT' TEACHER CAN TRANSCEND EVERYTHING!"
How often have we heard the line: "The single most important factor in a child's academic success is the teacher"? Here it is in the recent "manifesto" of (soon to be former) District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and NY schools chief Joel Klein et al:
As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income -- it is the quality of their teacher.
And here's NBC (in an Education Nation press release) parroting this line:
Research and school-based evidence around the country now confirms that the most important variable affecting the success of the student is the effectiveness of the teacher, and the second most important variable is the effectiveness of the principal. Those two factors far outweigh the socioeconomic status, the impact of parental involvement or class size.
Problem is, these statements are false.
The most significant indicators and influences on a child's success in school are what's going on in these kids' lives at home. In other words, their socioeconomic background and home life. Of course academic ability is not determined by race, gender or economic status. But success -- the possibility of a child being allowed to fulfill her or his potential -- is necessarily influenced by how much support they get at home, the stability of this home life and whether or not this child comes to school hungry each morning.
For the ed reformers to say that none of this matters -- all you need is an "excellent" teacher -- is false and another rigged scheme: rigged for failure. They may as well be dunking teachers in water to see if they are witches.
It defies common sense to say that a teacher, however brilliant, can transcend all challenges a child brings to school, can navigate a classroom of any size and any needs, and if the child does not succeed in school (in ed reformspeak that only means doing well on standardized tests), it is clearly unfair and inaccurate to lay the blame entirely on the teachers.
A great teacher does make a difference, for sure. But a teacher alone cannot determine a child's academic success.
Despite this repeated canard, it's clear that Geoffrey Canada, one of ed reforms' heroes, recognizes these facts. Why else would his HCZ offer all the wraparound services that it does -- Baby College, medical and dental care for students and their families? This is a clear acknowledgment of the fact that a child in poverty needs a great deal more than a stellar teacher to have a fair shot at educational success.
"AN 'EFFECTIVE' TEACHER IN EVERY CLASSROOM (but 5 five weeks of training will do!)"
I also find it rather hypocritical for the ed reformers to say they care about pushing academic achievement for all kids, and measure the success of their reforms by how many kids go to college -- one of Canada's benchmarks for HCZ -- and then turn around and utterly dismiss the higher education of professional teachers.
Returning to the increasingly silly "manifesto":
A 7-year-old girl won't make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master's degree -- she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success.
If master's degrees are so useless, then why don't we just eliminate all academic degrees in all fields and just hire "effective, engaging" young credentialed dentists and doctors too? Does anyone really need an MBA? Or a law degree, for that matter?
On the one hand the reformers say they want an "effective" or "excellent" teacher in every classroom. On the other hand they promote sending Wendy Kopp's Teach for America, Inc. trainees -- who have only five weeks of training and are only required to commit to two years on the job -- into the most struggling and challenging urban schools in the nation. Only 34 percent of TFA recruits stay in the field for a third year. Teachers don't hit their stride until about the fifth. So most TFA-ers quit before they have even become "effective" teachers. (Michelle Rhee herself is a TFA graduate who only stayed for a few years in the field, and tells some pretty damning stories about her own mistakes as an inexperienced teacher.)
If the ed reformers were serious about promoting and supporting excellent teachers in every classroom, they would support well-trained professionals who are committed to the kids and the profession for the long term. Instead they disparage dedicated lifetime teachers as dead wood and promote young short-termers as the salvation. And their incessant teacher-bashing utterly undermines any claims they may have of "supporting" teachers.
"MONEY DOESN'T MATTER (except in the Harlem Children's Zone)"
"Money doesn't matter" the reformers like to say. I think I even heard President Obama say that recently, alas. And yet, the most comprehensive example of a charter model, Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, has an operating budget and net assets in the multi-millions.
Reports the New York Times:
In 2009, the Harlem Children's Zone had assets of nearly $200 million, and the project's operating budget this year is $84 million, two-thirds of it from private donations. Last month, the Goldman Sachs Foundation pledged $20 million toward constructing an additional school building. With two billionaires, Stanley Druckenmiller and Kenneth Langone, on the board, its access to capital is unusually strong.
Canada's Zone, at least acknowledges that underprivileged kids need a great deal of support inside and out of the classroom and school in order to succeed. His program offers social support services and medical services to these kids and their families for years, which is great. But he is given millions and millions of dollars to do it. That gives the lie to all those who say that money is not part of the solution to creating better schools. It also gives the lie to the reformers' teacher-bashing mantra that somehow an "effective" or even "excellent" teacher can transcend all society's ills.
It does take money to hire enough teachers to reduce class sizes, to maintain safe and clean facilities, invest in solid and inspiring curricula and enrichment. That's an indisputable fact. We as a nation have not made education a funding priority. All my life, schools have been holding bake sales, as the famous bumper sticker laments, scrambling to pay for basics. It is a national shame. And the Obama/Duncan lottery of Race to the Top is unconscionable in that it does not fund all 50 states equally or at all.
So here's where I'm at with this: Everything good the reformers tout about private control of our public schools via charters could be given to our existing public schools without handing over the control and finances of our schools to private charter franchise operators.
Smaller class sizes, more creative autonomy for teachers, local autonomy for schools, non-standardizing curricula that allow for more innovation, better resources for the kids from greater allocations of money -- all of this is possible in our existing schools, if our superintendent, school board and central administration office would allocate our school district's resources properly. But they don't -- as the recent damning state audit of Seattle's School District revealed. (That's why a growing number of parents and The Seattle Times support a "No" vote on the school levy Nov. 2 -- unprecedented in a town that always backs school levies).
ALL public schools should offer ALL these things to ALL kids, no private-charter franchise middlemen required, and no lottery required either.