After working nearly 30 years as an urban school educator, I am convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the rules of the public school game are rigged against poor and Black children. The guardians of the game focus on three strategies to rig it: deception, fear, and misinformation.
As a former public school insider, I see and understand how politicians and educators deceive the public, manipulating data to draw pictures of progress, which in many instances are nothing more than illusions. An increase in high school graduation rates does not mean the students are ready for college or careers. An increase in college enrollment does not mean a higher college completion rate. A decrease in student suspension rates does not mean the school environment is safer. Achieving a level of proficiency on standardized tests does not mean one can think and grasp complex concepts.
“The emphasis on standardized tests may be the most damaging type of deception that public schools practice.”
The emphasis on standardized tests may be the most damaging type of deception that public schools practice. Politicians persistently pressure public school personnel to produce improved standardized test results, which are the main measurement of school quality. This places teachers in a dilemma. They either teach to the test, as often directed by school administrators, or they risk their job security.
Arguably, many people become teachers because they love teaching. Most probably had no idea to what extent politics would influence their teaching practice. They quickly learn that standardized testing is the most politically charged aspect of their job. Ironically, teachers are not taught to teach to the test. Yet, this practice of teaching to the test dominates their pedagogy on all levels, particularly grades 3 through 12. Furthermore, the overemphasis on test prep robs children of quality instructional time, not to mention limiting any attempts at creativity by teachers.
Teachers know that if their students’ tests scores are low, they face the threat of a negative rating or termination. This is one reason they support unions: job security.
Other than collective bargaining, the job of teachers’ unions is basically twofold: increase and retain membership. The more members there are, the more money unions raise by collecting dues, money that can be used to lobby politicians for more and stronger job protections as well as higher salaries. In this scenario, children only matter because each child comes with a dollar amount. That is one reason unions fight against any form of school choice. Parents who pull their children out of public school hurt the unions’ bottom line: money.
Of all stakeholders in public education, parents are the least informed. After all, the public school game can only be played if parents put their children in the game. However, the recent rise in the number of public charter schools is causing parents to explore other options for their children. This is a game changer.
Charter school operators successfully market their schools as the better option. They use standardized test scores to make their point. However, the truth is, when it comes to student outcomes, there is very little difference between traditional public schools and public charter schools. Because of superior marketing and student recruitment strategies, charter operators have convinced a substantial number of parents that their schools are the better option.
There is evidence to support the claim that some charter school leaders pressure children with special needs to attend their local public schools. It is also true that some low-performing children are encouraged to leave charter schools. It is, however, ironic that public school educators speak out against this practice when they are guilty of doing the same. It is harder to detect the push-out strategy in traditional public schools because of their size, particularly in New York City, whose public school system serves slightly over 1 million children.
As a former public school student, teacher, assistant principal, principal, and superintendent, I know firsthand the potential of a public school education. Public school educators, by and large, are some of the most dedicated, compassionate, competent, and caring people I have worked with.
Unfortunately, in public schools that serve majority of poor and Black children, teachers, parents, and children are used as pawns to perpetuate a system that remains unchanged because of deception, fear, and misinformation.