The conversation about school reform in Washington is replete with big ideas – glossy proposals for “accountability,” putting the “students first,” fixing “broken” schools, all in hopes of making America “competitive” again.
Yet our schools are poorer than ever, and in many communities, the child poverty has deepened while test scores have stagnated. The experts leading the education reform debate have failed to draw a simple equation: a system with adequate resources does better than one without.
The gap in the logic has widened as state governments press school districts to conform to new standards – or else. States are gunning for a competitive grant fund known as “Race to the Top,” which the White House dangles as an incentive to restructure school systems. This hyped-up free-market reform rhetoric seeped into President Obama’s suggestion to “offer schools a deal” in his State of the Union address.
The No Child Left Behind corporate-style reform template emphasizes tests and evaluations, purging bad teachers, and shuttering failing schools.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is pressuring teachers’ unions to agree to major reforms so the state can tap into a Race to the Top grant. At issue are efforts to impose evaluation schemes that might make teachers’ jobs contingent on potentially misleading or incomplete data. A Washington Post editorial praised Cuomo for standing up to the supposed obstructionism of unions to defend childrens’ civil rights.
In recent remarks commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Cuomo spoke of his increasing intolerance for a school system that regularly fails so many of its students. “Our schools are not an employment program,” he said, according to a report in the New York Times.
Got that? Organized labor equals failing students. Because unions may resist the shedding of teachers who don’t conform to the standard model of constant testing and reducing education to a set of data spreadsheets. And why should teachers feel so entitled to job security when children’s grades are at stake?
That’s the ideology of reformers who see radical restructuring, together with charter schools, as liberation from burdensome bureaucracy. Except this solution involves swapping an old bureaucracy for a new one: one that’s more efficient at homogenizing public education and blaming schools for the deep inequalities that they often merely symptomize.
This theory doesn’t click with many students and teachers around the country, though. For example, though struggling communities in New York City should have the most at stake in the debate on school quality, somehow, they don’t want to see their “underperforming” schools shuttered. At a rally against the threatened closure of M.S. 103 in the Bronx, the Times reported:
[T]he proposed closures are almost always protested by parents and teachers. Monique Small, recording secretary of the Parent Teacher Association, called M.S. 103 “a family.”
“You cannot close down a family,” Ms. Small said. “You cannot close down a home.”
While Mayor Michael Bloomberg also advocates more rigid evaluations, the city seeks to leverage federal “School Improvement Grants” to push a “turnaround” agenda for troubled schools. This process, according to Gotham Schools, enables authorities to:
close 33 schools and reopen them immediately, with new names and identification numbers. Then a team of educators selected for the ‘new’ school would hire a new staff with the union’s input, pulling half of the new teachers from the original school’s roster.
In sum, “turnaround” means the power to turn over a big chunk of the staff. Advocates say such shock therapy sinks low-income communities of color deeper into the social and economic segregation that leads to poor educational outcomes in the first place.
In Hawaii, educators have defied the Race to the Top model in a critical contract vote, rejecting a deal between union leaders and the state that would have moved toward performance-based pay schemes and tighter evaluations.
The symbolism of the action isn’t merely a matter of contracts and union politics. Rank-and-file teachers chose not to buy into Washington’s “incentive,” and demanded the respect due to public servants who understand education better than your average politician. A recent informal union poll of Hawaii teachers revealed that about two thirds worked another job for extra income – reflecting a broader trend of teachers “moonlighting” outside the classroom.
In their zeal to restructure schools, politicians seem to willfully ignore the obvious: a school that doesn’t have the resources to succeed, won’t.
Bruce Baker, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, told In These Times:
t’s much easier to point blame at those working within the system – like teachers – than to actually raise the revenues to provide the resources necessary to really improve the system – to pay sufficient wages to attract and retain top college graduates and to provide the working conditions that would make teaching more appealing – including smaller total student loads… and higher quality infrastructure, materials, supplies, equipment and other supports.
As for the underachieving teachers targeted by politicians, Stan Karp at Rethinking Schools points out that, compared to conventional evaluation systems, assessment programs that empower teachers go further to improve teaching quality. The key is “a school-wide sense of accountability and collective purpose” – in other words, treating teachers as democratic stakeholders, not preprogrammed robots.
But that’s not the kind of education system that corporate reformers envision, because it fosters values that challenge the free-market mentality they champion. Education activist Jim Horn told ITT:
The reason we have an achievement gap is because we have so many kids living in poverty. So raising standards is very cheap… You can raise standards and it won’t cost you a nickel. To do something about poverty, however, is going to be a costly endeavor. But doing something about poverty is the only way to ever change the low performance by children in school…. Until that changes, the rest of it is going to be continuing to blame schools for something that schools are not responsible for and can never fix.
The real test facing public education today hinges on questions of social justice. But it’s easier and cheaper for politicians to ask the wrong questions, sell the wrong answers, and cheat the system they claim to fix.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.