As Poverty Increases, Reformers Cling to the “New Status Quo”

A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education released new data that confirms what every advocate of public education has been trumpeting for years: poverty is a growing scourge on public schools. According to its 2013 Condition of Education report, one in five schools in the United States are considered high poverty. Twenty percent of public school students attended these schools in 2011, considerably more than the 12 percent who did in 1999–2000. That year, 45 percent of students attended a low-poverty school. Now only 25 percent do. Overall, approximately 10.9 million school-age children are from families living in poverty, a four percent increase from a decade earlier.

The trend is stark – poverty is affecting more and more students. And yet, the debate over education – at least how it plays out in the national media and many legislatures across the country- continues to freeze out substantive discussions about poverty and its obvious impact on student achievement. The ongoing fascination with market-driven education reform proposals and their media-savvy boosters leaves room for little else, although recent scrutiny over faulty standardized tests is reason for encouragement.

For years now, the American people have been told that the key to close achievement gaps is to use high-stake stest scores to evaluate teachers and schools, and close schools that are deemed “under-performing” and replace them with charter schools. Obviously it’s easier to champion these ideas once the discussion of poverty and its consequences for millions of students is severed from the equation.

The stakes are high. There is, after all, a lot of money to be made. Reform has become an industry.

“There are people who look at our investment in public education, and they see a treasure chest,” National Education President Dennis Van Roekel recently wrote in The Huffington Post. “Their first thought is, how can they tap into those funds for their own private gain? If just one percent of education spending were diverted to private profit, it would mean $5 billion a year in someone’s pockets.”

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Teacher of year not a fan of corporate ed reform

The new teacher of the year is Jeff Charbonneau,from Zillah, Washington, a high school science teacher and co-president of the Zillah Education Association. Much like the last teacher of the year, isn't a big fan of corporate education reform

Charbonneau said that it is not even clear if the standardized tests themselves are “completely valid or show what students know.”

“At this point I don’t think you can tie those test scores [to teacher evaluations] as it currently being done,” he said. “Could they have relevance in the future if the tests are better? Yes.”

Charbonneau also said that he disagrees with school reformers and others who say that American public education is in a crisis.

“The concept that we are a nation of failing schools I believe is false,” he said. “We are a nation of succeeding schools. I think our schools are succeeding far more and at higher levels than given credit for…. I agree that there are areas that need improvement, but at the same time, there are many things we are doing right that are not celebrated.”


Two Visions

Education historian Diane Ravitch, writing about the Chicago teachers strike, but has lots of relevance across the board

The Chicago Teachers Union has a different vision: it wants smaller classes, more social workers, air-conditioning in the sweltering buildings where summer school is conducted, and a full curriculum, with teachers of arts and foreign languages in every school. Some schools in Chicago have more than forty students in a class, even in kindergarten. There are 160 schools without libraries; more than 40 percent have no teachers of the arts.

What do the teachers want? The main sticking point is the seemingly arcane issue of teacher evaluations. The mayor wants student test scores to count heavily in determining whether a teacher is good (and gets a bonus) or bad (and is fired). The union points to research showing that test-based evaluation is inaccurate and unfair. Chicago is a city of intensely segregated public schools and high levels of youth violence. Teachers know that test scores are influenced not only by their instruction but by what happens outside the classroom.

The strike has national significance because it concerns policies endorsed by the current administration; it also raises issues found all over the country. Not only in Chicago but in other cities, teachers insist that their students need smaller classes and a balanced curriculum. Reformers want more privately-managed charter schools, even though they typically get the same results as public schools. Charter schools are a favorite of the right because almost 90 percent of them are non-union. Teachers want job protection so that they will not be fired for capricious reasons and have academic freedom to teach controversial issues and books. Reformers want to strip teachers of any job protections.

Encounrage you to read the whole piece, here.

How to Buy and Sell School Reform

If you want to change government policy, change the politicians who make it. The implications of this truism have now taken hold in the market-modeled “education reform movement.” As a result, the private funders and nonprofit groups that run the movement have overhauled their strategy. They’ve gone political as never before—like the National Rifle Association or Big Pharma or (ed reformers emphasize) the teachers’ unions.

Devolution of a Movement

For the last decade or so, this generation of ed reformers has been setting up programs to show the power of competition and market-style accountability to transform inner-city public schools: establishing nonprofit and for-profit charter schools, hiring business executives to run school districts, and calculating a teacher’s worth based on student test scores. Along the way, the reformers recognized the value of public promotion and persuasion (called “advocacy”) for their agenda, and they started pouring more money into media outlets, friendly think tanks, and the work of well-disposed researchers. By 2010 critics of the movement saw “reform-think” dominating national discourse about education, but key reform players judged the pace of change too slow.

Ed reformers spend at least a half-billion dollars a year in private money, whereas government expenditures on K-12 schooling are about $525 billion a year. Nevertheless, a half-billion dollars in discretionary money yields great leverage when budgets are consumed by ordinary expenses. But the reformers—even titanic Bill and Melinda Gates—see themselves as competing with too little against existing government policies. Hence, to revolutionize public education, which is largely under state and local jurisdiction, reformers must get state and local governments to adopt their agenda as basic policy; they must counter the teachers’ unions’ political clout. To this end, ed reformers are shifting major resources—staff and money—into state and local campaigns for candidates and legislation.

Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children ($5.2 million from Gates, 2003-2011), sums up the thinking: “We’ve learned the hard way that if you want to have the clout needed to change policies for kids, you have to help politicians get elected. It’s about money, money, money” (Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2010).*

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Natural disaster based ed reform

Corporate education reformers will latch on to anything to portray their preferred policies as being effective. Terry Ryan of the Fordham Foundation has one of the most ridiculous efforts to date

Is it time for urban school superintendents to move from being Reformers to Relinquishers? Yes, is the compelling case that Neerav Kingsland makes today over at Straight Up. Kingsland, chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans, writes that reform-minded superintendents should embrace the lessons from New Orleans, a key one being that the academic achievement gains made in the Big Easy have not come from traditional reforms and tweaks to the system. Rather, the changes in New Orleans are the result of virtually replacing the traditional, centralized, bureaucratic system of one-size-fits-all command and control with a system of independent high-performing charter schools all held accountable by the center for their academic performance.

That's one heck of a claim, but the entire piece misses one astoundingly obvious and important fact. New Orleans suffered one of the worst natural disasters to ever afflict a US city, and as a consequence the demographics of the city changed dramatically.

The aftermath of the 2005 storm, which took 1,835 lives and caused an estimated $81 billion in property damage, has left the city with an older, wealthier and less diverse population, according to data recently released by the Nielsen company. If its findings are confirmed by the 2010 Census, that information could go a long way in helping the city attract businesses and outside capital to continue rebuilding.

According to Nielsen, New Orleans lost 595,205 people prior to and shortly after Katrina, dropping it from the country's 35th largest market in 2000 to the 49th largest market in 2006. Atlanta, Houston and Dallas received the bulk of Katrina refugees. Now in 2010, New Orleans ranks as the 46th largest market with 1,194,196 persons. Nielsen projects the city will have a population of 1,264,365 in 2015 and will likely remain ranked as the 46th largest market in the U.S.

"The city has become older (the median age rose from 34 to 38.8), less diverse (the white non-Hispanic population increased from 25.8% to 30.9%) and a bit wealthier (median income rose from $31,369 to $39,530)," says the Nielsen report. The challenge now for New Orleans is to find ways to use some of these changes to help attract the developers and corporations who could help the city rebound.

The population got smaller, richer. It's not a stretch to understand that these factors, and not some corporate education reform policies that have failed to work at scale anywhere are the cause for any aggregate gains in student performance in New Orleans.

Unless, along with getting superintendents to relinquish control of their districts, corporate education reformers can also summon great floods and pestilence, we might be better off not throwing everything out the window just yet.

Time to occupy the education reform

The education reform movement sweeping the country with its emphasis on standardized testing may be impacting the future of the nation by stifling ingenuity, intuition and creativity in student learning. In his recent biography, "Steve Jobs," author Walter Isaacson points out that the genius of Jobs was that he was an intuitive thinker. Jobs was able, according to Isaacson, " to connect artistry to technology, poetry to processors." Steve Jobs' ability and genius to apply creativity to technology is what set him apart from his competition and what made Apple the leading technology company of the world.

One has to wonder with the emphasis today in most schools on standardized testing in which the diminished role of teachers is to simply "teach to the test," how many creative, intuitive and original thinkers will emerge from this sterile learning environment prevalent in most schools today? It is obvious that the so-called education reformers in the country, most of whom are non-educators, and who basically utilize a punitive "test and punish" strategy in every classroom in the country are devoid of any educational research whatsoever. They know nothing, for example, of early educational icons such as Jean Piaget, who has had a profound impact on educational pedagogy. Over the years, psychologists and educational researchers have built upon the pioneering work of Paiget in understanding that learning is not a simple matter of pouring information into the heads of students but, rather, that learning is an act in which people construct new understandings of the world through active exploration, experimentation, discussion and reflection.

Diane Ravitch, author of the "Death and Life of the Great American School System," has a brilliant description of so-called education reformers in this country in which she describes them as people who believe "that schools can be improved by more testing, more punishment of educators, (also known as "accountability"), more charter schools, and strict adherence to free-market principles in relation to teachers and students." Hence, one has to wonder in this type of school classroom in which accountability is the primary goal whether our students will ever become the type of free thinking, creative, intuitive adults that our society needs for leadership and progress.

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