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Who’s Bashing Teachers and Public Schools and What Can We Do About It?

The short answer to this question is that far too many people are bashing teachers and public schools, and we need to give them more homework, because very few of them know what they’re talking about. And a few need some serious detention.(Illustration: David McLimans)

But the longer answer is that the bashing is coming from different places for different reasons. And to respond effectively to the very real attacks that our schools, our profession, and our communities face, it’s important to pay attention to these differences.

The parent who’s angry at the public school system because it’s not successfully educating his/her children is not the same as the billionaire with no education experience who couldn’t survive in a classroom for two days, but who has made privatizing education policy a hobby, and who has the resources to do so because the country’s financial and tax systems are broken.

The educators who start a community-based charter school so they can create a collaborative school culture are not the same as the hedge fund managers who invest in charter schools because they see an opportunity to turn a profit or because they want to privatize one of the last public institutions we have left.

The well-meaning college grad who joins a Teach for America program out of an altruistic impulse is not the same as the corporate managers who want to use market reforms to create a less expensive, less secure, and less experienced teaching force.

And the hard-pressed taxpayer who directs frustration at teachers struggling to hang on to their health insurance or pensions—which far too few people have at all—is not coming from the same place as those responsible for the obscene economic inequality that is squeezing both.

In my home state of New Jersey, there’s a man named David Tepper who manages the Appaloosa Hedge Fund. Last year, Tepper made $4 billion as a hedge fund manager. This was equal to the salaries of 60 percent of the state’s teachers, who educate 850,000 students. But Gov. Christie rolled back a millionaire’s tax and cut $1 billion out of the state school budget, so people like Tepper would have lower taxes. It’s not only impossible to sustain a successful public school system with such policies, it’s also impossible to sustain anything resembling a democracy for very long.

What’s at Stake

I’ve spent a large part of my adult life criticizing the flawed institutions and policies of public education as a teacher, an education activist, and a policy advocate. But these days I find myself spending a lot of time defending the very idea of public education against those who say, sometimes literally, it should be blown up. Because the increasingly polarized national debate around education policy is not just about whether teachers feel the sting of public criticism or whether school budgets suffer another round of budget cuts in a society that has its priorities seriously upside down.

It’s really not even about the hot-button reform issues like merit pay or charter schools. What’s ultimately at stake is more basic. It’s whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed—however imperfectly—by all of us as citizens. Or will they be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society?

The corporate reformers’ larger goal, to borrow a phrase from the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a political lobby financed by hedge fund millionaires that is a chief architect of the current campaign, is to “burst the dam” that has historically protected public education and its $600 billion annual expenditures from unchecked commercial exploitation and privatization.

This is not some secret conspiracy. It’s a multisided political campaign funded by wealthy financial interests like hedge fund superstar Whitney Tilson and rich private foundations like Gates, Broad, and Walton. And it’s important to keep this big picture in mind, even as we talk about specifics like merit pay and charters, because these issues are the dynamite charges being put in place to burst the dam.

What is really new and alarming are the large strides that those promoting business models and market reforms have made in attaching their agenda to the urgent need of poor communities who have, in too many cases, been badly served by the current system.

The narrative of public education as a systematic failure has been fed in recent years by the shifting of federal policy away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity in public education through support for things like school integration, extra funding for high-poverty schools, and services for students with special needs, to a much less equitable set of federal mandates around testing, closing schools, firing school staff, and distributing federal funds through competitive grants to “winners” at the expense of “losers.” Taken together these policies, embodied first in NCLB and now in a “Race Over the Cliff,” have helped create an impression of public education as a failure that is steadily eroding the common ground it needs to survive.

Democrats have been playing tag team with Republicans to build on the test-and-punish approach. Just how much this bipartisan consensus has solidified came home to me when I picked up my local paper one morning and saw Gov. Christie, the most anti-public education governor New Jersey has ever had, quoted as saying, “This is an incredibly special moment in American history, where you have Republicans in New Jersey agreeing with a Democratic president on how to get reform.”

Under NCLB this bipartisan consensus used test scores to move decisions about teaching and learning away from classrooms, schools, and districts to state and federal bureaucracies. Test score gaps have been used to label schools as failures without providing the resources and strategies needed to eliminate the gaps.

Today a deepening corporate/foundation/political alliance is using this same test-based accountability to drill down further into the fabric of public education to close schools, transform the teaching profession, and increase the authority of mayors and managers while decreasing the power of educators.

What we’re facing is a policy environment where bad ideas nurtured for years in conservative think tanks and private foundations have taken root in Congress, the White House, and the federal education department, and are now aligned with powerful national and state campaigns fueled with unprecedented amounts of public and private dollars.

Unless we change direction, the combined impact of these proposals will do for public schooling what market reform has done for housing, health care, and the economy: produce fabulous profits for a few and unequal access and outcomes for the many.

The corporate/foundation crowd has successfully captured the media label as “education reformers.” If you support charters, merit pay, and control of school policy by corporate managers you’re a reformer. If you support increased school funding, collective bargaining, and control of school policy by educators, you’re a defender of the status quo. This is hardly a surprise in a media culture that allows FOX News to call itself “fair and balanced,” but it does make intelligent debate about education policy more difficult.

Confronting Poverty

This is particularly true when it comes to the way the issue of poverty is being framed.

One lesson I’ve learned over the years is that school power comes in many pieces. And these pieces, large or small, can be used to promote social justice. Not only on big issues like funding equity or federal and state policy, but also daily inside our classrooms in the choices we make in our teaching, assessment, and curriculum practices; in the relations between our schools and the communities they serve; and in the way our unions advocate for the needs and rights of our students and families along with our own interests as teachers.

Serving schools with high numbers of students in poverty is no excuse for bad teaching, poor curriculum, massive dropout rates, or year after year of lousy school outcomes. We need accountability systems that put pressure on schools to respond effectively to the communities they serve. In my experience, parents are the key to creating that pressure, and teachers are the key to implementing the changes needed to address it. Finding ways to promote a kind of collaborative tension and partnership between these groups is one of the keys to school improvement.

But the idea that schools alone can make up for the inequality and poverty that exist all around them has increasingly become part of the “no excuses” drumbeat used to impose reforms that have no record of success as school improvement strategies. In fact, many are not educational strategies at all, but political strategies designed to bring market reform to public education. We used to hear that the “single most important school-based factor” in student achievement was the quality of the teacher. Now even the school-based qualification is being left out. Instead we’re hearing absurd claims about how super-teachers can eliminate achievement gaps in two or three years with scripted curricula handed down from above, and how the real problem in schools is not the country’s shameful 23 percent child poverty rate or underfunded schools. Instead, it’s bad teachers.

Now it’s absolutely true that effective teachers and good schools can make an enormous difference in the life chances of children. And it’s also true that struggling teachers who don’t improve after they’ve been given support and opportunities to do so need to go manage hedge funds or do some other less important work.

But when it comes to student achievement—and especially the narrow kind of culturally slanted pseudo-achievement captured by standardized test scores—there is no evidence that the test score gaps you read about constantly in the papers can be traced to bad teaching, and there is overwhelming evidence that they closely reflect the inequalities of race, class, and opportunity that follow students to school.

Teachers count a lot. But reality counts, too, and “reformers” who discount the impact of poverty are actually the ones making excuses for their failure to make poverty reduction and adequate and equitable school funding a central part of school improvement efforts. The federal government has put more effort into pressing states to tie individual teacher compensation to test scores and eliminate caps on charter schools than encouraging them to distribute more fairly the $600 billion they spend annually on K-12 education.

Instead, at a time when corporate profits and economic inequality are at their highest levels in the history of the country, the U.S. secretary of education says that schools must get used to the “new normal” and do more with less. For Arne Duncan and Bill Gates, cutting education budgets is not a problem, it’s an opportunity. They are now traveling the country proposing that schools save money by increasing class sizes, ending pay for teachers’ experience and advanced degrees, closing schools, and replacing real classrooms with virtual ones.

At the same time they want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create more tests based on the new common core standards and use those tests to implement merit pay plans.

No Value in ‘Value Added’

At this point spending more money on standardized tests to track academic achievement gaps is like passing out thermometers in a malaria epidemic. People need better health care, more hospitals, and better-trained doctors. They don’t need more thermometers.

There is no research that shows that paying teachers to raise test scores improves student achievement, raises graduation rates, increases college participation, narrows academic gaps, or produces any of the positive school outcomes that policy makers say they seek.

Test-based teacher evaluation systems have the potential to seriously damage the teaching profession. The National Academy of Sciences found 20 to 30 percent error rates in “value-added” ratings systems based on their own dubious premises. Teachers in the bottom group one year were often in the top group the next and vice versa. The same teachers measured by two different standardized tests produced completely inconsistent results. The basic assumptions of these testing systems are at odds with the way real schools actually work. Bending school practices to accommodate them could negatively affect everything from the way students are assigned to classes to the willingness of teachers to serve high-needs populations and the collaborative professional culture that good schools depend on for success. They would also require yet another massive increase in standardized testing to deal with the fact that less than 25 percent of teachers in most school systems teach math and language arts, which is what most states currently test.

When you add the practice now under way in cities like Los Angeles and New York of publishing these psychometric astrology ratings in the paper next to the names of individual teachers, you have a recipe for community chaos and educational tragedy.

These plans are not about helping schools develop better systems to support teacher effectiveness; they are obstacles to it. For example, in Maryland, the Montgomery County Education Association negotiated a professional growth system that included test scores as one part of an evaluation process that looks at student outcomes, classroom performance, professional responsibilities, advanced degrees, and other factors. The process requires all new teachers and teachers who’ve been identified as struggling to work with well-trained teacher coaches over a two-year period to improve their practice and results. The system has resulted in a significant increase in teacher quality, including decisions, jointly supported by the union and administration, to remove several hundred teachers from the classroom over a period of years. But last year Maryland won a Race to the Top grant that, under federal pressure, requires 50 percent of teacher evaluations to be based strictly on test scores. The grant threatens to destroy a successful system developed by collective bargaining that actually works to improve results for teachers and students.

The Changing Character of the Charter Movement

The last issue I want to discuss is charter schools. As you know if you’ve seen Waiting for “Superman,charter schools are being hailed as a kind of new magic reform bullet.

Charter schools have an interesting history that has often been overlooked in the current debate. The first charter schools were initiated by Albert Shanker and the American Federation of Teachers in New York City in the late ’80s and ’90s. They were originally designed as teacher-run schools that would serve students who were struggling inside the regular system and would operate outside the reach of the administrative bureaucracy and the highly politicized school board. These first charters also drew on early rounds of small high school experiments initiated by teachers or community activists as alternatives to large comprehensive high schools. But, after a few years, Shanker became concerned that the charters and small schools were fragmenting the district, creating unequal tiers of schools serving different populations of students with unequal access, and also weakening the collective power of the teachers’ union to negotiate with the administration about districtwide concerns. So he pulled back at a time when there were still very few charters. Instead, he and other union leaders focused on the standards movement, which for them became the primary engine for reform.

But charters continued to grow slowly. Individual states, beginning with Minnesota, began to pass laws to promote the formation of charters, partly as a model of reform and partly as the construction of a parallel system outside the reach of both teachers’ unions and, in some cases, the federal and state requirements to serve and accept all students. And this charter movement gradually began to attract the interest of political and financial interests who saw the public school system as a socialist monopoly ripe for market reform.

In the past 10 years, the character of the charter school movement has changed dramatically from community-based, educator-initiated local efforts to create alternatives for a small number of students to nationally funded efforts by foundations, investors, and educational management companies to create a parallel, more privatized system.

Today there are about 5,000 charter schools in the United States that enroll about 4 percent of all students. Although charter laws are different in each state, in general charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. Few justify the hype they receive in Waiting for “Superman,” and those that do, like the schools featured in the film, are highly selective, privately subsidized schools that have very limited relevance for the public system. It’s like looking for models of public housing by studying luxury condo developments.

The most complete study of charter school performance, by Stanford University, found that only 17 percent of charter schools had better test scores than comparable public schools and more than twice as many did worse. And, unlike charter schools, traditional public schools accept all children, including much larger numbers of high-needs students and students without the heroic, supportive parents seen in the film. In most states charters do not face the same public accountability and transparency requirements that public schools do, which has led to serious problems of mismanagement, corruption, and profiteering.

Charter school teachers are, on average, younger, nonunionized, and less likely to hold state certification than teachers in traditional public schools. In other words: less expensive.

As many as one in four charter school teachers leaves every year, about double the turnover rate in traditional public schools. The odds of a teacher leaving the profession altogether are 130 percent higher at charters than traditional public schools, and much of this teacher attrition is related to dissatisfaction with working conditions.

Charter schools typically pay less and require longer hours. But charter school administrators often earn more than their school district counterparts. Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Eva Moskowitz of the Harlem Success Academy, two schools featured in the film, are each paid close to half a million dollars.

This is not to deny the reform impulse that is a real part of the charter movement. Many times during my 30 years of teaching at my large dysfunctional high school in Paterson, I wanted to start my own school. And many of the issues that public school advocates like myself criticize in charters—like the tracking, creaming, and unequal resources—exist within the public system too. But public schools have federal, state, and district obligations that can be brought to bear. There are school boards, public budgets, public policies, and public officials to pressure and hold accountable in ways that privatized charters don’t allow. In post-Katrina New Orleans, where more than 60 percent of all students now attend unequal tiers of charter schools, there are students and parents who cannot find any schools to take them.

In too many places, charters function more like deregulated “enterprise zones” than models of reform, providing subsidized spaces for a few at the expense of the many. They drain resources, staff, and energy for innovation away from other district schools, often while creaming better prepared students and more committed parents. This is especially a problem in big city public systems that urgently need renewal and resources but are increasingly being left behind with the biggest challenges. Nowhere have charters produced a template for effective districtwide reform or equity.

No one questions the desire of parents to find the best options they can for their children. But at the level of state and federal education policy, charters can provide a reform cover for dismantling the public school system and an investment opportunity for those who see education as a business rather than a fundamental institution of democratic civic life. This doesn’t mean charter school teachers or parents are our enemies. On the contrary, we should be allies in fighting some of the counterproductive assessment, curriculum, and instructional practices raining down on all of us from above. We should find more and better ways to integrate charters into common systems of accountability and support. Where practices like greater autonomy over curriculum or freedom from bureaucratic regulations are valid, they should be extended to all schools.

But any strategy that promotes charter expansion at the expense of systemwide improvement and equity for all schools is a plan for privatization, not reform.

What Are We Fighting For?

It took well over a hundred years to create a public school system that, for all its flaws, provides a free education for all children as a legal right. It took campaigns against child labor, crusades for public taxation, struggles against fear and discrimination directed at immigrants, historic movements for civil rights against legally sanctioned separate and unequal schooling, movements for equal rights and educational access for women, and in more recent decades sustained drives for the rights of special education students, gay and lesbian students, bilingual students, and Native American students. These campaigns are all unfinished and the gains they’ve made are uneven and fragile. But they have made public schools one of the last places where an increasingly diverse and divided population still comes together for a common civic purpose.

But the system’s Achilles’ heel continues to be acute racial and class inequality, which in fact is the Achilles’ heel of the whole society.

Those who believe that business models and market reforms hold the key to solving educational problems have, as noted, made strides in attaching their agenda to the urgent need of communities that have been poorly served by the current system. But their agenda does not represent the real interests or the real desires of these communities:

  • It does not include all children and all families.

  • It does not include adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding.

  • It does not include transparent public accountability.

  • It does not include the supports and reforms that educators need to do their jobs well.

  • It does not address the legacy or the current realities of race and class inequality that surround our schools every day.

Where we go from here, as advocates and activists for social justice, depends in part on our ability to reinvent and articulate this missing equity agenda and to build a reform movement that can provide effective, credible alternatives to the strategies that are currently being imposed from above.

Because, in the final analysis, what we need to reclaim is not just our schools, but our political process, our public policy-making machinery, and control over our economic and social future. In short, we don’t only need to fix our schools, we also need to fix our democracy.

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