In an urban Head Start classroom, a 3-year-old has just been dropped off by her father and sits on the lap of a volunteer from the "Granny Brigade." As he leaves, she begins to wail, "Daddy! Dadeeeeee!" Her "granny" holds her gently until she calms down and is ready to join other young children in their morning activities. They go through this ritual for several days until the little girl gradually adjusts to the new experience known as preschool.
All children depend on the adults in their lives to establish the basic trust that they will be safe. When parents lead especially disordered lives, there are at best few positive supports for their children, and at worst, abuse and neglect. Subjected to relentless toxic stress, the developing brains of perfectly normal babies literally fail to grow, creating lifelong emotional and cognitive disabilities. Without early intervention, the toll is often irreversible and tragic.
So what happens to these stressed-out children when they come to school; who is responsible for their academic progress?
The message of former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is that the adults immediately in charge of the classroom are most accountable. No one else has the same level of responsibility for student achievement; not parents, administrators nor the students themselves. And certainly not the politicians who vote to limit school funding while demanding high test scores from all children.
To spread this peculiar school-reform message, Rhee founded a national school-choice advocacy group called Students First. They and a sister group called Pennsylvania Students First are affiliated with a third organization called the American Federation for Children, headed by privatization activist Betsy de Vos.
AFC's mission statement from its website reads: "The American Federation for Children is a leading national advocacy organization promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for school vouchers and scholarship tax-credit programs."
In 2010, with huge donations from AFC and the Susquehanna Investment Group, Pennsylvania Students First PAC contributed to the failed gubernatorial campaign of Democratic state Sen. Anthony Williams. He is one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 1, which would authorize new pathways to charter schools, vouchers for private schools, and expansion of the $75 million corporate-tax-credit allowance by Pennsylvania's Education Improvement Tax Credit Act.
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In other words, gut the state public-school system. To justify this cannibalistic bottom line, privatization advocates have to emphasize that public schools are "failing" or "inadequate" and their union teachers "ineffective."
Rhee, in partnership with Pennsylvania Students First, appeared in June at Lincoln Charter School in York with Gov. Corbett, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis and Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeff Piccola, a co-sponsor with Williams of SB1.
Their discussion was mainly about ways to promote school choice. (Corbett is scheduled to return to York today to unveil his school-reform plan.)
In order to facilitate the gradual takeover of public education, Rhee and her cohort want to promote laws that would end tenure, outlaw seniority rules and set up methods of teacher evaluation, such as competitive "value-added assessments," that are guaranteed to destroy professional collaboration and collegiality. This neatly fits the propaganda that public schools are a mess mainly because of entrenched, incompetent teachers, and that we have to provide alternatives before it's too late.
In a country where 50 percent of new teachers voluntarily leave the profession within five years, do we really need to set up more obstacles? A fair measurement of teacher performance is certainly possible with formal classroom observations, including diagnostic assessment of student work in that classroom, and by considering all variables. Where corrective action is needed, it should be provided, including weeding out poor teachers.
Professional educators rely on a community of colleagues to assist with decision-making, planning and implementing programs. The last thing they need are high-stakes competitive evaluations dependent mainly on the unpredictable performances of children too often impaired from early childhood by excessive stress.