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Education Opportunity Network

Back To School Season Reveals Education Policy Disconnect

The annual ritual of Back to School Season had education in the headlines more than usual this week, and what it revealed were two starkly different narratives about the present state and future of the nation’s schools.

One story is a continuation of promises coming from prominent individuals claiming to know what will fix the nation’s schools and make them more “accountable,” while the other is a much more troubling tale about schools that is plainly visible to most Americans – except those at the top.

So much evidence – from both anecdotal reporting and objective data – revealed this vast disconnect.

Promoters of what has been caste as an “education reform” movement continue to take on the the mantle of civil rights cause, but reports from the frontlines of America’s classrooms show the negative consequences that reform policies actually have on poor black and brown school children they’re purported to serve.

"Contrary to the distrust of educators spread by the elite, the American people have a great deal of confidence in their local schools and the teachers in those buildings."

In Chicago, mayor Rham Emanuel has “waxed poetic” about school reforms he claimed will “bridge the divide” between low-income kids on the South Side with their better off white peers. Yet this year in Chicago, back to school on the South Side required a police escort, including a helicopter, to get elementary children through dangerous gang territory because the schools that the mayor had promised to “fix” were closed under his leadership instead.

Due to the closing of so many neighborhood schools in neighborhoods where the presence of safe schools should matter most, city officials have had to double the number of police-protected routes – dubbed “Safe Passageways” – and dramatically increased security costs to $15.7 million.

While the mayor claimed that police protection would ensure “kids will think about their studies, not their safety,” a concerned mother more aptly described what should be a routine, even boring experience, for children as “a zoo.”

Education “reform” doesn’t look any better in North Carolina, where that state’s relatively new governor, Pat McCrory has proclaimed a “passion” for schools that more closely resembles a resentment toward them.

This summer, the state passed legislation eliminating teacher positions, increasing class sizes, and lowering teacher qualifications in charter schools, while creating voucher programs that send more tax money to private schools and expanding funding for Teach for America to stock classrooms for the least served children with teachers who are the least experienced and least prepared. All of this is portrayed as an effort to help low-income children out of “low-performing schools,” even though the vast majority of poor kids in the state are likely to see the quality of their education decline.

North Carolina is not alone in seeing the quality of its education program severely cut at the same time a reform agenda promises to fix everything. New curriculum standards known as the Common Core – which have been adopted by most states – have been promoted as the latest “game changer” that will transform America’s schools for the better. Yet many of the states that have adopted the Common Core are in the process of slashing the money needed to implement the new standards.

According to this article from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a new study found that education agencies in 28 states had gotten less or no additional funding for implementing the Common Core, and 12 reported having to scale their implementation effort back. “Less than a quarter of the states that responded said they had adequate staff expertise, staffing levels, and resources to implement the Common Core,” the article explained.

Rising above anecdotal reports, a trio of recent surveys revealed the growing disillusionment Americans are having with the education policy agenda that has been in place for nearly 20 years.

Writing at Politico, Stephanie Simon reviewed the survey results and pronounced it a “mixed report card for education reforms.” But one finding from all three surveys seemed especially jarring compared to the rhetoric coming from the top.

Despite the incessant drumbeat, for many years – and amplified by a deep pocketed PR campaign including feature-length films Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down – that school teachers are principally to blame for the nation’s education problems, the masses don’t seem to be buying it. Contrary to the distrust of educators spread by the elite, the American people have a great deal of confidence in their local schools and the teachers in those buildings.


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“Asked how they would grade the school their oldest child attends,” Simon noted, “71 percent of public school parents” graded their local school “A or ‘B” according to the poll conducted by PDK/Gallup. Another poll, from AP-NORC, showed “76 percent of respondents rating their child’s current education as good or excellent, and 82 percent giving their child’s teachers high marks.”

“Americans like and trust teachers,” concluded Anne Wujcik, a blogger for an education marketing firm, noting “72 percent of the PDK/Gallup respondents agree that they ‘have trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools.’ Eighty-two percent of parents surveyed by AP-NORC rate their child’s teacher as excellent/good.”

Journalists at Education Week noted that support for firing teachers based on student test scores – a favorite of the reform crowd – is now in reverse. “The PDK/Gallup survey … found that 58 percent of respondents oppose requiring teacher evaluations to include student scores on standardized tests. That’s a reversal of public opinion from just last year, when 47 percent of PDK/Gallup respondents opposed using test scores in evaluations.”

The article quoted William J. Bushaw, the executive director of Phi Delta Kappa International, who said, “I think parents are listening to their children’s teachers and are hearing their concerns about these new evaluation systems that are untested and deciding that maybe it’s not fair.”

What really concerns Americans? Lack of resources.

A report on the PDK survey at USA Today looked at the data and noticed, “Thirty-six percent of public school parents cited a lack of financial support as the biggest problem facing schools in their community, the largest proportion surveyed. Eleven percent put overcrowding atop their list of concerns. Only 4 percent were concerned with testing or regulations.”

The article quoted Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education in Philadelphia, who explained that policies under the reform umbrella – such as the Common Core, standardization, testing, and teacher evaluations linked to test scores – are “removed from our reality … In the Philadelphia public schools, where they’ve stripped out almost everything, you can’t have a conversation about the Common Core … It’s almost laughable to talk about kids being college and career ready when 60 percent of high schools may not even have a guidance counselor.”

Writing at The Huffington Post, education historian Diane Ravitch questioned what reform measures like the Common Core can really accomplish given the circumstances on the ground:

Across the nation, our schools are suffering from budget cuts.

Because of budget cuts, there are larger class sizes and fewer guidance counselors, social workers, teachers’ assistants, and librarians.

Because of budget cuts, many schools have less time and resources for the arts, physical education, foreign languages, and other subjects crucial for a real education.

As more money is allocated to testing and accountability, less money is available for the essential programs and services that all schools should provide.

Our priorities are confused.

So with this year’s Back to School Season revealing widespread evidence that lack of resources – rather than lack of accountability – is the foremost problem troubling the nation’s schools, let’s see if any of the education reform crowd mounts a well-funded campaign to reform that.

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future and editor of the recently launched Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future, in partnership with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

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