Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Hostile Takeover of Public Education

I have been reading a lot lately about education reform, charter authorizers, and a number of education policy topics that make the most dedicated teachers see red. I have seen members of the public talk about what they "know" about the teaching profession. This has reminded me that we need to take the conversation in a new direction if we are to reclaim public education from the hands of edutourists and hostile takeovers. We have to act now because the reform movement has a 30 year head start. And a plan:

Step One: Manufacture a Crisis
The reform agenda has been active for at least three decades attempting to convince the public that there is, in fact, a problem with public education as a whole. The narrative is not that underfunded inner city schools are in trouble, but the whole system of public education is in shambles. Since the 1980s reformers have banged the "Nation at Risk" mediocrity drum ad infinitum. The claim is that one standardized test given to only 6,000 or so students in the nation tells us that the US is falling behind the rest of the world in educational achievement. This is simply not true.

Many of the countries ahead of the US on the PISA list do not educate every child. You heard me right: they do not educate everyone. The poor, those with special needs, those that do not test well are either not educated at all, or do not go to the upper level schools which are included in the samples for those countries. We test everybody against other countries' top notch students. A level playing field this is not--but a manufactured crisis, this certainly is.

The decline in both ACT and SAT scores is also attributed incorrectly to mediocre public education. That is simply not true. Prior to the 1980s, most students didn't take the ACT or SAT. Most students didn't plan to go to college or need to. A shift began to occur in which business and industry began to require a college degree for positions that previously did not require one. As a result, more students needed a degree and began taking the ACT and SAT. What was once required of the top 10-25% began to be required of the top 50-75%. In states like Oklahoma, all high school students will take the ACT at some point in their academic career, even if they do not plan to go to college. When more students take the test, and those students are no longer just those in the upper academic performance levels, the average will go down. It is inevitable, and it is not because those students have not received an excellent education.

Step Two: Assign Blame
First the blame was placed on a lack of standards, so standards-based education was introduced, mandated, implemented, scaled, changed, and turned into a series of fiery hoops. Then blame shifted to teachers. Teachers have been categorized as lazy money grubbers out only for themselves. There is a real and relentless attack on the profession and the professionals within it. I hear or read daily how teachers only work 185 days a year while the average professional works 220. I hear that our work day is only 5 or 6 hours while the rest of the workforce labors for 8. I hear about long Christmas, Thanksgiving, and spring breaks, and summers off. I hear about lavish pensions and benefits. I hear that we should have known the profession paid so little, and we shouldn't complain about it, or try to change it now.

Here's the truth. Teachers have students in class for 185 or so days a year, but those are not the only days we work. On average, teachers have 20 professional days in which we have to report for work without students. My summer break is about six weeks, much of which is spent attending conferences and professional development to improve my craft and depth of knowledge or teaching summer school. I am here long before my students arrive and long after they leave. I take work home with me. I am an advisor to a student organization for free, and on my own time. Long breaks are in lieu of the vacation time, paid holidays, and comp time offered in the private sector. And those lavish pensions? When they retire many Oklahoma teachers will qualify for food stamps if TRS is their only source of income.

Step three: The Hostile Takeover
Here's where reform tactics get interesting. Take the problems of the worst schools in America (made the worst by willfully starving them of resources) and declare that those problems exist in nearly all American schools. Then design a test that measures students' standards-based performance, but rig the game so that a large number of students fail, thus furthering the narrative that schools are failing students. Deprive schools of funding and staff based on the results of those rigged tests. Swoop in and declare that vouchers charters choice Education Savings Accounts are the answer. Expand the failure narrative and insist that the only solution is to wrest control away from local schools and their boards (democratic control is messy, after all), and put corporate boards in place instead. Make decisions based on profit motives rather than educational ones, and drill-and-kill students to testing excellence and critical thinking stagnation.

Here's the rub: Charters, whether for-profit or public, are not held to the same standards as your local public school. They do not have to be transparent with their spending, discipline, or any number of factors that public schools must report. Charters do not have to take every child, rarely honor IEPs, suspend and expel students for minor infractions, and have the latitude to be selective in their admissions processes (whether in the open or by requiring so much paperwork and parental involvement so as to discourage the application.)

Public schools take all comers with the mission to educate every child. Public school teachers are professionals who are trained to educate children. We know our content areas, can demonstrate mastery in curriculum and pedagogy, and work with children every day of our working adult lives. If we were treated as the professionals we are (allowed to teach as we know to be best, allowed to choose content based on our students and their needs, paid enough to not need second and third jobs, and respected as the dedicated individuals that we are), the public would see that the teachers as a whole are not the problem. The highest ranking schools in America all have something in common: low poverty rates among students. This is inarguable fact, and is the problem that needs to be addressed, because the opposite is also true. Those schools with the highest rates of poverty also have been attributed the lowest performance.

What Do We Do?:
It is interesting that the majority of Americans believe that the public school system is ineffective and headed in the wrong direction, but that their neighborhood schools are high quality schools. I would suggest that most schools do an excellent job educating their local population of students, and the general public is satisfied with the role of their local schools on balance. There are few truly inadequate or inferior public schools, and they are almost entirely found in impoverished areas and have been starved for resources. We know this. What is needed is the collective will to actually fix this. The solution is not takeover or turnover. It is the investment of resources, time, and talent that will make the difference in underperforming schools.

Why do public schools work? It is because they acknowledge the role of education in the lives of students, the place of the local school in the community, and when they have the resources, they do extraordinary work. If the edutourists, advocates of hostile takeover, and enablers of the undermining of public education and public educators can't commit to tackling poverty and the withholding of resources in a way that honors the role of neighborhood schools and their place in the community, then they should get out of the way of those of us who are doing the work that matters in these schools every day. All we need is the resources to do our work and the latitude to do it without interference by those who have never done it.