Reforming Education Reform

Today, the teachers in Chicago’s public schools went on strike after months of deadlocked contract negotiations. Chicago is the 3rd largest public school district in the nation with over 400,000 students. If this can happen there…? Chicago’s teachers union is finally pushing back after years of mandated educational reforms that belittled teachers’ knowledge and removed resources from public schools. The following text is from the Teacher’s Activist Groups website in solidarity with Chicago’s teacher union:

Chicago has been the focus of corporate school “reform,” but Chicago is now the epicenter of the push back against it. On June 11, 2012, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leaders announced that 89.73% of CTU members—98% of those who cast ballots—voted to give the union authority to call a strike if contract negotiations with Chicago Public Schools fail (Chicago Teachers Union). This astounding vote was about much more than a contract. It tapped into teachers’ deep anger at 17 years of neoliberal education “reforms” that have demoralized and blamed teachers and belittled their knowledge, taken the joy out of classrooms, and decimated public education. After 17 years of the tyranny of high stakes tests, business-like management of public schools, school closings and turnarounds by private operators, disinvestment of resources from neighborhood public schools, and moves to pay teachers based on competitive performance measures, teachers have had enough. A new revitalized teachers union, along with parents, students and community members of Chicago are standing up to the assault on public education.

Meanwhile, the GOP and Democratic parties unveiled their platforms during their conventions last week. According to education scholars at Iowa State, including higher education scholar and ASHE president Linda Serra Hagedorn, the platforms are heavy on platitudes and light on substance.

You can read highlights of both party’s platforms at these links:
GOP – http://www.ontheissues.org/celeb/Republican_Party_Education.htm
Dems – http://www.ontheissues.org/democratic_party.htm#Education (scroll down to Education and click where it says “13 full quotes…” – for some reason my silly tablet just opens up a pop-up window that I can’t get a direct link to)

Implementation rarely accompanies vision statements – that’s the next committee’s job. So, I agree with my colleagues at Iowa State that no one wants to discuss how to put their ideas into practice. The devil, in the form of a lot of criticism, is in the details. After all, you can’t fact-check vision.

However, what you can do is get a sense of differences in values and priorities. I encourage you to look at these platforms and consider what values and premises about what is true can be discerned from them. How does each party define success? What does choice mean to both parties? They don’t talk about choice in the same way. They also don’t seem to mean the same thing by “accountability” or have the same reference point for “competition.” These differences have real consequences for how visions finally do get implemented.

I saw someone recently compare the GOP platform for education reform to the Hunger Games (the young adult novel series by Suzanne Collins, also the movie based on the first book). That seems a bit sensationalist, but so do the criticisms of the POTUS and Democrats’ vision for education. Basically, their plan will celebrate mediocrity, crush innovation, and support teachers who are lazy and want to indoctrinate students to all become radical, homosexual, socialists who have indiscriminate sex and aspire to live off the public dole.

Yikes.

Here’s what I believe:
1. Before the advent of publicly funded primary and secondary education, the only young people who learned about the world beyond their front door came from families who could afford private tutors or the loss of income for a parent (mom usually) to stay home. In the absence of public schools, upward mobility was generally unheard of and the middle class was weak and miniscule. And that’s not spin, it’s historical fact.

2. Pitting teachers against each other and against test scores doesn’t produce teachers who invest in their students’ potential. Rather it rewards teaching that exploits student achievement for their own gain.

3. There is a big difference between schooling that leads to education and schooling for training in my view. Schooling for education seeks to draw out a student’s potential to maximize their possibilities. Schooling as training reminds me of the tracking systems that still operate in more schools than anybody wants to admit that sort students based on racial, intellectual, and class biases that hinder upward mobility, not support it.

4. I believe that schools are meant to expose young people to ideas and ways of being in the world that they don’t already know, otherwise we merely reinforce embedded ethnocentrism.

5. I believe that our community colleges are already overloaded as Hagedorn said, so this emphasis on both sides might bring more resources into this sector but it does so at the expense of other public colleges. I believe this shift in emphasis from 4-yr to 2-yr higher education reflects a view of community colleges as training grounds for the status quo, not a view of community colleges as gateways to higher potential. I agree with Kevin Dougherty’s critique in this regard.

6. Education is for mind, body, and spirit so programs in physical education, art, drama, and music are important and should be supported.

7. I believe that teaching requires a certain set of skills and competencies that should be acknowledged, valued, and compensated appropriately. Back in those days where there were no public schools and private tutors directed teaching on an individual basis, when those young men showed up at our nation’s early colonial colleges (Harvard, Yale, William & Mary, etc.), they usually needed remedial education to bring them up to the college level. I’m just putting that out there.

8. Last one, teaching to a test, whether that test is the SAT or the state high school graduation test, doesn’t improve college readiness. The more we emphasize tests, the less prepared our students will be for college and the greater the gap will be between those kids and the ones who were able to go to private, independent schools (not charters) and didn’t get taught to pass a test.

No matter what plan for education eventually emerges after November’s election (it won’t be in its pure form no matter who wins), it will likely be little informed by any substantive understanding of pedagogy, teacher education, or student development. I don’t believe we’ll really see real education reform until we stop making public schools copy and paste practices that seem to work elsewhere, but which aren’t done at the private, independent schools in our nation. Until we believe that the kids who go to public schools deserve the same education that the kids in private school do, we’ll just continue to reproduce inequality. Right now, I’m not sure either party really believes that.

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