Arne Duncan Takes Us Off Course!

Disclosure:  I am a Yellowdog Democrat, and I proudly voted for Barak Obama’s re-election.

But that does not mean that I agree with his education policy.  I have, from the beginning, opposed  his plan for the reauthorization of NCLB.  I have, from the beginning, opposed the conditions that Secretary Arne Duncan established for states to obtain waivers from NCLB and to apply for the Race to the Top funds:  notably that states must promise to (1) adopt the Common Core standards and assessments, (2) that states must use assessment scores in evaluating teachers, (3) and that states must lift their caps on charter schools.  All of that is wrong for kids.  All of that is wrong for teachers.  All of that is wrong for democracy.  All of that puts more decision-making at the federal level that should be at the local level, where a big majority of funding is generated in many cases. On the day after the election I joined a Facebook group, “Stop the Race to the Top.”  It was established by some teachers who also supported the President’s re-election, but who are committed to turning him around on his education policy. You might want to take a look at it.

Then today I ran across this article, where other interesting points are made:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2012/11/07/a-call-for-president-obama-to-change-course-on-education/

There are basically three different visions about how schools can be improved to meet 21st century challenges:

(1) the standards/assessment/accountability folks, who are playing the same record that they have been playing for 30 years!  When presented with evidence that this approach to improving learning doesn’t work, their response is something along the lines of “Oh!  Then let’s do more of it!  That will fix things!”  So…..we get more draconian accountability systems, more standards to cram down kids’ throats–and programs like CScope, which is a scripted curriculum to ensure that teachers are all on the same page every day in teaching those standards, whether the kids are ready or not.  In recent years we have seen the push for more tests, with Texas now requiring kids to pass 15 End-of-Course tests in order to graduate.  And, now the Common Core Standards, which 47 states have adopted, and those standards are guiding the development of national assessments, so we will have even more testing.  And education will be even more standardized!  None of the countries leading the world on international assessments does these things.  None.

(2)  the privatization folks have been planning and working for many years to privatize our public schools.  They use words like “school choice” to describe their initiatives, and they deride those who oppose them by accusing them of wanting the “status quo.”  Their strategies include encouraging home schooling, charter schools, vouchers, parent triggers, and virtual schools–anything to reduce the cost of public education, although, of course, they don’t say that.  Their strategies also include the de-professionalization of teachers and administrators through such initiatives as alternative certification, merit pay, using test scores to evaluate teachers and administrators, denying the importance of advanced degrees and teaching experience since they cost more, criticism of teachers’ organizations, attacking their retirement systems and health insurance programs, and hiring CEOs instead of certified superintendents because they want to perpetuate the idea that businesspeople know best about how to run schools.  (The last two Commissioners of Education in Texas are not educators.)  Privatizers are supported by some huge organizations including ALEC, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Hoover Institute, the Walton Family, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and, in Texas, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, plus many others.  Many people have concluded that, in fact, the whole standards/assessments/ accountability approach was the initial strategy of the privatizers to undermine the credibility of public schools, to make it impossible for them to succeed (as in NCLB),  to begin privatization with a few steps over time, and then to do the take-over once they had eroded public support and confidence.  States across the union are fighting the same battles as we are fighting and foresee fighting in Texas.  The public school people won in some states–where they had organized in opposition to privatization, but they lost in others where people bought the idea that “school choice” was a good thing, not recognizing the threat to democracy that it is, not recognizing that there is not a shred of scientific evidence that it will result in improved learning for kids, and not recognizing that those great teachers in our public schools will not wish to and won’t be able to afford to take jobs in the privatized entities that they call schools.

(3)  The third vision is the recognition that schools need to improve continuously, but this vision puts children at the center, not policies (as in #1) and not greed (as in #2).  Parents and educators and other citizens who support this vision urge us all to read the scientific evidence that is available to us now as to what works for individual children, not thinking that any one approach fits all.  They recognize that the growing percentages of Americans living in poverty is one of the biggest challenges to schools.  They have read the research on the detrimental effects that poverty has on children’s cognitive development, health, and social behavior.  And they wonder why legislatures and the Congress are not focused on more ways to eliminate poverty than they are on countless other issues that do not improve lives and life chances.  They value great teachers tremendously and know that it is not realistic to expect them to teach twice as long in a day as their colleagues in other high-performing countries, leaving them exhausted and no time to plan, to collaborate with colleagues, to participate in professional development, to meet with parents, to think and reflect, to evaluate student work, etc.  They recognize that teachers’ verified preferred working conditions almost exactly reflect the research on conditions that support student learning–such as safe and clean environments, small classes, resources (including technology) to teach the curriculum, support by an informed and caring administrator, resources that fund opportunities to learn for individual children, etc.  These visionaries know how ridiculous it is to punish a school when an immigrant child enters an American school at a high school age and does not become proficient in English, pass 26 required courses, AND pass, in English, 15 End-of-Course assessments within four years.  They also know how ridiculous for a high school to be labeled as a dropout factory when it has a poverty rate of 80-90% and the district had inadequate resources to fund preschool programs and interventions as they were needed to ensure that kids entered high school having mastered middle school knowledge and skills.  They know it is ridiculous to punish a district when kids with severe and profound disabilities do not ever pass the state tests, and they do not complete high school requirements in four years.  These visionaries oppose the extreme standardization of curriculum that all states have now.  They want children to have opportunities to explore, discover, create, and experience enrichment at school, not endless drill and practice.  They want all kids to experience success, not to be labeled failures just because they do not perform well on the day they have to take a meaningless test.  They know that there is no evidence that state assessment systems improve learning, while there is substantial evidence that formative assessments do improve learning.  They also know that money matters, and it matters a lot.  They have read the research in this area too, and they have observed that the wealthy districts are not willing to let go of any of their money because it DOES matter.  Well, I could go on and on.

The great irony is that the privatizers are adamant that privatized schools not be regulated in any way and not be held accountable for any of the academic requirements that the same people impose on public schools.  They know if they didn’t have their boots on the necks of public school educators, we would have even more really great schools than we do now, in spite of state policies.

So, it is my strong opinion that we need to make it known loud and clear to the President that his current policies are not what we want for America’s children.  They are largely reflective of #1 above, but they also include some of #2.  They fit Arne Duncan’s vision for schooling, perhaps, but they don’t fit ours, and we want him to reverse course.  NOW!

At the same time, we must rise up and be heard by Texas legislators and state leaders.  Not only must they not pass any more privatization bills; they must repeal the ones they have already passed into law, and they must create an equitable/adequate funding system that will enable local school districts to educate, truly educate the more than 5,000,000 Texas children who are the future of our state, the assurance of a sustained democracy, and the only path to prosperity. (Bonnie Lesley)

 

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