With Fall elections just around the corner, outside of former gubernatorial candidate Matt Entenza's making an issue of ending Minnesota participation in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, pundits and candidates have been relatively quiet about public primary and secondary education.
Democrats may be silent on the issue because of the split between the administration in Washington and its clueless Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and the teachers' unions. The Republicans may raise education as an issue of free markets and choice, but they'd have to be careful given recent overwhelming social scientific evidence that charter schools and school choice have proven to be an academic bust and in many cases financially fraudulent. Seems all those "rules" that charter schools don't have to adhere to are there for a purpose.
Nevertheless it is an area that is ripe for cheap, positive change, beginning with disposing of most of the educational reforms of the past 20 years, which have been based on misguided or outright false assumptions about the quality of American primary and secondary education, the supposed efficacy of "free markets" in all things - even when such a thing is impossible, and, as in the case of school choice, outright racism. Ending the time and funds schools have spent implementing this nonsense and letting them just get on with teaching will not only save money, but more importantly probably increase academic achievement and improve rates of racial and class integration.
A progressive approach would jettison the failed policies born of right wing ideology, including high-stakes testing, charter schools and school choice, alternative teacher certification, and so-called teacher "merit pay."
We should instead be placing an appropriate high value on the experience and dedication of most public school teachers, and quit blaming them for all the ills of a dysfunctional society. An honest approach would offer each child the opportunity for a high-quality education - no one can guarantee that each student is able or willing to take advantage of that opportunity. Basing teacher pay on the tested achievement of students, as current reformers advocate, is blatantly unfair. How is achievement to be measured? How should credit, or blame, be apportioned among the educational stakeholders, including parents, students, schools, teachers, school boards, etc.? It is an impossible proposition.
If we want those high quality schools we need to be willing to pay for them. Cutting their funding each year, or playing financial tricks with state reimbursements, as governor BridgeFail has done, only undermines the mission. But important as the schools themselves are the true path to educational excellence lies in the repair of our shredded social safety. No school can overcome general trends of poverty, unemployment or discrimination. That is where the low-hanging fruit of educational improvement lies.
Here are a few straightforward suggestions for improving the educational environment in Minnesota:
1) End all high-stakes testing. The unstated but clear purpose of these tests is to "prove" public schools a failure. There's more to student achievement and development than how they perform on one test on one day in one year. The tests in reality are used to punish schools, not to aid students. As but one example, under the NCLB by 2014 all schools must have 100% proficiency on adequate yearly progress exams. Any school having less than 100% proficiency, in any subgroup, no matter how small, shall be deemed a "failing school."
It is a dangerous confusion of the realms to expect perfection in virtually anything in this world. Space shuttles fall from the sky; highway bridges fall into rivers. That we expect perfection in something as socially and economically varied a setting as public schools, where by law they must take any youngster who passes through their doors, is deluded in the extreme. If NCLB remains in place, by 2014 nearly every public school in the nation will be declared failing, to be either destroyed or replaced by a likely-to-fail charter school. That is not progress, it is sadistic idiocy.
2) End the school choice and charter school movements. School choice is a theory born of southern racism in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools. It was given currency shortly after by Milton Friedman, a man who wanted to privatize everything, just because.
Years of school choice and charter experiments have yielded an inescapable but rarely voiced conclusion: the experiment has failed. According to the most comprehensive study of charter schools ever, done by Stanford University, charter schools are twice as likely to be failing as a regular public schools. School choice schemes like the one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are disasters, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a shocking series of stories a few years ago, with schools that have no books on their shelves and many that are frankly unable to do rudimentary teaching.
Longtime choice advocates such as educational historian Diane Ravitch have abruptly reversed course with the wave of scholarly data pouring in demonstrating the poor educational attainment of choice and charter schools, and the high price our children are paying for continuing a failed experiment.
3) Stop beating up on school teachers. Teachers, and secondarily their students, have been the unjustified butt of the entire school reform movement. Slogans such as "a great teacher in every classroom" have done tremendous damage to our schools. Reformers have a completely unrealistic view of school teachers, expecting every teacher to be a heroic performer. In what profession is each member perfect?
Remember the old joke, "What do you call a medical school student who finishes last in his class? Doctor." Most teachers indeed are high-performing, dedicated professionals, despite media and political attacks on them. The expectations of teachers are completely out of line with the power of teachers to impact all students, especially considering the pay and prestige of the job, and the lack of readiness many children bring to school.
Schools and teachers may be responsible for minding our children eight hours a day, but in reality even plumbers make more money. There is something desperately wrong with thinking teachers are the bane of American education yet paying them less than a manager of a fast-food restaurant.
Twenty years ago, in the wake of the Reagan Administration's dishonest and alarmist Nation At Risk (NAR) study, the highly respected Sandia National Labs did a comprehensive examination of primary and secondary education in the U.S. Their results repudiated the NAR propaganda, reporting that primary and secondary education in the U.S. was as good or better than almost the entire world, and it was steadily getting better. The Sandia report warned that a threat to this achievement was on the horizon - politically motivated attacks that hurt the image of teachers, both with the public and with themselves. This false image of school teachers as inadequate, wrote the researchers at Sandia, could negatively impact the quality of education if it continued or deepened. Today you'd have to be living in a cave to not see the prescience of those scholars.
3) End participation in NCLB. If the federal government renews the NCLB act in its current form, states will have no choice but to end their participation in the program. A sad irony of the NCLB act is that it only applies so-called "Title 1" funds - money designated to help high-poverty and minority schools.Thus only poor schools are subject to the punitive policies of NCLB. Wealthy districts can basically ignore NCLB because they don't take much of the money.
This policy has the (desired?) effect of killing innovation and success. In Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, the principal of a school that serves a high proportion of children in poverty thought he knew what might help his students: an in-school medical clinic. He brought together community partners to make the clinic a reality. What he found was stunning: almost 70 percent of the students who presented at the clinic had untreated eye problems.
Professional school choice advocates whose livelihoods depend on the largess of opponents of public school teachers' unions, such as Joe Nathan of the Center for School Change, are understandably silent on how a "great teacher" can improve test scores of students who can't see. In Brooklyn Center free medical care for students resulted in a drop in behavioral problems and improved academic achievement.
In a rational world such performance would be rewarded, but not in our perverted educational system. Instead, at the end of last year, despite this principal's enlightened and heroic performance, a few sub-groups at his school failed to meet NCLB's adequate yearly progress rules, mandating his firing, and the firing of at least half the teachers at his school. If destroying real educational progress was the goal of NCLB, mission accomplished.
4) Repair the social safety net. The only real path to improved education performance is the repair of the social safety net, which has been steadily eviscerated since conservative philanthropy revved up in the late 1970s. Contrary to the fog machines of economists and puerile politicians, schools do not create the economic and political environments in which they operate. No school can stop the off-shoring of good jobs to low-wage and low-regulation foreign countries. Today even college graduates are losing jobs and seeing reduced pay. As Paul Krugman has written, being a college graduate today doesn't make you an economic winner; at best it makes you somewhat less of a loser. We cannot educate our way out of our economic mess. Real political and economic changes must take place to reduce income and wealth inequality, and to reduce racist and classist laws which deny economic opportunity to the lower socio-economic levels of our society.
In the meantime we can save a lot of time and money by letting schools get back to what they do well: teaching. Maybe then we can hang on long enough to enact enough real change in Washington and St Paul to reverse our 30 year civilizational decline.