Sunday, December 05, 2010

MinnCan success will be disaster for public education

Watch out Minnesota teachers and schools - the state is about to be exposed to a campaign to shift its paradigm on public primary and secondary education to a strategy of so-called "flexibility, accountability, and choice." This education deform push will be coming from a new advocacy group called  MinnCan, an organization modeled after one previously built by Plutocrats in Connecticut called ConnCan. Last week MinnCan announced its creation, president,  first board, and goals, which are comprised of the three methods listed above.

Don't be deceived: This is not an "experiment" to achieve better schools. It is the implementation of a "free-market" model that borrows concepts from business and industry to attempt to instill "competition" to schools, which will somehow magically improve all of them. The proposed reforms are modeled after failed experiments over the past decade in San Diego and New York City, where they have blown up in the face of its practitioners.

The likely success of the upcoming MinnCan campaign will actually further corporatize, privatize and balkanize our schools, destroying long held neighborhood institutions like North High School while lowering teacher quality and the ranks of teachers' unions. Cloaked in their self-serving propaganda claiming to ensure "that every Minnesota child has access to a great public school" they will instead invoke a continuing degradation of education in Minnesota.

The concepts of flexibility, accountability and choice provide no guidelines to actually improving education. Real education occurs in schools, organized by theories of education and learning, of human development and the purpose of public education. Education revolves around curriculum - what the students are being taught. Students are not something to be acted upon by a particular school seeking to obtain a certain result, like an industrial process. Students are real human beings who bring to school all the attributes and deficiencies present in the society they are part of. Schools are complicated social institutions.

MinnCan's political campaign will be a recipe for chaos and disaster in our schools. The notion of flexibility in education partly means schools will be somewhat free to teach what and how they want, as long as students pass annual reading and writing exams. This is part of the education deform movement's left/right strategy, whereby progressives are allowed to organize schools as they wish (within the bounds of "accountability"), while the overall structure of school districts is faux market-based, working to undermine teacher unions and cultivate a yet-not-existing choice. It is primarily a political strategy, as the actual content and method of education is not mentioned.

Accountability means that schools, and their teachers, will be held "accountable" for the reading and writing scores. If they are bad, and don't improve then those schools will be closed, and the teachers either fired or moved to other schools. The "accountability" and high-stakes testing movement actually grew out of the failure and perversion of an attempt to develop national curriculum standards in the early 90s.

Federal law prohibits the federal government from developing standards and curriculum, so a voluntary standards movement took shape among educational professionals. However, the first attempts to develop those standards took fatal hits from conservatives, led by Lynn Cheney, the former vice president's wife. Rather than tweak those nascent standards politicians just punted the whole effort. The only areas where policy makers could agree was on reading and math, leading to our current situation where schools are judged ONLY on reading and math, which has eviscerated the teaching of science, social studies, foreign language and the arts. The standards on math and reading, moreover, are a joke, since there is no national standard and states are left to their own devices to develop accountability based on those two subjects, leading to a wide variance - and corruption -  on what constitutes acceptable academic achievement.

Education deformers have inflated the role of test scores from being an educational indicator to being an end in itself. The result has been to overweight test scores in accountability schemes and in mass falsification of education statistics. For example, in 2006 the State of New York made an unannounced change to its test grading system which resulted in many more students being judged as proficient in math and English. When national scores didn't jibe with the new state scores in 2009 the changed scoring method was revealed, wiping away much of the supposed gains. Meanwhile, also in New York City, the poster child for "accountability," by 2009 "choice" had rendered more than a third of all city schools without one art teacher.

Choice primarily means more failed charter schools. There is no real choice in primary and secondary education - there just aren't that many schools. More than 90 percent of all students attend regular public schools. In New York City choice has meant the closing of many, if not most, of the the big neighborhood high schools. In their place hundreds of small public and charter schools have sprung up with the support of both public and private money. As students bled off to those smaller schools, many of which do not take difficult students, the traditional schools have been inundated with the left-over students, only to have those schools judged as failing and in turn be closed. The result is a bewildering array of schools, many far away from where the students actually live. Many students are left with long travel times - sometimes as much as 90 minutes each way - each day.

In her most recent book Diane Ravitch enumerates some of the bewildering array of 400 high schools in New York City, including
"...a high school for future firefighters; a school for the hospitality industry; a school for urban planners; a school for architecture; a school for the business of sports; a school for the violin; several schools for social justice, peace, and the media.
Researchers who analyzed the system noted "...that 'the small high schools are no panacea,' and 'school choice,' by itself, won't improve schools." Indeed, once the populations of the schools stabilized the math and reading scores at the new small schools were no better than before, and in some cases worse. Worse, writes Ravitch, "As it elevated the concept of school choice, the [New York City] Department of Education destroyed the concept of neighborhood high schools."  Which is what has already happened here in Minneapolis with the scheduled closing of North High School, which lost two thirds of its population to choice in the past seven years.

Ravitch writes about the social loss: "Neighborhoods were once knitted together by a familiar local high school that served all the children of the community, a school with distinctive traditions and teams and history." That is what "choice" does: it destroys community in idolatry of a fake market.

In all probability MinnCann will be successful in the upcoming legislative session in changing Minnesota education law to ramp up attacks on public school teachers and their schools. This "success" will be in no small part due to the education deformers left/right strategy, and the coalescence of conservative and liberal elites behind wrong headed, historically ignorant, and destructive changes.  But there is no real opposition to the deformers. Teachers' unions, to some degree, represent a brake on the deformers. But it is not their job to fight off political campaigns waged by billionaires aimed at the destruction of public education. Who will stand up for the real interests of children, schools and teachers? More and more it's looking like no one.

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