Saturday, May 21, 2011

Breaking the Public Schools

My colleague mentioned we are immersed in testing season...and to a teacher that imagery might more closely be associated with being water-boarded.  Watching your kids take one is awful...simply awful.  I am also passing through the busiest period of the tennis season and my coaching obligations, while very worthwhile, are quite extensive.  So below is assembled a hodgepodge of ideas I had recently that perhaps don't warrant their own post but I thought might be worth sharing via TU.

School Funding and Vouchers
One of the worst things we can do to education is continue the push to privatize it.  There is a role that for profit companies can play but when they get too big a piece of the pie they become like a dog fed at the table.  Once they get a taste of public funding they won't go away.  They become dependent on it and only want more.  Their presence is driven exclusively by one desire, to get what they want, profits.  In the case of schools it will come a very stable and reliable source, the government.  When profits are placed ahead of what's good for kids and schools, we've got trouble.  

As changes in funding continue to rattle the establishment things like vouchers come up.  I try to avoid discussing them as they tend to be a polarizing issue. I only ask that a few things be kept in mind.  They will not "fix" the schools we have.  Taking money from already underfunded schools(not necessarily where I work) is bad.  I've sat in private school classrooms and short of the the obvious they aren't a whole heck of a lot different from public school classrooms. But...those classrooms lie in schools that have the power to exclude kids and keep them out.  You want to fix public schools...give them that power.  Problems solved.  Wait .... what?    I would never actually suggest that.  I was a literary device called sarcasm and it illustrates how representing vouchers as the solution is way off base(that's a metaphor).

Vouchers are hard to nail down as they mean different things in different places. One of the few worthwhile efforts to figure out their impact came in Milwaukee where some smarterer folks than me looked at their impact(See the study summary here).  I only really remember one sentence as I perused it during an emotional episode of Deadliest Catch.  This was the sentence..."A full eight years after the school district expanded the voucher program, it is still not possible to measure whether voucher students in Milwaukee perform better or worse than their counterparts who remain in public schools."  Any questions?

Breaking the Teachers
What I am seeing is what I fear most.  This wave of reforms are getting rid of the good teachers not the so called "bad" ones.  High stakes testing doesn't reward the best teachers it frustrates them and drives them away.  Is the business model the best approach reformers on the outside can come up with?  What else should we expect when you have people who aren't really teachers making decisions.  While reading a recent article in The Daily Progress about how some Divisions Superintendents had approached the state about possible changes to Elementary SOLs, I was struck by a quote from Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright. While leaning against the requests she stated "I am a teacher at heart … and I just find it hard to believe that teachers can't be creative and they can't teach enriched curriculum while at the same time making sure that students have basic knowledge and skills"

I harbor no ill-will towards Wright and she might even be correct on the issue above.  But the teacher at heart part stuck in my craw(For those taking the biology SOL the "craw" is in your gut near where you get side stitches and next to the gizzard).  I googled her and found she "served as chief deputy superintendent, acting superintendent, deputy superintendent, assistant superintendent for instruction, director of secondary instruction, associate director of secondary instruction and state mathematics specialist."  So its evident her ascension is well earned.  But to me that simply meant she has not worked in a Public School in 26 years.  Let's see...early to mid 80s... I was in school in the same county where I teach and if you are unaware, they have changed a bit since.

I flash back to a local elementary community classroom that had no separation between rooms and might be linked to my short attention span.  What was I saying?   Oh yes, I can't remember what we learned but I do remember some things.  I recall among them finding out I'd be re-districted to a new middle school in the coming year and how that affected my grades, watching the solar eclipse...dispensing with the cardboard contraption we made in science class and using my naked eye at various points, playing soccer during lunch and the day they wheeled in the Apple II so we could learn "LOGO" programming language.  The landmark I.D.E.A had even been thought up yet.  Some say education was better then, some say better now, but both agree different.

But Wright's no dummy.  She's articulate, highly educated, well-informed, and most importantly well-intentioned.  Here's what she is not.  She is not a teacher.  I'm a teacher.  No one thinks quite like me.  I know my school and I know my kids.  Why then do people listen to those who aren't teachers before listening to teachers?  Makes about as much sense as staring at an eclipse without that stupid cardboard box device on your head(see post for real facts here).

Before coming to VDOE in 1985, Dr. Wright taught mathematics for 10 years at the secondary and middle school levels in Sussex County and Chesterfield County public school.  But she no longer thinks like me, a teacher.  Not at all.  I suspect she thinks more like a politician.  She has served as the Super for both Democratic and Republican Governors and no one, I mean no one, thinks like a teacher, unless they teach kids each day, every day. 

Privatizing Education-The Market
Some argue to improve education we should let the markets control the direction of policy and decisions.  That's exactly what we shouldn't let happen as the "market" can be a very de-stabilizing element.  If nothing else public schools are stable.  They are admittedly hard to change but the good thing is that stability should be seen like a rock solid retirement investment.  Should we let Wall Street drive the decisions that prepare our children as it did for the economy in the period leading up to the end of 2007, or with the dot-coms bubble, or the oil spike of the 80s and 90s, or in the 1920s(the list goes on)?  High Risk, high reward?  I'd hope not but I think we are a little late. For 10 years now things have been leaning more and more in that direction.  What's changed for the better? While public confidence in schools is seemingly at an all time low, scary to think how readily talk of competition and improvement echoes a financial firms commercials.  But how much more fragile would schools and our confidence in schools be if we let Wall Streets or Gates and Broad lead?  One year's decline in scores or a principal's departure might undermine confidence as it does the market's confidence following a news headline or singular event.  One thing I know is that while funding our schools may be been more challenging during these periods of economic volatility, we should not take risks and cede control to those with divided loyalties.

All that is required for these things to occur is that smart level headed people, perhaps like those of you reading this blog, to say and do nothing.  Before you scurry down to the registrar and sign up to run for school board, get more informed.  Get more active and at the least more vocal about the issues affecting our schools. Talk to teachers and avoid claims of being on their side and ask what they think.  Most of all make sure the positions and decisions you support will not break what isn't yet broken.  Too many people already fit that mold.

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