Education Opportunity Network

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Back To School Season Reveals Education Policy Disconnect

The annual ritual of Back to School Season had education in the headlines more than usual this week, and what it revealed were two starkly different narratives about the present state and future of the nation’s schools.

One story is a continuation of promises coming from prominent individuals claiming to know what will fix the nation’s schools and make them more “accountable,” while the other is a much more troubling tale about schools that is plainly visible to most Americans – except those at the top.

So much evidence – from both anecdotal reporting and objective data – revealed this vast disconnect.

Promoters of what has been caste as an “education reform” movement continue to take on the the mantle of civil rights cause, but reports from the frontlines of America’s classrooms show the negative consequences that reform policies actually have on poor black and brown school children they’re purported to serve.

In Chicago, mayor Rham Emanuel has “waxed poetic” about school reforms he claimed will “bridge the divide” between low-income kids on the South Side with their better off white peers. Yet this year in Chicago, back to school on the South Side required a police escort, including a helicopter, to get elementary children through dangerous gang territory because the schools that the mayor had promised to “fix” were closed under his leadership instead.

Due to the closing of so many neighborhood schools in neighborhoods where the presence of safe schools should matter most, city officials have had to double the number of police-protected routes – dubbed “Safe Passageways” – and dramatically increased security costs to $15.7 million.

While the mayor claimed that police protection would ensure “kids will think about their studies, not their safety,” a concerned mother more aptly described what should be a routine, even boring experience, for children as “a zoo.”

Education “reform” doesn’t look any better in North Carolina, where that state’s relatively new governor, Pat McCrory has proclaimed a “passion” for schools that more closely resembles a resentment toward them.

This summer, the state passed legislation eliminating teacher positions, increasing class sizes, and lowering teacher qualifications in charter schools, while creating voucher programs that send more tax money to private schools and expanding funding for Teach for America to stock classrooms for the least served children with teachers who are the least experienced and least prepared. All of this is portrayed as an effort to help low-income children out of “low-performing schools,” even though the vast majority of poor kids in the state are likely to see the quality of their education decline.

North Carolina is not alone in seeing the quality of its education program severely cut at the same time a reform agenda promises to fix everything. New curriculum standards known as the Common Core – which have been adopted by most states – have been promoted as the latest “game changer” that will transform America’s schools for the better. Yet many of the states that have adopted the Common Core are in the process of slashing the money needed to implement the new standards.

According to this article from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a new study found that education agencies in 28 states had gotten less or no additional funding for implementing the Common Core, and 12 reported having to scale their implementation effort back. “Less than a quarter of the states that responded said they had adequate staff expertise, staffing levels, and resources to implement the Common Core,” the article explained.

Rising above anecdotal reports, a trio of recent surveys revealed the growing disillusionment Americans are having with the education policy agenda that has been in place for nearly 20 years.

Writing at Politico, Stephanie Simon reviewed the survey results and pronounced it a “mixed report card for education reforms.” But one finding from all three surveys seemed especially jarring compared to the rhetoric coming from the top.

Despite the incessant drumbeat, for many years – and amplified by a deep pocketed PR campaign including feature-length films Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down – that school teachers are principally to blame for the nation’s education problems, the masses don’t seem to be buying it. Contrary to the distrust of educators spread by the elite, the American people have a great deal of confidence in their local schools and the teachers in those buildings.

“Asked how they would grade the school their oldest child attends,” Simon noted, “71 percent of public school parents” graded their local school “A or ‘B” according to the poll conducted by PDK/Gallup. Another poll, from AP-NORC, showed “76 percent of respondents rating their child’s current education as good or excellent, and 82 percent giving their child’s teachers high marks.”

“Americans like and trust teachers,” concluded Anne Wujcik, a blogger for an education marketing firm, noting “72 percent of the PDK/Gallup respondents agree that they ‘have trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools.’ Eighty-two percent of parents surveyed by AP-NORC rate their child’s teacher as excellent/good.”

Journalists at Education Week noted that support for firing teachers based on student test scores – a favorite of the reform crowd – is now in reverse. “The PDK/Gallup survey … found that 58 percent of respondents oppose requiring teacher evaluations to include student scores on standardized tests. That’s a reversal of public opinion from just last year, when 47 percent of PDK/Gallup respondents opposed using test scores in evaluations.”

The article quoted William J. Bushaw, the executive director of Phi Delta Kappa International, who said, “I think parents are listening to their children’s teachers and are hearing their concerns about these new evaluation systems that are untested and deciding that maybe it’s not fair.”

What really concerns Americans? Lack of resources.

A report on the PDK survey at USA Today looked at the data and noticed, “Thirty-six percent of public school parents cited a lack of financial support as the biggest problem facing schools in their community, the largest proportion surveyed. Eleven percent put overcrowding atop their list of concerns. Only 4 percent were concerned with testing or regulations.”

The article quoted Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education in Philadelphia, who explained that policies under the reform umbrella – such as the Common Core, standardization, testing, and teacher evaluations linked to test scores – are “removed from our reality … In the Philadelphia public schools, where they’ve stripped out almost everything, you can’t have a conversation about the Common Core … It’s almost laughable to talk about kids being college and career ready when 60 percent of high schools may not even have a guidance counselor.”

Writing at The Huffington Post, education historian Diane Ravitch questioned what reform measures like the Common Core can really accomplish given the circumstances on the ground:

Across the nation, our schools are suffering from budget cuts.

Because of budget cuts, there are larger class sizes and fewer guidance counselors, social workers, teachers’ assistants, and librarians.

Because of budget cuts, many schools have less time and resources for the arts, physical education, foreign languages, and other subjects crucial for a real education.

As more money is allocated to testing and accountability, less money is available for the essential programs and services that all schools should provide.

Our priorities are confused.

 

So with this year’s Back to School Season revealing widespread evidence that lack of resources – rather than lack of accountability – is the foremost problem troubling the nation’s schools, let’s see if any of the education reform crowd mounts a well-funded campaign to reform that.

  • jean Millay, PhD says:

    Education must look at the child who comes to school…. nervous, often hungry, distracted by everything, unable to focus attention, facing stressed out teachers who transmit their stress to the student. Healthcare costs are rising, and children are obese. So what should be teach first? How to relax, focus attention and manage stress. After that learning the 3 Rs can begin. So I suggest we begin teaching “Self-discovery Science” using modern inexpensive biofeedback instruments. Forty years of therapy with these tools have proved that children can learn to focus attention, manage stress, and the ways in which we are all connected in energy. For more information, find a totally free (no sales pitch) 80-page booklet of lesson plans at: http://www.fmbr.org.

    August 27, 2013 at 10:32 pm
    • Jeff Bryant says:

      Yes, Jean. Educate the whole child.

      August 28, 2013 at 2:09 am
    • Joel Parkes says:

      How about adequately funding schools and providing needed resources so that we don’t have to teach “Self-discovery Science” to hungry seven-year-olds? We know what the problems are, and you want to address the symptoms instead.

      August 31, 2013 at 5:43 am
  • Leslie Burg says:

    Jeff– I strongly agree with you.. the question that should be asked is what can be done to make the changes that are really needed??? That’s what needs to be asked– and asked of those professionals from the excellent schools who signed on to this organization at its inception. I’m Professor Emerita at Northeastern University, retired for 15 years, and have been watching this travesty for a long time now. I taught part-time at a charter school in Boston last year (reading specialist) and saw the problem up close. But Boston Public School leaders and our Mayor, not to mention our Governor, believe we are doing wonderful things! We are not!! We need professionals who are active in the field now– whose voices will be heard–to speak out and challenge what’s happening in our schools today. Where are they? Where are their voices?

    August 27, 2013 at 11:13 pm
    • Jeff Bryant says:

      Thanks Leslie. What “can be done” is to speak out in public forums whenever you get the chance to spread your wisdom to those in the electorate who need to hear it. I believe many people in Boston will listen to you – maybe not the politicians, but people on the ground who see the disastrous results of where our nation is taking our system of education.

      August 28, 2013 at 2:08 am
    • Rob Lively says:

      Leslie we are here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BadAssTeachers/

      August 29, 2013 at 10:19 am
  • francifularts says:

    What I’ve observed as an educator, parent, and concerned community member is that schools seem to be run for the convenience of adults rather than the educational needs of students. Children need opportunities to learn through play and meaningful hands-on activities. They need lots of fresh air and opportunities to move.( And these things are also good for adolescents and adult learners too!) But recess for one thing requires either hiring para-educators or utilizing teachers to supervise students which costs money. Education dollars are at a premium so schools don’t want to “waste” money on recess. Kids are lucky to get more than about 20 minutes recess per day. There are researchers that claim that small class size doesn’t make a difference. I’ve worked with students in large and small groups. There is more of me available to support student learning when I have a smaller class. One of the best “test” score years I observed with my students over the years teaching in public school was when I had a class of 14 second grade students. Quantities of worksheets and workbooks can drill skills, but if there is not much meaning to the activity students won’t retain the info for very long. If a student is doing a science experiment for example, and drawing and/or taking notes about what happened he/she will better retain the information than if he/she reads about the experiment and then has to answer questions about what was read. So much money is spent on workbooks, work sheets, and text books. Some are of better quality than others, but many are a big waste. I’ve seen both of my children come home at the end of the school year with workbooks that were barely used. With the internet for instance, teachers can find resources that specifically meet the needs of a particular unit of study and print those out rather than using 10-20 pages out of a 100 page workbook.
    The main thing that irritates me as an educator is that my professional skills and knowledge are not respected and I’m asked to do things in my classroom that are bad for children by people that do not work with children nor have professional knowledge of child development or an understanding of the way the brain processes and retains information.

    August 28, 2013 at 6:41 am
  • Christian Rewoldt (@crewoldt) says:

    Partner with parents and unionize-read “The Future of Our Schools” by Lois Weiner. It is time to get off our butts and fight back.

    August 29, 2013 at 10:03 am
  • Dietlinde Elliott says:

    Thanks to all of you whose comments I have read here! I am 77 years old and have vivid memories of my school years – Elementary- and High-. My favorites are of middle school where, for one thing, we had to draw maps of the area where we lived, complete with rivers, certain buildings, etc. Then came High school, with foreign languages both modern and ancient, as well as science and so forth. Those were the best! My Latin studies, of course, allow me still now to easily work out the meanings of texts in Spanish, Italian, French, and more!

    Again, Thank you! And keep up this hugely important work!!

    August 29, 2013 at 8:40 pm

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