Sunday, May 19, 2013

Issue #115 May 19, 2013- Why Education "Reforms" Fail

Reform is a current buzzword that is used by those who would change our existing public services to a for-profit, privatized system.  The new systems that are put in place are designed to benefit a few key investors and wealthy contributors.  They also attempt to cement in place a stratification of social and economic classes, with those at the "top of the ladder" positioned to continue to receive the best services and opportunities. 

Reform in and of itself is not a negative thing.  Merriam Webster defines reform in the following ways:

transitive verb
1 a : to put or change into an improved form or condition
b : to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses
2: to put an end to (an evil) by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action
3: to induce or cause to abandon evil ways <reform a drunkard>
4a : to subject (hydrocarbons) to cracking
b : to produce (as gasoline or gas) by cracking
intransitive verb
: to become changed for the better

We should be looking for ways to reform our government, and the way our social and economic support services are delivered.  In fact most of the leaders that Progressives and Liberals hold in high esteem were in fact, reformers.  However, the current crop of reformers have taken the concept and made it unpalatable for many of us.

Public education is one area where the word reform is now being used in a negative way.  Conservatives who have been working for school "reform" have used the word to justify standardized testing, standardized curricula, closing of schools and privatizing our educational system.  They point to the "failure" of our public schools and use specific examples like Achievement Gaps to further undermine public confidence in our schools.  Yet, their "reforms" often don't produce any better results and effectively re-segregate our schools, returning us to a "separate, but unequal" system of education. 

Those of us who work in the public schools are deeply troubled by the Achievement Gaps.  We know that there are flaws in our delivery of educational services to all of our students.  We constantly strive to do better and to look for ways to truly reform our schools, and to rethink the ways that we provide educational opportunities for our students. 

Unfortunately, in today's climate of high stakes testing, standards and demonization of educators (and education) we are seeing significant changes in the way that we are trying to improve our schools.  Changes that are reactive and too frequently don't move our system in a positive direction.  As a result we see test scores, graduation rates and other benchmark measurements showing little positive change in the years since No Child Left Behind was enacted. 

Conservative reformers would have us believe that the continued struggles of public schools to close Achievement Gaps and to create a new generation of students with great test scores demonstrates the need to completely overhaul the system.  They are quick to point out the failures of the schools and use statistics and budgets to "prove" their arguments. 

Because Achievement Gaps are a reality, because our TAG students are too frequently unsupported, because our Special Education students struggle, because of a whole host of reasons, public educators find themselves on the defensive.  We truly want to do better for all of our students, and we can't deny that there are those who don't perform as well in our schools as we would like.  There is no doubt, but that public educators would like to see our schools reformed in such a way so that all students would have an opportunity to succeed in school and to build a base for their continued success once they are out of school.  We want to erase the Gaps, graduate all of our students and see every child develop a lifelong love of learning along with the necessary skills to be productive and happy citizens. 

To achieve these results we need strong, vibrant, well-supported PUBLIC schools.  We need to have comprehensive and meaningful discussions involving professionals in education to design and implement real reforms and programs that will achieve our goals.  We need to remove the political shenanigans from the debate on education and focus on the ways that we can make our schools work for all children. 

Conservative reformers have put pressure on our public school systems to reform their practices.  The "tools" of budget cuts and educator accountability have been wielded to force school districts to make significant changes in short amounts of time.  Yet the reforms that have been implemented in too many places are failing to achieve positive results.  This is the ammunition that "reformers" need to work on expanding programs like Voucher Schools in Wisconsin.  It is the impetus that drives school closings in Chicago and Michigan. 

The question is, why do these "reforms" fail?  There are many answers to this question, but here are a few.

1- They are supposed to fail.  Cut budgets, increase testing and put intense pressure on educators and students, then wait for them to struggle.  Public schools are required by law to serve any and all students who live in their attendance areas.  By setting up impossible standards and tying funding to the achievement of these standards, "reformers" created the conditions that drive the public perception of "failing schools".  Students with disabilities, language needs and who come from poverty require more services and are more "expensive" to educate.  They also tend to score lower on standardized tests that are culturally biased and geared towards rewarding specific types of students.  Using test scores and budgets, "reformers" talk about expensive and under-performing schools.  This allows them to portray our public schools as budget "parasites" and talk about the "value" of privatization in education.  

2- They are implemented in a top down manner.  If you follow most of the discussions that surround school "reform" you will see nationally recognized, big moneyed and well connected names talking about improving our schools.  Most of these individuals haven't been responsible for a classroom of students for years, if ever.  They have an outside view of the way schools work, and use their "expertise" to tell those of us who are in schools on a daily basis how we should do our jobs.  

3- They are based on producing a "product" to fit a flawed outcome.  Almost all of the efforts to improve our schools center around the twin pillars of "college and career readiness".  Sounds great, doesn't it.  After all, who wouldn't want to have children leave our schools ready for college and/or a career?  However, if you look beyond the cool catch phrase you'll see that by defining our schools success rate in this way, we've immediately created the very Gaps that we are trying to eliminate.  We are trying to mold our students to fit the system, not to make a system that actually educates, supports and nurtures our students.  It is a system that is heavily biased against students from poverty, "minority" students and students who come from different language backgrounds.    

This isn't to say that we shouldn't be preparing our students for the future.  One of the worst things that we can do to our students is lower our expectations for them.  Unfortunately, we know that there are students who are "written off" by the system before they get much of a chance.  We should work to educate every child, no matter what demographic or geographic group they belong to.

However, the current system is designed to make students fit into a specific mold and to achieve narrowly defined benchmarks in order to stay on the "proper path".  That these requirements for success may not be developmentally appropriate children in general doesn't stop us from evaluating, labeling and categorizing students based on subjective standards.  I am a college graduate with a BA and a Masters Degree, but needed a year off from college as well as several years post-college to really find my way.  This was as a white, middle class, male, from a family of college graduates with all the advantages that brings.  I can only imagine how difficult it is for someone from a different demographic group who doesn't meet with success in school starting in Kindergarten.

Our current system doesn't leave much room for error.  Students need to make progress against a mythical "normal" student or else they are targeted for remediation.  This has gotten worse in the years following NCLB and continues through the RttT policies.  We are constantly measuring and defining students in order to keep them on the “college and career readiness pathway” and there is no room for deviation.

In fact, this need to quantify learning and set goals for our students’ means has created a "trickle-down" effect in education.  Trickle-down policies don't work in economics and they don't work in our schools either.  What we have done is look at what makes a student successful in college and project these skills down into our schools, all the way to our Pre-K and Kindergarten students.  Yet we know that the skills that are learned along the way may not have much relevance in either the "real world" or in our student's lives.  In our efforts to make sure all students are "successful" we have made school less engaging and educational for many of our students.    

All of these efforts imply that the college model is the pinnacle of our educational efforts.  Yet we know that the Achievement Gaps are most visible at our highest educational levels.  This isn't because of test scores, but is measurable by the disparity in the number of students of poverty and diversity who are admitted to colleges and who go on to complete their degrees.    

Achievement Gaps are also visible in our employment statistics.  If you come from certain demographics you are much more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, or working at a job that doesn't pay a living wage.       

So we put our students on a "racetrack" that, just like most tracks, is a circular course that encourages speed, but gets nowhere.  The winners get the glory, but there are fewer winners and more individuals who are pushed out of the system and relegated to the "pit stops".  We set goals for them based on current conditions, when we know that the world that a current 5 year old will enter in 13+ years will be very different in terms of needed knowledge and skills.     

We work to reform our educational system from the bottom up.  We focus on reforming grade levels where the knowledge and skills are much more constant than they are in "higher education".  Skills that are taught at the elementary level should be basic.  Things like reading, basic math skills, cooperation, responsibility, and a love of learning are relatively constant in nature.  It is later in our educational experiences where we gain the specific, content knowledge that change more rapidly. 

As students move through the educational system too many believe that they are either incapable of achieving, or that the educational opportunities provided for them are irrelevant to their needs.  That student who hung in through elementary school, barely stuck with it through middle school, is lost by high school and disappears from the college scene.  Visit schools at each level and notice the differences in class composition.  Elementary schools are integrated and inclusive, middle schools mostly the same, but by high school students have been "sorted" by the system and our AP classes look distinctly different from our "regular" classes. 

This effort to reform our schools from the "bottom up" demonstrates the lack of respect we have for elementary educators as well as a lack of commitment to truly educating our students.  In the public's mind elementary students are easier to teach, and the subject matter is not as difficult.  However, just try to get a classroom of 15-30 students aged anywhere from 5 to 11 to function as a learning community and you will get an appreciation for what elementary educators do every day.  Elementary educators shape a student's future educational track by developing basic skills and encouraging a love of learning.  By making elementary school more "rigorous" and starting the track to college at age 5 we eliminate the second of those goals from the picture.  Students begin to see learning as simply a means to an end, or a number to achieve.  What would our founding leaders like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson think of an educational system like the one we have established in recent years? 

With all of the knowledge about the ways that students learn best, and how children's abilities and attitudes develop it seems that we could do much better in making our schools accessible to all students.

Along the way we ignore some obvious needs that many of our students have, all in the name of "reforming" our schools and "helping" the students that are often harmed by "reforms". 

They are political and economic tools, not educational ones.  Our students and our schools are pawns in a game of political and economic domination being played by the elite in our society.  The entire "reform" movement is designed to put money in the hands of the few and to break the political resistance to a takeover of our government by the wealthy elite.  Break the public educator unions, turn public opinion against educators and enjoy the benefits.  

All hope is not lost!  Educators in Madison and across the state of Wisconsin are working to combat the "reform" effort and institute real reform that is student centered and relevant to the needs of our communities.  Working together with the families we serve we prevail in the struggle.

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