Saturday, September 11, 2010

Educators Push Back Against Obama’s "Business Model" for School Reforms

Democracy Now:

KAREN LEWIS: The problem is the system is obviously broken. I don’t think anybody will argue with that, that the system is broken. It is—it has not basically changed since the 1900s—1800s, for that matter. And as a result, it has never been able to absorb real innovation. And the problem is it’s just a lot easier to test, test, test children. Our curriculum has narrowed in Chicago. If you look at the average day for an elementary school kid, it’s reading, reading, reading, reading, reading, reading, math, math, math, reading, reading, reading, reading, math. I mean, kids are bored to tears. They’re hating school at an early age. There’s no joy. There’s no passion. And the results show that. They’re very indicative of that. . .

. . .Nobody disagrees with accountability. That’s not the issue. The issue is, what do you use? We still know that high-stakes testing basically tell us more about a student’s socioeconomic status than it does anything else. And until we’re honest about that and want to deal with the fact that we have neighborhoods in our cities and across the nation that have been under-resourced, have been devalued for decades, and for some reason or other, the schools are supposed to fix all that and change that.


LOIS WEINER: And I think it’s also very important to understand that this focus on educational reform is replacing, is a substitute for, a jobs policy. We need to understand that. Education can democratize the competition for the existing jobs, but it cannot create new jobs. And when most jobs that are being created are by companies like Wal-Mart, education cannot do anything about that. So, we need to—we really need to look critically at Race to the Top and understand the way that it fits into this new economic order of a so-called jobless recovery and that what’s really going on is a vocationalization of education, a watering down of curriculum for most kids, so that they’re going to take jobs that require only a seventh or an eighth grade education, because those are the jobs that are being created in this economy. . .

. . .Well, I think it’s important to understand that there are—No Child Left Behind is part of this global project to deprofessionalize teaching as an occupation. And the reason that it’s important in this project to deprofessionalize teaching is that the thinking is that the biggest expenditure in education is teacher salaries. And they want to cut costs. They want to diminish the amount of money that’s put into public education. And that means they have to lower teacher costs. And in order to do that, they have to deprofessionalize teaching. They have to make it a revolving door, in which we’re not going to pay teachers very much. They’re not going to stay very long. We’re going to credential them really fast. They’re going to go in. We’re going to burn them up. They’re going to leave in three, four, five years. And that’s the model that they want.

So who is the biggest impediment to that occurring? Teachers’ unions. And that is what explains this massive propaganda effort to say that teachers’ unions are an impediment to reform. And in fact, they are an impediment to the deprofessionalization of teaching, which I think is a disaster. It’s a disaster for public education.

Watch, read, or listen to the rest

Oh god, where do I start? This is really the best discussion on education I've heard in a long time--sadly, it was on Democracy Now, so I'm pretty certain that the people who most need to hear it, teachers, administrators, and politicians, will not. But I heard it, fortunately, and I've got a few good points that fit in very neatly between the lines.

For starters, Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union is absolutely right to observe that nothing in American education has changed very much since the nineteenth century. The buildings are still laid out approximately the same. School hierarchy is exactly the same. Lecture style delivery of information combined with desk work and testing is still pretty much the same. Student evaluation is still done in the same way, that is, with tests. Virtually all reforms over the last century have been essentially tinkering at the margins. Sure, it's cool that kids can wear blue jeans these days, when they don't have to wear uniforms, but that's not much of a reform in terms of student learning. In other words, we, as a society, bitch all the time about fixing the schools, and the politicians send along something seemingly new every five years or so at either the state or national level, but in the end, it's all the same.

It is very easy to conclude that, in spite of the establishment's obvious taste for education as a political whipping boy, the people who run our country aren't really interested in making education function better. My take is that the establishment likes education exactly the way it is, ineffective as far as increasing knowledge and understanding goes, but wildly effective at
indoctrinating children into the culture of obedience and authority. Because education sucks, which means kids are left to essentially educate themselves, what we have is a replication of the existing class structure: bourgeois kids, like I was, come from families that value history, math, science, and literature, and will learn such subjects because their culture dictates that they do so; working class and poor families are simply struggling to keep a roof over their heads--knowledge and inquiry are much too luxurious for children to pursue by themselves under such circumstances.

That is, the public education system really does lock people into the economic class into which they were born. So much for upward mobility. And Lois Weiner, a professor of education at New Jersey City University, points out why the establishment has absolutely no problem with such a system: we don't need a bunch of deep thinking brainiacs working at Walmart. Indeed, it's always been like this. Famed "father of American Education"
Horace Mann pitched the school system he modeled on Prussian ideas as a way to instill discipline in children for future employment, which he believed was every bit as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic. In practice, discipline is far more important because, you know, that's what shitty service sector employers want.

I do, however, take issue with Weiner's assertion that No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and other such reforms are designed to "deprofessionalize" the teaching profession: the system already "burn(s) them up," and has been doing so for many years. I remember when I started teaching back in 1998, the popular statistic was that a majority of teachers leave the profession within five years of entering it; sometime during my tenure, the number of years went down to four. And it's already quite easy and quick to get your teaching certificate. My education studies came nowhere near what I would call "intellectual." I mean, there was some interesting stuff here and there, but nothing that really challenged my brain. Most of my classmates were rather dull, and I found essentially the same kind of person out in the field. Indeed, most of my own high school teachers way back when weren't much more than work-a-day stiffs with average intelligence at best. There are exceptions, of course, but these people are in the minority. Teaching is "professional" in the way that driving a garbage truck is professional. After all, if your mission is to instill discipline, and to keep your students from asking too many questions, a keen intellect is nothing but an impediment: the establishment wants its teachers to be mediocre. So I'm not signing on to this particular conspiracy theory, even though it sure does look as though establishment forces are ramping up their efforts in this area.

But Weiner is dead right about one thing: the charter school movement and other reforms are, indeed, designed to lower teacher salaries and benefits. Is it any wonder that teachers unions are painted by politicians, on both the left and the right, as standing in the way of "progress"?