Why teacher bashing is dangerous
By Stan Karp
Far too many people are bashing teachers and public schools. The attacks are coming from different places for different reasons, and we need to pay attention to the differences.
The parent who’s angry at the public school system because it’s not successfully educating his/her children is not the same as the billionaire with no education experience, who couldn’t survive in a classroom for two days, but who has made privatizing education policy a hobby, and who has the resources to do so because the country’s financial and tax systems serve the rich.
The educators who start a community-based charter school to create a collaborative school culture are not the same as the hedge fund managers who invest in charter schools to turn a profit, or who want to privatize our most important civic institution.
The well-meaning college grad who joins a Teach For America program is not the same as the corporate managers who want to use market reforms to create a less expensive, less secure and less experienced teaching force.
And the hard-pressed taxpayer who directs frustration at teachers struggling to hang on to their health insurance or pensions—which far too few people have at all—is not coming from the same place as those responsible for the obscene economic inequality that is squeezing both.
I’ve spent a large part of my adult life criticizing the flawed policies of public education as a teacher, an education activist and a policy advocate. But now I find myself spending a lot of time defending the very idea of public education against those who say, it should be blown up.
The increasingly polarized education policy debate is not just about whether teachers feel the sting of public criticism or whether school budgets suffer another round of cuts. It’s not even about the hot-button issues getting all the attention like merit pay or charter schools.
What’s at stake is more basic: Whether the right to a free public education for all children will survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions.
Will they be collectively owned and democratically managed, however imperfectly, by all of us as citizens, or will they be privatized and commercialized by corporate interests that increasingly dominate our society?
The larger goal, to borrow a phrase from the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a political lobby financed by hedge fund millionaires that is a chief architect of the current campaign, is to “burst the dam” that has historically protected public education and its $600 billion annual expenditures from unchecked commercial exploitation and privatization.
What is new and alarming are the large strides those promoting business models and market reforms have made in attaching their agenda to the urgent need of poor communities who have, in too many cases, been badly served by the current system.
The narrative of public education as a systematic failure has been fed in recent years by shifting federal policy. It’s moved away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity through support for things such as school integration, extra funding for high-poverty schools and services for students with special needs, and embraced a much less equitable set of mandates around testing, closing schools, firing school staff and distributing federal funds through “competitive grants” to “winners” at the expense of “losers.”
First with No Child Left Behind, and then with Race to the Top, Democrats have been playing tag team with Republicans building on the test and punish approach. Just how much this bipartisan consensus has solidified came home when I picked up my local paper one morning and saw Gov. Chris Christie, the most anti-public education governor New Jersey has ever had, quoted as saying “This is an incredibly special moment in American history, where you have Republicans in New Jersey agreeing with a Democratic president on how to get reform.”
Unless we change direction, the combined impact of these proposals will do for public schooling what market reform has done for housing, health care and the economy: produce fabulous profits for a few and unequal access and outcomes for the many.
The corporate/foundation crowd has successfully captured the media label as “education reformers.” If you support charters, merit pay, and control of school policy by corporate managers you’re a reformer. If you support increased school funding, collective bargaining and control of school policy by educators, you’re a defender of the status quo.
This is particularly true when it comes to the way the issue of poverty is being framed.
Of course poverty is no excuse for bad teaching, poor curriculum, massive dropout rates or year after year of lousy school outcomes. We need accountability systems that put pressure on schools to respond effectively to the communities they serve. And in my experience, parents are the key to creating that pressure and teachers are the key to implementing the changes needed to address it. Finding ways to promote a collaborative tension and partnership between these groups is a key to school improvement.
But the reformers’ notion that schools alone can make up for the inequality and poverty that exists all around them has become part of the “No Excuses” drumbeat used to impose reforms that have no record of success as school improvement strategies.
Instead they’re political strategies designed to bring market reform to public education.
Today we hear absurd claims about how super-teachers can eliminate achievement gaps with scripted curricula handed down from above, and how the real problem is not the country’s shameful 23% child poverty rate or underfunded schools. Instead it’s bad teachers.
Now it’s true that effective teachers and good schools can make an enormous difference in the life chances of children. And it’s also true that struggling teachers who don’t improve after they’ve been given support need to find other work.
But when it comes to student achievement—and especially the narrow, culturally-slanted, pseudo-achievement captured by standardized test scores—there is no evidence that the test score gaps you hear about constantly can be traced to bad teaching. And there is overwhelming evidence that they closely reflect the inequalities of race, class, and opportunity that follow students to school.
Teachers count a lot. But reality counts too. Reformers who discount the impact of poverty are actually the ones making excuses for their failure to make poverty reduction, and adequate and equitable school funding, a central part of school improvement efforts.
The federal government has put more effort into tying individual teacher compensation to test scores and pressing states to eliminate caps on charter schools than encouraging them to distribute more fairly the $600 billion they spend annually on K-12 education.
At the same time they want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create more tests based on the new common core standards and use those tests to implement merit pay plans.
Spending more money on standardized tests is like passing out thermometers in a malaria epidemic. People need better health care, more hospitals, and better-trained doctors, they don’t need more thermometers.
These test-based evaluation systems have the potential to seriously damage the teaching profession. Their basic assumptions are at odds with the way real schools actually work, and bending school practices to accommodate them could negatively affect everything from the way students are assigned to classes, to the willingness of teachers to serve high needs populations to the collaborative professional culture that good schools depend on for success. They’ll also require another massive increase in standardized testing.
The last issue I want to mention is charters. Today there are about 5,000 charter schools that enroll about 4% of all students. Few justify the hype they receive in "Waiting for Superman,” and those that do, like the schools featured in the film, are highly selective, privately subsidized schools that have very limited relevance for the public system. It’s like looking for models of public housing by studying luxury condo developments.
In the past 10 years, the character of the charter school movement has gone from community-based, educator-initiated local efforts to spur alternative approaches for a small number of students, to nationally funded efforts by foundations, investors and educational management companies to create a parallel, more privatized system.
This does not deny the reform impulse that is a real part of the charter movement. Many times during my 30 years of teaching at a large dysfunctional high school, I wanted to start my own school. And many of the issues that public school advocates like myself criticize in charters, like creaming, and unequal resources exist within the public system too.
But public schools have federal, state and district obligations that can be brought to bear. There are school boards, public budgets, public policies and public officials that can be held accountable in ways that privatized charters don’t allow. In post-Katrina New Orleans, where more than 60% of all students now attend unequal tiers of charter schools, there are students and parents who cannot find any schools to take them.
No one questions the desire of parents to find the best options they can for their children. But any strategy that promotes charter expansion at the expense of system-wide improvement and equity for the all schools is a plan for privatization not reform.
It took well over a hundred years to create a public school system that, for all its flaws, provides a free education for all children as a legal right. And public schools are one of the last places where an increasingly diverse and divided population still comes together for a common civic purpose in this country.
In some respects public education is our most successful democratic institution, doing more to reduce inequality, offer hope, and provide opportunity than the country’s financial, economic, political, and media institutions.
Those who believe that business models and market reforms hold the key to solving educational problems have a [reform] agenda, but:
It does not include all children and all families.
It does not include adequate, equitable and sustainable funding.
It does not include transparent public accountability.
It does not include the supports and reforms that educators need to do their jobs well.
It doesn’t address the legacy or the current realities of race and class inequality that surround our schools every day.
Where we go from here, as advocates and activists for social justice, depends in part on our ability to re-invent and articulate this missing equity agenda and to build a reform movement that can provide effective, credible alternatives to the strategies that are currently being imposed from above.
We need to reclaim not just our schools, but our political process and our public policy-making machinery, and control over our economic and social future. We don’t only need to fix our schools, we need to fix our democracy.