Saturday, August 28, 2010

Education Reformers vs. “New Reformers”

The Answer Sheet- Valerie Strauss

My guest is John C. Fager, a school teacher in New York City. In the 1990s, he was the education columnist for the Daily News, a parent leader, and education adviser to the New York City Council president.

By John C. Fager
At the end of the last school year, the principal at the New York City high school where I teach announced the following: Because of budget cuts, three teachers would be transferred to the central office, support personnel would be laid off, summer school would be halved, fewer after-school programs would exist in the fall, and more cuts might be necessary in September.
As the new school year approaches, such trouble faces the majority of schools in most states. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan estimated that 100,000 to 300,000 teachers could receive pink slips without federal intervention.
As a result, millions of children would be assigned to larger classes, receive less one-on-one intervention and have more time after-school with nothing to do. Many kindergartners may no longer have classes to attend and the cohesiveness of many school communities would shatter.
House Democrats, led by Chairman David Obey of the Appropriations Committee have been trying, since early June to provide $10 billion in funding to stem some of this damage. The House is reconvening this week to take up a Senate bill to provide the money, but this has been anything but easy.
First the House’s efforts were stymied by Senate Republicans--who spent eight years under president George W. Bush adding trillions to the deficit--and some conservative Democrats who objected to an increase in the deficit. Then Obey proposed an Education Jobs Fund (Edujobs) to keep 140,000 teachers in the classrooms and he included cuts of $10 billion to respond to the deficit argument.
But all hell broke loose in Washington and among the so-called "new reformers" of education because Obey had the nerve to fund $800 million of the total by temporarily trimming some of President Obama’s high priority education programs: $500 million from the $4.35 billion Race To The Top (RTT), $200 million from performance pay, and $100 million from charter school funds.
This was heresy to the new reformers, who include some elected officials, too many editorial boards, some educators, many CEO’s, billion-dollar foundations, hedge fund managers, and, sadly, President Barack Obama. He immediately threatened to veto such a measure. The rest of the group used its considerable influence to pressure senators not to go along, and 13 Democratic senators urged their fellow Democrats to vote against the measure.
But those of us who toil in the trenches find it unbelievable that temporarily trimming the funding of unproven programs that will mostly benefit fewer than half of the states would take precedence over keeping 140,000 teachers in classrooms. Only true believers, who seem to dominate the discussion about education reform, would favor such a course of action.
R. Brooks Garber, a vice president with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, told Education Week that the organization opposes cutting $100 million from the fund for charter schools because 200 new charter schools wouldn’t be started and 6,000 new teachers wouldn’t be hired. Charter school advocates seem to favor hiring new charter school teachers over retaining existing public school teachers.
If charter schools were so superior to public schools you might make a principled argument that funding should be allocated to where it will be effectively used. But the largest study of charter schools, done by Stanford University, found that for most students charter schools were not an improvement over public schools.
The study found that 17 percent of the schools studied (representing more than 70 percent of the charter school students nationally), provide superior education opportunities for their students, nearly half have results no different from the local schools and 37 percent deliver learning results that are worse.
Opposing the $500 million temporary cut to the $4.35 billion RTT program was even more outrageous. This program continues and expands on the Bush administration’s heavy emphasis on high stakes--students will be failed, teachers will be fired, schools will be closed--standardized testing.
What we have learned during the last eight years is that when Washington exerts this kind of pressure, it does not produce greater student achievement. What it leads to is manipulation and fraud in the testing programs. State tests tend to show progress, sometimes dramatic, almost miraculous, progress as here in New York, while the federal National Assessment of Education Progress, the so-called nation’s report card, finds little or no progress.
The massive emphasis on standardized testing also corrupts education itself by turning the curriculum into test prep; it also has another adverse impact on many students. Last November, First Lady Michelle Obama was asked by students at a Denver high school whether it was fair that they and their school would be judged by such once-a-year tests.
She told them, “I was never a great standardized test-taker....I would always get nervous and feel a great deal of anxiety over test taking. So it was always a point of frustration for me personally....It was just some people are really good test-takers and some aren’t.” She concluded, “But don’t let these tests defeat you. Don’t let them define you.”
This debate about Edujobs and The Race To The Top is part of the initial skirmishing about the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) now called No Child Left Behind.
House education committee hearings have already raised questions about the four school turnaround policies prescribed in RTT that seem to rely heavily on closing lots of schools and firing many, many teachers and principals.
Both branches of Congress have authorized spending for RTT for another year but at lower amounts than the Obama Administration had requested. But before Congress reenacts ESEA, the education committees need to hold hearings in New York City and Chicago where many of the elements of the administration’s agenda have been in effect. Huge holes are appearing in the rosy picture of what has been accomplished in the New York City public school system during the last seven years.
I am not a defender of the current system of education; it is obsolete and we have known that as a nation since the publication in 1983 of the “Nation at Risk” report.
But we have wasted two decades trying two different reform strategies (Education Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind) while many industrialized countries have passed us and now enjoy the education advantage that we once held.
My experience with the new reforms tells me that they are harming education and setting the country back. Many educators with whom I talk or whose writings I read also believe that Race To The Top is a race to the bottom. As a nation we are running out of time and we need to effectively reinvent education now. We can’t let another decade slip by.

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