Tuesday, September 25, 2012






Targeting Public Education



It's a very influential, though thankfully still slightly disagregated, interest group.

As Harold Meyerson remarks on the opinion pages of The Washington Post

Here’s a bit of advice to America’s teachers: If you want the nation’s opinion leaders and CEOs to like you, don’t congregate in groups. Everyone, it seems, loves teachers individually. But when they get together, they become a menace to civilization.

That’s one of the clearest take-aways from the just-concluded teachers strike in Chicago. Editorial boards from the right-wing Wall Street Journal to the liberal New York Times were nearly unanimous in condemning the seven-day strike. The Chicago Teachers Union was depriving the city’s children of their right to an education not just during the strike, editorialists argued, but also every day — by refusing to bow down to standardized tests. In the eyes of our elites, such tests have emerged as the linchpin of pedagogy and the best way to measure teacher, not just student, performance.

There is little evidence that standardized tests for teachers improves educational achievement, nor that such testing for students boosts anything but scores on those tests.   Teachers teach to the test, as demonstrated wonderfully by the State of Texas, where preparation for the tests is almost as enthusiastically undertaken as Friday night high school football.  Fortunately, a backlash is brewing among individuals actually interested in education.

Charter schools have, on the whole, performed slightly worse than conventional public schools, even with the ability of the former to pick and choose their students.   Meyerson notes

the most extensive survey of student performance at charter schools, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes , found that, of the 2,403 charter schools tracked from 2006 to 2008, only 17 percent had better math test results than the public schools in their area, while 37 percent had results that were “significantly below” those of the public schools and 46 percent had results that were “statistically indistinguishable” from their public-school counterparts.

As Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske observe on the op-ed page of The New York Times, "NO one seriously disputes the fact that students from disadvantaged households perform less well in school, on average, than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds"  Sean F. Reardon of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University reports "a given difference in family incomes now corresponds to a 30 to 60 percent larger difference in achievement than it did for a child born in the 1970s."  The income achievement gap, which he defines "as the income difference between a child from a family at the 90th percentile of the family income distribution and a child from a family at the 10th percentile", has become "nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.  Fifty years ago, in contrast, the black-white gap was one and a half to two times as large as the income gap."

Many no doubt will celebrate the apparent, superficial, progress in race relations, wherein the gap in educational achievement between white and black is now less than the gap between rich and poor.  

But all this evidence, and far more, is not stopping the educational "reformers,"   for whom the importance of poverty must be ignored.   As Donald Earl Collins explains in The Nation, this week, NBC (along with its corporate liberal arm, MSNBC) is running its

Education Nation Week in New York City. It will involve MSNBC's rising stars like Melissa Harris-Perry, Chuck Todd and Alex Wagner. It will include a two-day summit broken down into a series of case studies about the various issues in K-12 education and how to improve it for America's children. It will also include a teacher town hall and a student town hall.

In the end, it will all be a staged pageant of concern about kids, a subliminal message of corporatized education reform, a series of half-baked ideas that wouldn't have been good for schools a hundred years ago, much less now. I don't normally trash events before they begin, but I've seen this movie before. It's the one that's been given a bad title, a poor script worked on by five writers, with poor character development, mediocre actors and a wholly implausible ending.

NBC's Education Nation Week fits all of those because its hosts know about as much about the nuances of education as I do about the interactions of neutrinos with the Higgs boson particle. The week-long event is sponsored by University of Phoenix, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ExxonMobil, Target, Citi and the General Motors Foundation (the last one as a "Knowledge Partner"). Seriously? A for-profit institution with a ten (10) percent graduation rate? The biggest funder of ill-conceived education reform efforts, ones that have little chance of actually creating better conditions for teachers to effectively teach students of all stripes? Not to mention a bunch of corporations that have little incentive to reform public education for America's low-income students in a way that would truly level the playing field? Are you kidding me?

(Collins is disappointed in Harris-Perry, who contributed a pro-reform commentary to The Nation.  But those who have caught the latter's act should not be disappointed in her, nor in Wagner, whose deep consideration of political issues runs the gamut from A to B.)

This Committee to Destroy Public Education continues to propagate the easy answers, including the cliche "a good teacher..." (fill in the blank yourselves).  While the overall tax burden is lower now than it has been in the last fifty years, Republicans and neo-liberal supporters of the movement (when not speaking of education) continue to bemoan what they claim are high taxes and push for continuing today's low marginal tax rate for the wealthy.  They understand, but know not to acknowledge, that political support for significantly increasing the pay of teachers doesn't exist and, as long as they continue to demonize a progressive tax system, will not.   Further, those good teachers are not likely to be beating down the doors to teach in the most impoverished neighborhoods, any more than the wealthy reformers are likely to buy a home in north Philadelphia, Detroit's Highland Park, or Todd County in South Dakota

Blaming parents- many of them holding two or even three jobs- for lacking interest in their children's education- also is popular.   Insufficient involvement in the educational achievement of their children (or step-children) is a tendency of poorly-educated parents.  But Reardon concludes

the growing income achievement gap does not appear to be a result of a growing achievement gap between children with highly and less-educated parents. Indeed, the relationship between parental education and children’s achievement has remained relatively stable during the last fifty years, whereas the relationship between income and achievement has grown sharply. Family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children’s achievement.

Harold Meyerson is wrong about a couple of things (One is fairly inconsequential.).  He cites the support for the Chicago teachers' strike among black and Hispanic parents, arguing "it’s safe to say that the school reform movement hasn’t converted many outside the upper middle class."   But as he no doubt realizes, the movement is probably even more popular among the rich (a politically incorrect term, now that the right has admonished us to say "job producers") than the upper middle class.    For-profit universities, well-heeled foundations, oil companies, mega-banks, even big-box stores: hardly a lineup of the middle-class, of the upper or mainstream sort.

Addressing the importance of the socio-economic level of the home to which schoolchildren return from school, Ladd and Fiske point out "rather than confront this fact of life head-on, our policy makers mistakenly continue to reason that, since they cannot change the backgrounds of students, they should focus on things they can control."    Or, perhaps, their economic interests.


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