School Daze

In our capitalist society, money talks, and a lot of money practically screams.

Thanks to a pot of money that’s been put on the table by the Obama Administration, a lot of teachers in a lot of school districts are about to find out just how loud money can be, and it’ll be at the cost of their jobs.

On Monday, the school board in Central Falls, Rhode Island voted to fire all 93 of the teachers, principals, school psychologists, and other staff from the town’s lone high school because the school hasn’t met the standards set by the No Child Left Behind law.

The district decided to make this move so that they could have a shot at some of the $900 million in federal School Turnaround Grant money that the Obama Administration hopes to make available if the proposal gets through Congress.

To get this money, school districts have to agree to do one of the following things: fire the principal and at least half of the staff of a failing school; reopen the school as a charter school; or close the offending school and send the students in that school to one of the district’s better performing schools.

Guess we know which avenue the folks in Central Falls chose to take.

Now President Obama has managed to get himself in trouble with the American Federation of Teachers because he, and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have applauded the move. The AFT says that while it’s convenient to blame the teachers, moves like this are an easy fix, not a long term solution.

When I heard this story on NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday, it woke me up because I kinda saw it coming.

You see, before I became your Mad Political Scientist, I was an education reporter and a teacher. It was the latter experience that kinda led to the former.

Educational policy has always interested me for two reasons: Without an education, you can’t really do anything. It’s the cornerstone for anything you might want to try be it journalism, cooking or even digging ditches.

But the second reason that I became interested in educational policy was because of how high the stakes have become. Real Estate agents market listings based on school districts and just about every politician I’ve ever met has given me the first line from the song “The Greatest Love of All”, which is “I believe the children are our future.”

(Unless the subject is paying for education. then the tune quickly changes to Public Enemy’s “I Can’t Do Nothin’ For Ya, Man.” We’ll get to that later in this post.)

In the middle of my time as an education reporter, folks started talking about serious education reform. I started having to cover things like Charter School hearings, educational standard announcements, and other things that spelled “reform” in some way or another.

But the busiest time in any education reporter’s life is when the state test scores come out. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, every state had to come up with a set of educational standards and a corresponding test to measure whether or not students were meeting them.

If your students pass the tests, you’re fine. Your school and in most cases your district get some nice bonus money. If not, you get hit with all kinds of sanctions including some of the ones mentioned earlier in this post.

While I can appreciate the trend toward making school districts and the folks contained within them accountable for what students learn, blaming the educators and the educators alone is the equivalent of putting a band aid on a gaping wound: you haven’t solved the problem and someone’s probably going to bleed to death.

I say this for two reasons: One, while politicians have no problem paying for flashy fixes like the School Turnaround Grants, they seem to have a problem giving school districts the money they need to keep things from getting to this point in the first place.

When it comes to funding, school districts are always treated like poor relations. They’re made to beg for the money they need to make sure that our kids are educated, even if these kids are dealing with stuff like poverty, homelessness, trying to figure out a new language and a life in a new country, or a developmental disability while trying to get this education. Yet, if they don’t do the job up to the standard that these tests say they should, it’s penalty time. And don’t even get me started on the whole unfunded mandate thing.

And two, the one group that seems to escape accountability in this equation is the one group that should perhaps be the most accountable of all: the parents. When I was teaching, I had kids who were in really bad shape academically and I wanted to talk with their parents about ways to solve the problem.

If I were to trip over these parents, I still wouldn’t know who the hell they were. But hey, if their kid fails English, it’s because I didn’t know how to teach, not because they weren’t helping me make sure their kid learned.

And while No Child Left Behind has created a nation of kids that can jam on a standardized test, these kids aren’t real big on independent thinking. I remember giving a test in one of my journalism classes and expecting the students to give a certain answer to a question. Because I expected them to come up with the answer themselves and not rely on a prompt for it, I had kids complain to me when I took points off.

(This is one of the dirty little secrets of some of these reforms: they scare all of the creativity out of teachers and encourage them to teach to the test, not to what these kids are going to need later.)

See this kind of stuff enough, you become as cynical as I was when I left education reporting.

So while another round of educational consultants, private educational management companies, universities, and others stand to make a killing on this latest round of “reforms”, a lot of teachers, and most importantly kids, stand to lose.

It’ll be interesting how the whole Central Falls situation shakes out. My guess is that the words “breach of contract” are going to come up. I’ll keep you posted.

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