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Are big money experiments ruining our schools?

My thoughts on Robert Herbert’s October 6, 2014 essay:

The Plot Against Public Education: How millionaires and billionaires are ruining our schools.

What do the failed educational reform initiatives critiqued in this essay have in common?

  • A belief that the answers to the challenges we face were clear and simple.
  • They made promises to fix the ills of our schools.
  • That very large sums of money gave you the right to experiment.
  • Projects could proceed without much scrutiny or forethought.
  • Reformers could act with impunity and move on if things didn’t go well.
  • Our children and their education suffered.

Herbert first discusses the Small Schools Initiative.

From 2000 to 2009, well-intentioned Bill Gates underwrote the “notion that large public high schools should be broken up and new, smaller schools should be created.”

Two billion dollars and a host of disrupted schools and damaged students later, Gates concluded, “Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for.”

Gates’ next idea was to define what makes an exemplary teacher and then set that as the standard for all schools. He dismissed the plan when he discovered, “Unfortunately,” he said, “it seems that the field doesn’t have a clear view on the characteristics of great teaching. Is it using one curriculum over another? Is it extra time after school? We don’t really know.”

Next he critiques the Charter School Movement:

Herbert says, “Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish, no matter how poor they were or how chaotic their home environments.”

They didn’t. Academic success -test scores- in charter schools was on a par or worse than the public schools they replaced and the racial disparities they promised to reduce were instead heightened. He concludes, “Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools. In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes.”

Herbert’s essay is scathing and unfortunately on point. Frustrated non-educators often think they have the magic solution to fixing schools. Nowhere is this more evident than the rapid growth of charter schools, which turned out to be loose cannons with little financial or academic accountability, rather than the meccas of exemplary practice and inclusiveness as touted. If there were simple answers to reducing dropout rates and consensus on what and how we should teach so all kids achieve at a high level, no matter their circumstances, and if we had an easy to apply formula for what makes “a good teacher,” and surefire ways to create efficient schools with respectful, caring cultures, we’d have glommed on to these solutions long ago. End of discussion.

But teaching and learning isn’t that prescriptive and schools are the most challenging of institutions to run and reform. They are people motivators and life changers., and everyone has a stake in their success. They are accountable for students’ success and this is dependent on the quality of life afforded the families and children we welcome into our classrooms, and the excellent leadership and tireless work of each adult in a child’s life. The reason why we don’t always have the answers is that the needs of our children and the context of the society they live in are not static; so nor are the strategies, resources, and skills critical to meet these needs.

I say all this as both a pragmatist and an eternal optimist when it comes to the tremendous power and inherent goodness of public schools. Great things are already happening and we surely can improve, but not by the temptation of a notion, the stroke of a brush, or the clinking of coins.

New Hampshire, what were you thinking?

New Hampshire, what did you do?

You have managed to shock the education world with this new law.

The state legislature passed a new law, effective January 1, 2012, which requires public school districts to write and implement a policy to allow  parents to object to any lesson taught to their children, for any reason. In addition, the school must offer the child an alternative lesson that is acceptable to the parents and the district. The intent and undefined scope of the law is astounding; it makes everything a teacher does, in any content area, subject to second-guessing and outright opposition. And if parents opt to exercise their new rights to object in any numbers, the law is also logistically unworkable. Even one objection by a parent can consume a chunk of a teacher’s precious instructional and preparation time.

Why did this issue come up now?

The curriculum is more standardized and scrutinized than ever before.

It comes at a time when a teacher’s curriculum has likely passed many levels of  scrutiny, revision, and approval, and is expected of all children within the state. Gone are the days when teachers decided what to teach by the textbooks found on the classroom shelves, or on what interested them or their students. States now expect every teacher, in every classroom, to use the state-defined learning standards to drive their curriculum and to assess student progress. Deciding what is taught and when it is taught is an involved, time intensive process.  These state standards serve as the overarching expectations for all students, and are typically well-thought out and logical. School districts then use the standards and performance indicators to develop a spiraling K-12 curriculum, with learning objectives, materials, and assessments that teach the approved content, attitudes, and skills at each grade level until graduation.

The result is a standard curriculum in grade level classrooms within a building, in all schools in a district, and from district to district throughout the state, one that builds on what was taught and hopefully mastered the previous year. How the standards are actually taught  in the classroom is not dictated by the state. This is where teachers are able to apply their professional knowledge and teaching  skills to create daily lesson plans that include specific concepts and learner objectives, teaching materials, instructional methods, and learning activities. They are answerable to the state education department and the public for the progress their students make toward mastering the standards.

The logistics are a nightmare!

Did you consider how this would actually work in the real world?

If a lesson must be substituted for one a parent feels is objectionable for some reason, who writes the lesson and who determines whether the content of any substitute lesson is appropriate for teaching in a public school?  Who screens the lesson for bias or proselytizing? Who makes sure the content is factual and enables the student to meet the learning standards set for him by the state and district? And what  happens if parents want to insert lessons or materials that condone or demonize a particular religion, that preach intolerance of certain groups, or that misrepresent the facts? How will this testy situation be handled?

Was this legislation even necessary in the first place?

What a can of contentious  worms your unnecessary law opens up within a school community!

Public school parents already have the prerogative to object to something  happening in the school or classroom. But this law sends the message that parents may now determine what their child is taught specifically, down to approving individual lessons and materials. Wise principals and teachers have always listened to parents’  concerns, and accommodated their requests when possible. But they were not obligated to change the curriculum to fit a parent’s views. As long as what they were teaching was age appropriate and followed the district and state curriculum, the school was on solid ground to respectfully decline the request. The message that the school will provide alternative lessons to meet a parent’s beliefs, biases, religion, etc is unworkable and an unwise broadening of control by factions within a community.

Did you think this through on a conceptual level before you approved it?

You seem to have forgotten why a free, democratic society depends on a public educational system.

Schools are a powerful force for the common good yet, that  educator Horace Mann called the “great equalizer” of the condition of humankind. We live in a society of many cultures and subcultures that are rich with differences and that share common goals. Students represent the diversity seen in society. Public education in a democracy is predicated on a philosophy of  tolerance and understanding of differing opinions and cultures. All children are welcome regardless of their and their parents’ beliefs, race and ethnicity, socio-economic status and educational level, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and special learning needs. The more students are exposed to, learn about, understand, and respect that which is different from them, the more harmonious a society we create. In the words of Albert Schweitzer, “The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.”

So not only is this law a logistical quagmire, it is a fundamental misreading of the purpose of public education in this country. It undermines the concept of school as a place where teachers and students share ideas freely in a climate of respect, where children learn to judge new ideas against what they already know, and to evaluate the ideas on their merits. We build solidarity based on empathy and compassion.  It is the place where students practice the pro-social skills needed to make good personal decisions and to treat others well. What is taught is fit for a pluralist society where public schools do the job of preparing our children to be citizens of good character, who are analytical and creative thinkers and problem solvers.

New Hampshire, it is telling that the legislator who introduced the bill was surprised by the furor it caused across the country. His surprise reveals a profound lack of understanding of what public education means in a diverse, democratic society, how curriculum is developed, and the way schools operate on a daily basis.