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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Parental responsibility and the blame game

Last weekend, the New York Times published a piece by Thomas Friedman called, “How About Better Parents?” In it, he argued that it was time to acknowledge that not just teachers, but parents play an enormous role in the educational success of their children. “Parents more focused on their children’s education can also make a huge difference in a student’s achievement.”

That should be an utterly non-controversial statement. In fact, it ought to be so obvious that it doesn’t even need to be said. And yet it fills me with dread. I have a sick sense where this is going.

Here’s my prediction - and god knows I hope I’m wrong. In the not-too-distant future we’re going to hear voices on the Republican right morph Friedman’s innocuous argument into something like this: “The reason poor, minority kids are failing in school is that their parents simply don’t care. They expect the nanny state to do everything for their kids while they keep on having out-of-wedlock children they can’t afford and they don’t care for. They treat public education like a taxpayer-funded babysitter so they don’t have to do an honest day’s work. It’s time to stop soaking the taxpayers for additional funding for programs for kids whose parents don’t give a damn. Only when we end those entitlements will these people be forced to take responsibility for their children. And maybe then all those illegals will stop coming over here expecting their kids to get a free ride in our schools.”

Read the comments on most online news articles dealing with education reform, and that’s what the yahoos are saying already. It’s only a matter of time before it perks up to the mainstream. And it won’t be long before that drumbeat becomes so steady that the whole conversation has shifted waaaay to the right, and Democrats, afraid of being called socialists for their support of equitable school funding, will start marching to that beat, too.

Remember welfare reform? The notion of a “culture of poverty” created by a cushy free ride on welfare became so entrenched in the national discussion that the social safety net wound up being dismantled, not under a Republican, but under a Democrat - Bill Clinton. Both sides agreed it was a fine thing, too, at least, as long as the economy was humming along and unemployment was low. But take a look around now; the picture looks quite different in a down economy.

Education reform is going to be just the same way. We’re going to start hearing about a “culture of failure” blamed on the laziness of parents who don’t love their kids enough to educate them properly. There will be strong undertones of racism playing on stereotypes of unmarried, inner-city, minority mothers churning out babies - despite the fact that schools in poor, white rural areas are struggling, too. The end result of all the self-righteous finger-pointing will be a defunding of programs designed to provide additional educational support to low-income students. It’ll probably take a while for the adverse effects to become severe enough to be widely acknowledged - educational change is generally incremental in either direction. But by then, lower levels of education funding for the poor will have become the new normal, and we’ll just throw up our hands because, oh dear, the poor are always with us.

So that’s my prediction. “Parents should do more to help their kids’ education” will become, “Parents are to blame for their kids’ educational failure ”  which will become, “It’s time to end education handouts for the kids of lazy, uncaring parents.” From a moderate, realistic, limited statement springs an extreme, ideologically driven polemic.

I sure hope I’m wrong. But I’m probably not.

EDITED TO ADD: Bonus prediction:  If "parental-responsibility" education reform becomes the next big thing, there will be an egregious double standard. In poor, minority areas, there will be programs to address parental neglect. But rich white parents who exercise no oversight while lavishing their kids with enough money and cars to get into all kinds of trouble will get a big, fat free pass.

EDITED AGAIN TO ADD: I swear, I did not see this piece before I wrote the above. Yup, it's already begun. It's by right-wing education analyst Mike Petrilli, who laments "the 'good parenting gap' between rich and poor families" and prescribes a "marriage renaissance, especially for poor and working class families."  Because of course the way to promote social stability is not to address poverty and racism directly, but to teach the underclass a little good old-fashioned Christian morality. *headdesk*

Friday, October 7, 2011

Put these chips between your lips! Or, sometimes what you learn isn't what they were teaching

Bullying is horrible. Adults have a responsibility to protect children from that type of damaging, cruel harassment.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about middle school anti-bullying programs - the kind my kids have been coming home and telling me about lately.

In 1982, the summer after my sophomore year of college, I got a job selling Chipwich ice cream sandwiches on the streets of Philadelphia. (Yes, this is about anti-bullying programs. Bear with me.) Before I was set loose on an unsuspecting public, I had to attend a day of training. I was given a Vendor Training Manual. Fortunately, I had the foresight to keep it all these years. (I tend to lose most stuff, but this had such enormous entertainment value that it’s traveled around with me ever since.)

The first page congratulated me for being chosen as “our newest professional Chipwich vendor.” Yep, I was a professional. A professional in a fake pith helmet with a bright orange hatband, a khaki apron, and an orange bow tie. It told me I was now an “ambassador of goodwill, wholesomeness, enthusiasm, and courtesy,” and it promised me “fun while selling lots of Chipwich.”

(Getting to the bullying programs. Really.)

Some more pearls of wisdom from the manual:

-- The cart is your office!
-- SELL, SELL, SELL
-- Smile
-- Make eye contact
-- Load vanilla on one side of the cart, chocolate on the other.
-- A well-groomed vendor will sell more than one who is not.
-- Success leads to success.
-- Never bring your personal problems to work.

You get the idea. But the best part? The slogans I was instructed to memorize so that I could yell them at passers-by.

-- It’s chip rich!
-- This is it!
-- Are you religious? It’s divinely delicious!
-- Want one? It’s a beauty!
-- North, east, west or south, Put Chipwich in your mouth!

And my personal favorite:
-- Put these chips between your lips!

Yes, I had to stand there during the training with all the other new hires and practice chanting these slogans. In uniform. With feeling.

It was utterly dehumanizing.

Some 15 years later, I was a manager working for an online startup that was acquired by AT&T - just in time for AT&T to announce that it was laying off 40,000 employees worldwide. Off they sent me and all the other managers to “Force Management Training” - or, as we called it, “Firing school.”

(Bullying. I haven't forgotten.)

I know I kept the highly entertaining manual from that training as well, but sadly I can’t put my hands on it at the moment. Suffice it to say that I spent the day listening to professional AT&T trainers tell me what I can and cannot say while firing someone. The obvious goal was to cover their corporate ass from lawsuits. (Don’t tell them WHY they’re fired, and especially don’t mention their age, gender, race, disability, or ethnicity.)

This authentic purpose was wrapped in a paper-thin cover of concern for people’s emotional well-being, as represented by a training film we were shown about  the four types of emotional responses we could expect. Ironically, this part of the presentation was meant to be the most benevolent and enlightened, but it was in fact the most offensive. Clearly, AT&T thought they were being hip with the diverse cast. But here’s what they ended up with: The angry employee was the black guy; the sad employee was the white woman; the hysterical employee was the Hispanic woman; and the stoic employee was the white guy.

(For the record, the actual firing turned out to be pretty painless because our division was mostly unattached 20-somethings, and the severance package kicked ass. Later, several managers, including me, complained to the mother ship (as we called AT&T HQ in Basking Ridge) about that offensive training film.)

So what do we have here?

(Bullying....almost there....)

Chipwich was a young company, just gone national, that was looking to sell a lot of product. Clearly, they took the advice of some marketing professionals straight out of Wharton who had never stood on a street corner selling overpriced junk food for a single day, and they were utterly oblivious as to the impression this training made on the people who were about to do so for real.

AT&T was a corporate behemoth with one goal in mind: profits. Specifically, not having to pay out large judgments in discrimination suits. So a bunch of personnel professionals consulted with a legal team and came up with a training program that was staggeringly oblivious to the real human toll of a gigantic layoff, both on those losing their jobs and on the managers being asked to fire colleagues and friends.

In both cases, the people on the receiving end of the program were not just underwhelmed, but downright offended at the dehumanizing bullshit we were being made to sit through. We didn’t feel the powers that be had a clue about what our day-to-day experiences were like. Their motivation was, “We’re doing this because it’s in OUR best interest, and because someone even more powerful than us says we HAVE TO.” Then they try to frame their selfish goals as being of benefit to ME, as a way of making MY job easier, when the truth is they know NOTHING of me, my job, or my life.

Which brings me back to school anti-bullying programs. (TA-DA!)

Everything I just said? When you’re in middle school, it’s ALL THAT TIMES A MILLION. The assemblies and “rap sessions” and edutainment programs with well-intentioned adults lecturing kids about the dangers of bullying? They are coming off to our kids exactly the same way.

The real question is, can it be done any better? In truth, I doubt it. Once you create an institutionalized program for the masses, you’re done for. There's something inherently dehumanizing about it - something self-help-guru-ish. It's lecturing. It treats people like children. It offers common-sense platitudes as if they were revelations from God at Sinai. And it misses the messy, complicated, disturbing realities of the real lives of real kids.

The hard work of combating bullying needs to be a personal commitment on the part of every single adult in a child’s life - whichever side of bullying that child is on - to truly see the child, listen, get involved, and intercede. Our schools are filled with people who do this well, every day. They’re also filled with those who don’t. How can we change those who don’t into those who do?  I’m guessing a training program won’t work.

Life is complicated, and I sure as hell don't have all the answers.

RELATED MATTERS:
Why New Jersey schools are going all out with the anti-bullying programs: Bullying Law Puts New Jersey Schools on Spot

Yeah, Chipwich really made us wear that stuff.

AT&T's kinder, gentler way of firing 40,000 people.

The anti-bullying policy parents in our district were asked to read. Think anyone did?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Education reforminess drives me to ranting

I haven’t blogged in ages, but not for lack of material. In fact, more often than not I read a hundred education-reforminess things a day that piss me off, about which I have LOTS to say. But then I get kind of bogged down in, “Where do I start?” (and all the million-and-one other things I have to do in a day), and it just doesn’t get done.

So this morning I realized that it’s time to rant. Ranting is good and necessary when the bullshit is piled up so high you can’t see over it. Ranting knocks down bullshit. People are occupying Wall Street because they’re trying to knock down bullshit; the least I can do is take a few minutes to type angrily. And best of all, ranting doesn’t require a high degree of organization. In fact, a list will do just fine. Random paragraphs with numbers in front of them. Here goes.

1. The primary danger of charter schools and vouchers isn’t that they might not be any better than public schools. Some of them might be better, and if they are, why not go for it? The real danger is that THEY ARE NOT PUBLIC SCHOOLS. Reformy types can say “charter schools are public schools” until they’re blue in the face, but THAT DOESN’T MAKE IT SO. It’s a lie. Public schools are PUBLIC. It’s not just who pays for them, but who runs them, and whom those people answer to, and what students are in them, not to mention little matters like the separation of church and state. Michele Bachmann loves charters specifically because she hates the government for insisting on the separation of church and state, and she wants charters to do an end-run around that established principal. And vouchers - don’t even get me started. Charter schools are not public schools, and private schools paid for with taxpayers’ money certainly aren’t, and that’s reason enough to not want them.

2. Some charter school advocates are no doubt sincere, and we could have an honest debate about whether charters could solve problems related to educating poor inner city kids. But there’s really no point wasting our breath on that debate because their movement has been co-opted by people who are inarguably insincere and downright dangerous to the welfare of our society. Businesses that want to profit off the education “sector.” Right-wingers who want to shrink government at all costs, including the cost of educating all our children. Christian extremists who see public schools as the primary liberal secular institution threatening their vision of a Christian nation. Industrial tycoons who hate unions and want to take down the public-sector unions because they’re the last bastion of a strong labor movement. These are the people pouring millions of dollars into an anti-public education movement and propagandizing about bad teachers and whatnot. And they do NOT give a shit about poor minority kids. We have to stop them before it’s too late. To the small handful of sincere charter school proponents who have jumped on that bandwagon in a misguided effort to bring some kind of positive change to their sorely underserved communities, I am truly sorry. You’ve been used. We’re not fighting you. We’re fighting your puppet masters.

3. Poverty is not an excuse. It’s a gigantic, dangerous, destructive PROBLEM. All those people railing about how zip code shouldn’t be destiny (or whatever that stupid mantra is) are conveniently ignoring the fact that in our country there is a shameful level of poverty, especially affecting children, and there is a shameful lack of basic humane support for those who need it. Firing teachers fixes NOTHING. Anecdotal evidence about some kids who were inspired by great teachers and rose from poverty to become Supreme Court justices or Nobel Prize winners is a bullshit distraction from the millions of poor kids who DIDN’T because not everyone gets that chance, or has the talent and drive to overcome staggering odds, or has adults in their lives who can help even a little. Acknowledging that our economic system is completely stacked against allowing the poor to become middle class would be dangerous to corporate America and billionaires, so instead they offer up CHARTER SCHOOLS and claim they will beat the demon poverty. Charter schools are cake, as in, “Let them eat cake.”

4. Reforminess, with its charters and vouchers, has completely diverted the public’s attention away from a great unresolved civil rights issue: school integration - and not just racial, but socioeconomic as well. If zip code is destiny, it’s because zip codes are segregated. Affordable housing is a more valid way of reforming education than charter schools will ever be. I say this as a parent of three kids in a district that was unified by court order in the 1970s and has provided high quality education to all comers ever since.

5. We all need to tell the Christian right who would insert their agenda into public education to SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN. America is not a Christian nation; we’re not chosen by God to be special; kids should learn science in school, not superstition (and yes, that means evolution, not creationism). Speaking for my own tribe, history has taught us that handing power (in education or anything else) to Christians in the belief that they will always be kind and benevolent toward the rest of us is STUPID BEYOND THE POWER OF WORDS TO EXPRESS. I prefer my constitutional protections, thank you very much.

6. We all need minority interest groups who would insert their agendas into public education to SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN. Yes, I’m looking at you, my fellow Jews, with your immersion Hebrew charters. That way lies madness. How the hell do you plan to teach “Hebrew culture” without falling off the cliff of religion? And more to the point, how do you expect that this won’t open the door to other groups using tax  money to teach their religious values? Have you learned NOTHING from history? Everything that made America good for the Jews - the historically unprecedented freedoms we’ve enjoyed here - would be threatened by putting a chink in the wall between church and state. Please don’t be that stupid; leave religious education where it belongs - far, far away from public schools.

7. We need to teach our kids about the social contract - that it’s perfectly okay in a capitalist society/constitutional democracy to enter into compacts where the people trade absolute liberty for communal benefits. Libertarianism is an odd form of utopianism that has never even been tried, let alone shown to work. In plain English, public schools are not evil. They are good, or anyway, the concept is good, and if we’d all just work at it, they could actually be good. Even taxpayers who choose not to utilize the public schools get enormous benefit from their existence, because we live among a better-educated populace more capable of intelligently exercising the duties and obligations of a democratic society.

8. Teachers are some of the best people around. God knows, not all of them, but then again, compared to hedge fund managers and oil barons, maybe all of them. At least they’re trying to contribute something good to our society in a pretty selfless way. Again, if you doubt it, answer this: Who’s more selfless, hedge fund managers and oil barons or teachers? If you said hedge fund managers and oil barons, you’re either being super sarcastic or you’re a massive idiot. You know damn well that, given the choice between earning what a hedge fund manager or oil baron earns and what a teacher earns, it’s the people with values OTHER than greed who would choose teaching. And some teachers go so far above and beyond mere goodness, it’s staggering. Some day I will write about Gerry Cohen, my friend’s dad who taught English in the South Bronx for decades. When I asked him why, he said simply, “If I don’t, who will?” Not the Koch brothers, that’s for damn sure.

That’s all I have in me for today. It actually felt pretty good to get all that off my chest. I should do it more often.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Teabaggers said, "I don't care!"

My take on the debt ceiling negotiations, with apologies to Maurice Sendak:


One day Obama said
When Tea Partiers climbed out of bed
-The debt ceiling must be raised, or we’ll default.
Teabaggers said, “I don’t care!”
On taxes we’ll compromise.
“I don’t care!”
Cut down what government buys.
“I don’t care!”
We’ll be glad to negotiate.
“I don’t care!”
Hurry before it’s too late!
“I don’t care!”
You are acting like a clown.
“I don’t care!”
The world’s watching with a frown.
“I don’t care!”
If we don’t act the market will crash.
“I don’t care!”
Our credit rating will be in the trash.
“I don’t care!”
So Obama caved and gave away the store.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Following up on my district's stealth charter school

In my last post, I talked about my experience learning about Morris School District schools; how I used the district website, informational meetings, and discussions with neighbors to learn about my options; and how the one option that no one ever mentioned to me was the Unity Charter School. I wondered how parents who have fewer resources available to them, especially those whose English might be limited, could possibly learn about Unity, let alone enter the lottery.

Since then, I've done a little more digging. Here's what I learned.

On the bilingual Spanish/English Morris School District kindergarten registration form (available here), there is a section called "Program Preference," which asks the parent or guardian to check off "multiage" or "traditional" as their first choice. Checking "multiage" enters the child into the lottery for the Normandy Park School, a magnet school with multiage classrooms. Nowhere on the form is there any mention of Unity Charter or a program that teaches sustainability, environmentalism, ecology, etc. It's not an option.

In fact, the only ways to learn about Unity that I've been able to discover (and again, please enlighten me if I've missed something) are through local newspapers (English language, of course) and fliers, and, of course, word of mouth.

So perhaps this other interesting bit of data is really not surprising at all. According to the state school report card on Unity, in 2009-2010 the proportion of Unity students who lived in homes where English was the first language was 100%. The proportion whose English proficiency was limited was, of course, 0%. No other Morris School District school can say that. Among the elementary schools, limited English proficiency rates range from around 5% up to around 18%. The rate at Normandy Park, the multiage magnet school included on the district's registration form, is 17.1%.

Proponents of charter schools say they're just another kind of public school, managed independently but entitled to public dollars. They're supposed to give parents a choice. But looking at those numbers, you have to wonder - which parents?

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Unity is open to students from around Morris County, not just the Morris School District. While there may be towns around here that have a near-0% rate of English language learners, there aren't many, and they're probably not sending too many students to Unity. No, I haven't done that research. Maybe if I get really bored next week....

Sunday, July 17, 2011

My school district's stealth charter school



Recently, there’s been a lot of debate in New Jersey about whether charter schools produce better student results than similar public schools. Gov. Christie wants to see lots more charters, especially in poor, urban districts, because, he says, kids will get a better education in these smaller, less regulation-bound environments. But opponents question this assertion.
Critics claim that the student population of charters is not equivalent to nearby public schools, and therefore comparisons of student scores between them must be adjusted for factors like poverty, parental involvement, etc. Reports like the one produced by the Christie administration showing better results in charters aren’t valid, critics say, because the comparison isn’t fair; charter schools start out with a more advantaged population. 
But how would this happen? As charter school advocates loudly proclaim, charters are populated by lottery. Everyone has an equal opportunity to enter and win it, and therefore, they say, the student population it produces is similar to the populations found in nearby public schools.
 Opponents argue that a self-selection process occurs because, in order to get into a charter school, parents must take an extra action - they must enter their kids in the lottery. This presents an obstacle to parents who lack knowledge of the system, don’t speak English, or are simply uninvolved in their kids’ education. Number crunchers who have examined the data say that the differences are significant between charter and public school populations even in areas where the majority of the population is poor; the charter school students are, on the whole, less poor. (In addition to self-selection, there are other factors that may contribute, including attrition and lack of special education services in charters.)
I’m not a numbers cruncher, nor have I researched the situation statewide. But I wanted to share my own experience because, though it’s anecdotal, I think it sheds light on the reality of the situation.
I live in Morris Township, where kids attend the unified Morris School District along with Morristown residents. A little demographic information: My husband and I are white, American born, with post-graduate degrees. It’s a very long walk from our income level to the poverty line. My husband is a professional, and I left a career in online publishing to become a stay-at-home mom. By any measure, we are miles away from the demographic you would imagine might find it difficult to enter their kids in a charter school lottery. The only stumbling block we faced was that we’d moved to Morris Township just a year before our first kids (twins) were born. We didn’t know a lot of people here. We sent our kids to preschool in a nearby town, so most of their classmates were heading for kindergarten in a different school district.
When my oldest kids approached school age (around 2001), I began doing my homework. I read everything on the district’s website. I talked to the few parents I knew in the neighborhood about our local schools. Having learned that there’s a magnet school in our district with multi-age classrooms, I toured it a full year before my kids were to register for kindergarten. When the time came, I entered them in the lottery for the magnet school. (They didn’t get in, which, as it turned out, was just as well. But that’s another story.) I attended a district parents’ orientation meeting at some point. I brought the twins to be tested for kindergarten readiness and to register on the appointed day.
In other words, I did absolutely everything I could to get every scrap of information about the schools, the available options, the procedure. I honestly don’t know what else I could have done.
So imagine my surprise a couple of years later when, in a discussion with another parent, I learned there was another school my kids might have attended. She knew that it was somehow focused on teaching about the environment. She wasn’t sure  what the deal was; it was a very small school that kids got into by lottery. “Like Normandy Park?” I asked. (That’s the magnet school.) “Yeah, kind of like that, only no one knows about it.” I don’t know how much more time passed before I learned that there was a charter school in our school district - Unity Charter School. Since then, I have met many other parents in the district who have never heard of it. 
As of this writing, the Unity website is down, so I can’t tell you whether there is information about their lottery on their website. But then again, if you didn’t even know Unity existed, you wouldn’t seek out their website. Meanwhile, the Morris School District website contains no mention of Unity that I can find. (Please feel free to correct me if you find one.) On the District Information Page, here’s what you’ll learn about MSD schools:


"Within the District there is one preschool, three primary schools (K-2), three intermediate schools (3-5), one multiage magnet school (K-5), one middle school (6-8), and one high school. In addition to our pre-K-12 program, the Morris School District operates an innovative Community School that offers an extensive adult school curriculum for lifelong learners."
There’s a listing of every district school. None of those schools is Unity. Unity is invisible.
If you go on the NJ Dept. of Education website and click your way down to the charter schools section, then search for charter schools in Morris County, you will find Unity.  But if you’re a parent of a kid approaching kindergarten, why would you think to do that? Wouldn’t you assume that all options open to you are listed on your school district’s website? A quick Google search finds that, in the past couple of years, Unity has held open houses for prospective parents that were publicized in a couple of local papers. I have no idea if they’ve always had the open houses, but I’m certain that, with three kids in the public schools, I never heard about them through district channels or any other way.
I don’t know if the situation here is similar to other NJ districts currently hosting charter schools. But clearly, under existing regulations, this is how it can be. Our school district is socioeconomically diverse, with a significant number of Spanish-speaking families. I’m guessing that, if I failed completely to learn about our charter school, most of them did, too. (Anyone who has the time and know-how to seek out a comparison between the student demographics at Unity and the rest of the Morris School District, I’d sure be interested in reading what you find.)
So, is there a self-selection process created by the charter school admission system? If the situation in the Morris School District reflects the general situation even a tiny bit - you bet there is.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Can we please stop arguing beans with bean counters?

The idea that education is a business just like any other, and that we can be “successful” by running it like a business, is just plain wrong. The current generation of reformers thinks that, if they stay focused and never take their eye off the bottom line, other problems will magically melt away. Ask them which is worse for a kid’s education, living amid urban decay or attending a school where teachers have collective bargaining rights, and they answer the latter. Problems like poverty, violence, racism - more charter schools ought to fix those in a jiffy. So what if a kid has no resources at all, material, spiritual or emotional? Just get rid of tenure. That should do the trick.

It’s madness to treat education like other businesses because, unlike other businesses, education must serve everyone equally, even at great expense. A business, faced with the reality that there is no cost-effective way to get poor inner-city youth to buy lots of widgets, can simply choose to forego selling widgets to poor inner-city youth. Educators, faced with the reality that there is no cost-effective way to get poor inner-city youth through high school, must nevertheless accept the responsibility of trying to do so.

For some education-bottom-line worshippers, the business model is actually literal. They’re in it for profit. There’s a buck to be made in privatizing education with charter schools and vouchers, and where there’s a buck to be made, there will be hungry hyenas sniffing around for ways to make it. I find it difficult to understand how someone could not feel guilty about treating as a commodity something so fundamental to the development of the minds and hearts of fellow human beings, but there you go.

So, okay, I know who the robber barons are. I know who stands to benefit from reducing education to an imaginary bottom line. I know whose side I’m not on.

But here’s what’s really bothering me: We’ve allowed their side to frame the issue in their terms, and we distort our own argument to fit. They’re obsessed, first and foremost, with the narrative of failure. Some public schools serve students really badly; therefore, public education is in crisis. The entire system must be changed - even though only a fraction of the system accounts for the lion’s share of the problem. Conveniently, they ignore the nearly universal correlation among bad schools, poverty, race and ethnicity. And before we know it, we’re all talking about education in crisis - not children in poverty, not urban decay, but education in crisis.

The self-styled education reformers are also obsessed with creating “success,” ignoring such educational intangibles as creativity and critical thinking in favor of high scores on standardized tests. They want to use that metric to decide everything from how much teachers get paid to which schools are closed down, and, if it means doing anything necessary to raise those test scores - including dropping programs in art, languages, music; ignoring the  needs of higher achieving students; even dumbing down the tests - then so be it.

I agree with those who lament this over-emphasis on standardized testing, because it confuses test prep with actual learning and allows one diagnostic tool to become the central pillar of the entire system. And yet I find myself unwittingly buying into the whole test-scores-prove-something world view. When it was revealed that the Christie administration had lied about testing data in order to claim that charter schools had outperformed public schools - that in fact, when equivalent schools were compared, public schools outperformed charters - I did the happy dance.  Hooray! Gotcha, Christie! Hoist with his own petard!

The trouble is, that “petard” - standardized test results - still sucks as a definition of success. Yeah, the story reveals Christie for the lying opportunist he is, but it doesn’t prove anything about effective education.  A report indicating public schools in urban New Jersey districts outperformed charter schools sure as hell doesn’t prove that those public schools deserve any awards, any more than the opposite would have proven that public schools should be burned to the ground. There is much more to a school than its test results, just as there is much more to education than filling in bubbles. By reducing education from the grand character-building foundation of our citizenry to an exercise in data-bean-counting, we are cheapening the educational process and its value to society.

We’ve got to have the courage to stand up to the bean-counters and tell them that our obligation to support public education, provided equally to all and paid for with public funds, does not arise from a set of data points on a graph showing standardized test results. It arises from our recognition that students are not widget consumers; that every child deserves to be treated with dignity and educated rigorously; that ignoring poverty and race in the discussion of education is misguided and morally wrong; and that government must be held accountable for its failures. We cannot just walk away from the social contract that binds us together in communal pursuit of the common good, give up on our shared responsibilities, and hand the whole enterprise over to whoever happens to be in the education business at the moment.

We have to have the courage to make the moral argument: Our nation owes its citizens a good education, and an obligation of that magnitude cannot be met through privatization and profiteering - the haphazard hit-or-miss of the free market. If there is systemic failure, then systemic solutions are called for, and that includes addressing underlying issues of poverty and race. It’s time to stop arguing beans with the bean counters.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's time for parents to stand up - before public schools are reformed to death

I never intended this blog to be all about New Jersey education, but lately I can’t seem to help myself. Understandable, I guess, what with having three kids in a Jersey public school.

What really gets me going is the way Governor Chris Christie has decided to stir the education pot. No, not stir it - dump out the contents, stomp on the dregs, and refill it with the swill being peddled by wealthy, powerful, union-hating privatization conspiracists and embraced by big-government-is-out-to-eat-our-souls tea party nut jobs. Along the way, he’s vilified teachers, botched applications for federal funding, scrapped a sensible agreement with the union, fired his education commissioner, politicized the court in an attempt to influence its decisions on education funding, bullied people in public meetings, and, of course, slashed the living hell out of school spending.

I’m not going to waste my time and psychic energy here rehashing the ways in which Christie’s brand of so-called education reform (backed as it is by the philanthropic machinery of Bill Gates and, god help us, the ghost of Milton Friedman) serves the agenda of the political right and the interests of hedge fund managers.  Charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, ending tenure - from the faulty research on which these policies are based to the blatant disregard for the underlying social problems that they can’t fix, the whole thing is a steaming pile of propaganda, wrapped in false hope, sprinkled with alarmist lies, and seasoned heavily with crocodile tears. Or, in plain English, people who stand to gain, both politically and financially, from the dismantling of public education are busily perpetrating the Big Lie.

And they are so good at it. They’ve got it down to a science. They think of everything. For example: What is the one group guaranteed to raise its voice against this all-out attack on public education? The teachers unions, of course. But by the time the unions get their bureaucratic asses in gear, the public has already been served up such an unrelenting diet of anti-union rhetoric that, no matter what the union says, it will never get a fair hearing. "Unions exist to protect bad teachers." "Unions don’t care if they bankrupt the state." "Unions couldn’t give a damn about kids." And sadly, the teachers who belong to those unions are tainted in the public’s mind by what they have been convinced is the nasty, socialist union evil.

The sad truth is, there’s a kernel of truth in that insane lie. The NJEA is not the Jersey Devil, but neither is it an impartial player. Unions DO represent the interests of teachers. That’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. While that doesn’t mean that everything they say is unreliable, or that they don’t represent the interests of children as well, it does mean that they are not the most effective power in our society to combat the business-driven free-market worshippers who would like nothing better than to chop off government’s head, put it on a stake, plant it in the town square, erect monuments to Ayn Rand, and let the underclasses fend for themselves.

If we allow the future of public education in New Jersey - and the rest of the country - to rest with the teachers unions, we may as well just rename the local secondary school Halliburton High and have done with. (Credit where credit is due: I swiped that line from Jersey Jazzman.)

So who else is there?

Us. Parents. People who have (or at least, should have) the strongest possible interest in the quality of our children’s education, and who cannot be accused of greed beyond the greed of wanting a better future for our children.

But in order to be effective, we have to start being honest. There’s a dirty little secret that many New Jersey parents have to face: our own complacency. We know that the doomsday narrative of failing schools does not describe most schools in our state, and that for the most part, we’ve been perfectly happy to let Christie construct any narrative he likes - just so long as he leaves our comfortable, more affluent school districts alone. People who can afford to live in an excellent school district are roused to anger only when someone mandates that their tax dollars go to fund schools in Newark or Camden - schools so segregated and poverty-blighted that those tax dollars can’t mend the damage, anyway.  More recently, rich folks got up in arms when the governor’s heavy budget-cutting hand fell on the salaries of the administrators who keep so many New Jersey schools in the top five for academic achievement in the nation.

Enough with the selfishness. By settling for an inexcusably inequitable educational system, we’ve opened the door to the propagandists who would use the lowest-performing schools as proof that our entire system is in crisis, and who would like to dismantle it wholesale in the name of efficiency and smaller government. We parents - here in New Jersey and around the country - have settled for a public education system more racially and economically segregated than the one that existed when Martin Luther King decried segregation half a century ago.  If we’re not willing to question the justice of the proposition that good schools are only for (mostly white) people who can afford to live in rich towns, then maybe we’re just getting what we deserve - Halliburton High.

I really hope we’re better than that. I hope that, as we see the effect of budget cuts on all our schools - larger class sizes, fired teachers, loss of art and music programs, pay-for-play extracurriculars - that we also see the big picture. Yes, we’re in the middle of a major budget crunch - but we can’t allow the immediate fiscal crisis to be used as an excuse to dismantle the public education system that has been the backbone of our society; that has made possible the social and financial mobility from which generations have benefited; that is a service provided equally to all and is therefore the appropriate function of a democratically elected government.

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For day-to-day updates on New Jersey education news, please check out my Facebook page, NJ Parents Against Gov Christie’s School Budget Cuts.