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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Five true things about education reform

Five true things you really must know about desperately needed education reform in the United States:

1. Bad schools are bad because of all the bad teachers who can’t be fired because they have tenure.

It’s just amazing how all those bad teachers drag all those schools down only in poor neighborhoods. Yup, obviously there’s a central office somewhere that sorts out all the new teachers and sends the very worst ones to the very poorest schools. And then those bad teachers spend a few years in those schools very cleverly and deviously pretending to be good teachers, so the administrators are fooled into giving them tenure, at which point all their terrible badness emerges full force. And all those procedures for firing tenured teachers are *gasp* totally unenforceable because the magic mojo of teacher badness makes it take too long for any administrator even to bother, because administrators can’t possibly be expected to undertake a procedure that is time consuming and hard. This is so widespread that our entire educational system is crumbling because of it. So here’s what to do: Everyone break the glass on the case that says, “In case of bad school, use this axe on every teacher you see!” Bonus points for axing an entire school’s teaching staff all at once. Now THAT’S reform!

2. Teachers unions exist for the purpose of making it impossible to fire bad teachers.

See, a really long time ago, the nation was full of really good teachers, mostly women (because even back then men thought teaching was really gay), who were allergic to money and eating and keeping a roof over their heads. These women were wildly happy to teach school for some beads, a used tissue, and a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But then along came some mean, nasty, vicious, conniving, sneaky, Commie pinko union organizers, who rounded up all the good teachers and threw them in a bottomless well. Then the union organizers went deep into the forest, where a tribe of very stupid, lazy child-haters lived, and they rounded the tribeswomen up to become teachers (because even tribesmen living deep in the forest, far from civilization, thought teaching was really gay). The union people dressed these women in polyester pants suits and made them join the union, pay dues, accept higher wages and benefits, and sit in overcrowded classrooms cracking their gum and doing crossword puzzles while their students fell off their chairs from sheer stupidity. And that continues even unto this day.

3. Poor parents must accept responsibility for their kids’ education.

After all, the affluent among us are such good role models for values like personal responsibility, discipline, and sacrifice! We keep the economy humming along by taking out second mortgages on our McMansions to pay the bills on the maxed-out credit cards that bought the home theater systems and the 3,000-bottle wine cellars and the 12-mpg Cadillac Escalades and the Manolo Blahnik blue satin pumps we saw on “Sex and the City.” So you people over there in Newark, as soon as you get home from that third minimum-wage job with no benefits at 2 AM - check your kids’ homework! We do! (Or we will, just as soon as we down a fourth mojito.)

4. You can’t fix the education system with money.

And here’s why: We already spend a lot on public schools, and they still suck. Not like those really excellent charter schools serving poor neighborhoods, like Harlem Promise Academy in the Harlem Children’s Zone. The kids there are all little Einsteins and Van Goghs and, more importantly, score highly on state standardized tests, all at a cost of 12 dollars a year and a pack of gum. Oh, wait. Make that $19,200 per pupil per year, attending school in a $42.5 million building, plus another $5,000 spent on each and every kid in the Zone per year, all provided by an outfit with a $75 million budget, two-thirds of which comes from private donors (according to Forbes). Whatever. The point is, IT’S NOT THE MONEY.

5. Market-driven private enterprise is exactly what our education system needs.

Because it’s worked so very well for the military and the prison system.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Church/state separation under attack? Not news. By Jews? Bad news.

I believe in the separation of church and state.

I spent most of my life thinking that wasn’t a terribly controversial stance. Later in life I learned that, in some parts of the country, it was, or at least my interpretation of it was. When the news started filling up with stories about people in the Heartland who wanted to see prayer and “intelligent design” in public schools, spend tax dollars on “faith-based” social programs, ban abortion (but not capital punishment) for religious reasons, and of course burn homosexuals at the stake - um, I mean, ban gay marriage - I consoled myself with the notion that those ideas were restricted to fringe right-wing Christians between the coasts.

Then I heard about Hebrew charter schools, and my comfortable world view crumbled.

Message to my tribe: bad idea.

And then I heard that there’s a proposal - strongly supported here in New Jersey by certain Orthodox Jewish communities - to spend tax money on vouchers for private religious schools.

Another message to my tribe: ARE YOU INSANE?

At the risk of stating the obvious: The separation of church and state is why America has been very, very good to us, for the most part. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re a minority here, along with all the Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus and Buddhists and, yes, even the Mormons. Using tax dollars to fund schools that, face it, are seen as cheap alternatives to private religious schools, or worse still, to fund private religious schools directly, is a huge step toward breaking down the wall.

Yes, I know that Hebrew charter schools  (the latest, Hatikvah International Academy, opening Tuesday in East Brunswick) admit kids of all backgrounds and purport not to teach religion - they say they teach Hebrew language and culture.

C’mon. Many articles on the topic quote members of the Jewish community who view the Hebrew charter schools as alternatives to costly religious schools. Hebrew charters even offer after-school, optional religious education.  These are clearly quasi-religious institutions. As to teaching Hebrew culture, how is that not synonymous with Jewish culture? Do you know any other Hebrew-speaking people?

Yes, all culture everywhere is to some extent religious. But when Sara Berman, chairwoman of the board at Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy, says “that learning about Hebrew and Israeli culture was no different from learning about Bastille Day and baguettes in French class,” I’d argue that she’s either seriously delusional, doesn’t read newspapers, or is willfully misleading the public. Hebrew existed only as a language of religious prayer and texts for a millennium or two, and it only emerged as a living, spoken language as a result of the twentieth-century establishment of the state of Israel, itself a direct result of the persecution and genocide of Jews. French? Not so much.

I know most of my old Yeshiva friends are going to hate me for saying this, but there are two ways modern Israel is generally discussed: with a Jewish bias, or in a manner that tends to piss off Jews. (I like to believe there could be a third way, but that’s a subject for another post.) Good luck treading that line on a daily basis in a way that would be truly acceptable in a secular public school.

And then there are the vouchers. Here in New Jersey, the legislation under consideration, called the Opportunity Scholarship Act, is strongly supported by, among others, the Lakewood Haredim (aka ultra-Orthodox). This bill doesn’t only provide tax money to move kids from failing schools into private schools - it also provides money for kids already in private schools, including religious schools. It’s not surprising that the Haredi Yeshiva crowd is all for that, but I find truly disturbing the cynical lack of compunction about diverting funds away from poor urban school districts, where education so desperately needs improvement, in order to gain some bucks for a private religious school system long supported by a strong network of community-based philanthropy.

(This isn’t the first time the Lakewood Jewish community has tried to game the system, either. Some years ago, the New York Times reported that state education officials discovered that the Lakewood Jews managed to send all their special-ed kids to an all-Jewish private school (at public expense), while other kids (mostly black and Hispanic) were sent to public schools.)

All this blurring of the church/state line in public education? Slippery slope. NOT GOOD FOR THE JEWS.

News flash: We Jews are not the largest, most powerful religious force interested in gaming the system. Anyone follow the Texas School Board social studies curriculum controversy? You know, the right-wing Christian extremists who hijacked a state school board and worked really hard to make sure Texas public school students are taught all about our Christian constitution and our Christian founding fathers and our Christian values? Once the church/state wall is broken, THOSE are the people who will be lining up to create new charter schools and vouchers and whatnot to fund THEIR kind of education.

When huge chunks of tax money that used to support truly secular public education are diverted to charter schools that teach intelligent design and feature after-school Christian fundamentalist education - or even directly to Christian schools that teach creationism and American exceptionalism - it will fundamentally change our society.

This nation that made Jews feel safer than we’d felt anywhere else in a very long while, where our religious-minority status seemed at worst a surmountable obstacle and at best a constitutionally protected freedom, will suddenly feel a whole lot less welcoming and comfortable. Society as a whole will acquire a far less tolerant character. The societal presumption of Christianity - the idea that Christianity is the preferred, normal state of American-ness, and that everything else is vaguely suspect (or explicitly, as Muslims have been experiencing of late) - will return full-force. And the irony will be that we Jews will have helped put the nation on the path toward the Christianization of public institutions by compromising a core American value - the separation of church and state.

And we’re supposed to be the smart ones?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On New Jersey's failed Race to the Top application - cue the Internationale

So New Jersey isn’t getting a Race to the Top grant, and there is much general wailing and gnashing of teeth over an error on the application that caused the state to lose a few points - an error which seemingly made the difference between winning and losing. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read about it here.)

Yeah, it was an inexcusable screw-up - and an incredibly ironic one. I mean, people filling out nitpicky forms and applications and - oh, say, test answer sheets - ought to be more careful than that, right? These things are important! A $400 million education grant  could hang in the balance! Or a teacher’s merit pay - right, Chris Christie, oh great proponent of test-score-based teacher evaluations?

Which brings me to my real point: As entertaining as it is to watch Trenton chasing its own tail in its eagerness to lay blame for this debacle (Schundler! Christie! Some outside contractor who was handling the whole thing for us! Because we all know that the private sector is more efficient and reliable, right?), the hysteria is obscuring the actual educational issues raised by the whole Race to the Top grant program and the application New Jersey submitted.

Rather than re-examine the education priorities of their predecessors, the Obama administration has simply picked up the same baton and kept running in the same direction, only with even more vigor. Standardized testing, teacher merit pay, privatization via charter schools - it’s all in there. You want to win a chunk of the Race to the Top money, you’ve got to prove that your state is going to be front and center in adopting these particular education reforms. This, despite the evidence that much of it doesn’t work especially well while draining resources from the existing public education system.

Case in point: Merit pay. We’re talking about handing out bonus checks to teachers on the basis of their students’ standardized test scores. Never mind that this is, as they say in the medical biz, an off-label use for standardized testing. Never mind that a school may not be the place where you want to disrupt team spirit by having individuals fight over a pot of gold. Never mind that schools in poor areas tend to produce lousy test scores while schools in affluent areas tend to produce high test scores. Never mind that, when the Commie pinko teacher’s union holds out for more money for people who work hard, they’re evil, but when right-wing Republicans propose higher pay as an individual incentive, it is capitalistically good and right. And never mind that respected experts in the field warn that test-score-based teacher evaluations are a crock. (If you haven’t read about the Los Angeles Times’ little foray into this area, I’ll throw another link at you.)

Anyway, back to New Jersey’s Race to the Top application. Lost in all the “clerical error” brouhaha is the fact that state education commissioner Bret Schundler, knowing that the Race to the Top program rewards buy-in from teachers, negotiated a compromise on merit pay with the NJEA (or, as the media likes to say over and over, “the powerful teacher’s union"). Much to my frustration, that compromise is repeatedly referred to in news coverage as a weak version of Christie’s more robust reforms - in other words, Christie’s own propaganda is being reported as accepted reality. Just a few days before the Race to the Top application was due, Christie tossed the version that contained the compromises Schundler and the NJEA negotiated and insisted that this own version be submitted instead. Somehow (and at this point, who cares how exactly?), in the hectic process that followed, the fact that the wrong year’s budget data was included in the application was missed, and that’s where the infamous clerical area comes in.

So what was in that weak, watered-down compromise on merit pay? This is from the Star-Ledger:

According to the state’s latest application, student achievement will account for 50 percent — not 51 percent, as originally proposed — of a teacher’s evaluation and include not just test scores, but other measures of learning such as portfolios of students’ work, NJEA spokeswoman Dawn Hiltner said.
The original application included a "bonus pool" of money from the state for strong teachers. The funds would be split between teachers or teacher teams and their schools.
The new application proposes a merit pay pilot program that districts could opt to join. Instead of individual merit pay for teachers, half the money awarded by the state as bonuses would be used for schoolwide programs, such as technology upgrades or teacher training, Hiltner said.
A school’s staff would decide how to award the rest of the money. It could go to individual teachers, or divided among the entire staff, or used for a school program, Hiltner said.
"Our feeling on merit pay is, teaching is a collaborative effort," Hiltner said. "This helps people in schools work together, instead of pitting teachers against each other because they are vying for a bonus."

Real Commie pinko stuff, right? I mean, all this talk about sharing and training and collaboration, right?

So here’s my chuckle of the day. I was curious to see what Commie pinkos other than that infamous, obstructionist bunch at the NJEA might subscribe to this idea of team bonuses, so I googled “team bonus pay.” The second result? An article from the Federal Times, a publication for managers in the federal government. The article is written by one David M. Fisher, director of another infamous Commie pinko organization: the Defense Department's Business Transformation Agency.

Here’s what he has to say on the subject:
While the GS [General Schedule] system also provides some incentives for outstanding performance via annual bonuses, this is the area in which the best of NSPS [National Security Personnel System] should be employed within the GS system. There is a way to make this bonus portion of compensation both objective and transparent, while also gaining added benefits by incentivizing entire teams to achieve shared objectives.
We use this sort of incentivizing bonus system at the Business Transformation Agency, where we have established quantifiable metrics that measure the agency's performance as a whole. The size of our agency bonus pool is directly tied to our collective performance against those goals.
Specifically, we establish measurable agencywide targets at the beginning of the year, focusing on our highest-priority initiatives. Our average score against these targets at the end of the year determines the size of our bonus pool.
The fact that these are shared targets that require collaboration further focuses behavior not only on individual performance, but also on working as a team to generate desired results. If we perform well collectively, we are rewarded collectively. If we don't, then this portion of our compensation falls. Instead of "hidden" pay pools where lack of trust fueled discontent with NSPS, this approach is transparent with metrics reported every month. Pay pools are replaced by bonus pools that identify performance targets and participants, which could be an entire agency, a program, a unit — whatever grouping makes most sense for a collection of shared, measurable objectives.

Yep, the weak, watered-down compromise struck between that ratfink Schundler and those Commie pinkos at the NJEA looks remarkably like the system in use at another infamous Commie pinko organization - the Department of Defense.

And so, let us wave the Stars and Stripes proudly, hum the Internationale, and sing the praises of that all-American institution - collectivism.

Take that, Christie.