Saturday, March 20, 2010

Blaming The Teachers

If you've read here for awhile, you'll know I'm a political progressive and, generally speaking, a supporter of the Democratic agenda, but let me tell you the President has finally pissed me off when it comes to education. I've tried to find common cause with his administration on the subject, but they seem hell bent on pursuing expansion of the failed idea of charter schools and the absolutely insane strategy of blaming and punishing teachers.

Charter schools are essentially private schools created by taking education dollars out of our already underfunded public education systems. We've had charter schools for decades. Nearly every study comparing traditional public schools with charter schools have shown no difference in academic attainment overall, while many have found charters underperforming their public school counterparts. There are lots of studies, but here is the summary of one conducted by Standford University (if you Google "charter schools vs. public schools," you'll find dozens more). And this is while charter schools have the advantage of being allowed to exclude the most challenging students, the "blueberries" public schools are required to teach, allowing them to pick only the best and the brightest. And still they can't do better than traditional public schools? This is the future of public education? Bleh!

Yes, there is quite a bit of federal stimulus money being directed toward public schools, and I applaud that, but Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made it clear that he expects a large percentage of that money to be spent on expanding charter schools. This, without a lick of evidence that it will benefit students.

But even worse, I think, is Duncan and Obama's outright nastiness toward public school teachers. I'm not saying there aren't bad teachers out there, but the overwhelming majority are dedicated, hardworking public servants struggling to teach in underfunded, overcrowded schools that require them to spend too much of their days preparing their kids for high-stakes standardized tests. Instead of listening to public school teachers, who would with a virtually single voice call for smaller classes and more autonomy to teach their students the way they know they ought to be taught, the Obama administration seems determined to keep following the advice of career politicians and business executives who may be well-intended people, but who are not education professionals.

The incident that prompted this post, however, the straw that broke the camel's back, was President Obama's recent support of the mass firing of teachers at a struggling Rhode Island high school. What!? I'm sorry, but this is like Bank of America firing all its tellers for bringing the world economy to the verge of collapse. The problem is not with teachers. This is a systemic problem. It's a problem of underfunding. It's a problem of thinking of schools as job training centers. And its a problem of families.

I'm the world's biggest supporter of parents. I teach in a cooperative preschool where I work with committed, dedicated parents every day, parents who value education so highly that they are willing to actually go to school with their children. I attended public schools in South Carolina through 4th grade, a state that is widely regarded as having one of the worst public school systems in the country, yet I got a solid education because my parents valued education and made damn sure I got a good one. There is no greater predictor of a child's academic success than their parents' involvement in, and attitude toward, their education. If you are a parent taking time on a weekend to read this blog, you are one of this kind of parent.

Sadly, most parents are not like us. Bill Maher is not everyone's cup of tea, but I wish I'd been the one to go on this tirade:

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Unknown said...

Oh, Tom...thank you for saying so eloquently what many of us feel about the direction our educational system is headed. I really get fired up over this topic and just begin ranting (and usually my poor husband is the sounding board). I'm with ya!

Marissa said...

See, I agree with you, even though our family chooses to homeschool: this is the fault of the government, NOT the teachers. The pay/budget they get is a pittance compared to what they do. I think charter schools should be independently funded, just like my homeschool is. We have a real crisis here, and the political realm is doing what it does best--making mistakes.

Deborah Stewart said...

It just all seems so overwhelming to me! I see so many talented teachers working so hard and the harder they work, the more it seems others want to control them or squelch them.

Teacher Tom said...

@Marissa . . . I suppose we agree if you mean "government" in the sense that "we the people" are to blame. We are the government and we need to do more than vote. The whole point of public education is that a vital democracy needs educated citizens who understand that we each have an equal share in how our nation is governed. When we aren't constantly telling our representatives what we want them to do, someone else will, and increasingly it is the corporate lobbyists who are paid to fill the vacuum we leave by our silence. Public schools can do a much better job, but only if we all, as parents, teachers and citizens step up and make our elected officials do the right thing.

Unknown said...

I work in Philadelphia in neighborhoods that are very poor. The education I see in the schools I go into sickens me. If I lived in Philadelphia, my child would not go to public school. It makes me sad for the children. Many of the parents I work with hate the schools where their children attend. They could apply to charter schools but they do not. They settle. And in settling I fear they are doing a great disservice to their children. In the impoverished parts of the city, the charter schools and the public schools are much different. Charter schools are better because of the fact that there ARE smaller class sizes, there are more committed teachers, and the parents are more involved because they are forced to be.

Eternal Lizdom said...


Ironically, my word verifications is emens. Very close to Amen. Ha!

Anonymous said...

I've only just begun to investigate school systems and whatnot for my son, but this is truly ludicrous. I spent the first eight years of school in a private Catholic school because it was supposedly better for me to learn vs. public. Then I rebelled and forced my dad into letting me go to a public high school. Because my parents were so on top of me with regards to my school work I still managed to get into one of the top private business colleges in the country. From nothing other than my own experience tells me that a parent's involvement in paramount. And I can tell you that not one standardized test ever prepared me for anything I ever encountered in the real world. This is all very, very sad.

mel said...

so true!!

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

As a public school teacher, implementing a progressive model, all I can say is... thank you writing this. And thank you for the comic relief at the end.
I am so disappointed in the hiring of Arne Duncan. Why are the folks making education policy for the nation, not the leading specialists in education (in either research or practice)?

Launa Hall said...

Great question, Marla. I respect so much what you are doing in a public school. It gives me hope.

And spot on, Tom, spot on, as my British friend always says.

School Memory Books said...

Hi Tom,
You speak in general about "charter schools" the same way you are complaining about the comments people make about "traditional schools"! Why do you think people homeschool? Why do you think people leave "traditional schools" and enroll in "charter schools"? They want something different. Not every student works well in a "traditional setting". That is why charter schools started. In the same way that "traditional schools" have issues, so do charter schools. There are some wonderful charter schools just like there are some wonderful traditional schools. I know because I have worked in both.

Teacher Tom said...

@Delane . . . I have no doubt that there are some charter schools doing good work. There are also a lot of private schools that do a good job. The problem with charters is that they take public money away from our public school system without being required to also take the most challenging students. More often than not the success of charters can be directly attributable to this fact.

I have no problem with homeschooling. I considered it myself.

I have no problem with private schools, but the families who choose them need to also pay for them. My own daughter goes go a private school which I pay for out of my own pocket.

Charter schools simply have not proven that they are a better way for us to spend our tax dollars. I would much rather see us hire real education professionals to work on making public schools work.

DB Stewart said...

Thanks for posting this.
And I really encouraged by the art you do with your students and your leadership in the creativity field. Great to see.