Thursday, September 15, 2011

Good News, Bad News

As long as I've been paying attention to politics, people have tended to like their own elected representatives, while holding Congress overall in very low esteem. For instance, my own legislator, Jim McDermott, receives 80 percent of Washington's 7th congressional district vote election after election. As long as he runs, he will win, while nationwide he is consistently one of the most reviled of congress critters.

I mention this because a similar phenomenon seems to apply when it comes to our public schools. In a recent Gallup poll conducted for Phi Delta Kappa, when asked to grade their own local schools, 51 percent of us give them a grade of A or B. If you throw in the C grades, 88 percent of us give our public schools a passing grade. Man, that's awesome! Ah, but when we were asked to grade public schools in the nation as a whole, only 17 percent of us give up that A or B, with only 1 percent of us going for the highest mark. Holy cow, that's horrible!

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what's going on. When we have first-hand knowledge of what our own schools and teachers are actually doing, we're impressed. But since we have to rely on second-hand knowledge when it comes to other schools, typically delivered to us through the media, we're clearly being fed spin and lies, or at least only a very narrow slice of the story. Nearly 70 percent of us give our local public school teacher an A or a B, yet all we hear from the national press are stories about how teachers are lazy, how teachers are failing, how teachers are letting our children down. 

Phi Delta Kappa has been conducting this survey since at least 1984, and when it comes to our own schools, we've never been more satisfied, despite the anti-school hype. (There's a lot more interesting, uplifting, and eye-opening data in there: a large majority of us want teachers to have flexibility to teach rather than be required to follow a set curriculum, we are overwhelmingly opposed to high-stakes standardized testing, and we would want our own children to become public school teachers, among other things.) 

So if it is true that we are largely satisfied, it begs the question: where is all the negativity coming from? And why? These are important questions, because the answers to them will reveal who is attempting subvert our public schools for their own benefit.

David Sirota, one of the last real journalists standing, lays out a convincing case in his recent must-read Salon piece entitled, The Bait and Switch of School "Reform". It's not an accident, of course, that most of the champions of corporate "reform" are Wall Street types. And while they seek to paint themselves in the pastel colors of concerned philanthropists, they are really only concerned with the black ink of pure profit. There is a ton of money to be made in diverting school funds away from traditional things like hiring teachers, buying textbooks, and maintaining school buildings, and into such profitable enterprises as standardized testing, untried technology, and private charter schools. Demonizing schools and teachers is just part of the business plan to fundamentally change public schools, and not in a way that will serve children.


The bottom line is clear: In attempting to change the mission of public education from one focused on educating kids to one focused on generating private profit, corporate leaders in the "reform" movement are pursuing a shrewd investment strategy. Millions of dollars go into campaign contributions and propaganda outfits that push "reform," and, if successful, those "reforms" guarantee Wall Street and their investment vehicles much bigger returns for the long haul.

And as if it isn't bad enough that they would do this to our schools for a greasy buck, Sirota asserts that there's more than profit behind their "reform" zeal. For instance, we keep hearing that our schools are falling behind the rest of the world, yet the research shows that this is a function of increasing poverty, not declining schools. If we count only the US schools with a poverty rate less than 10 percent, we outperform every other nation on earth. This, of course, is bad news for Wall Street, which really doesn't want the American people to catch on to the fact that they have been meticulously redistributing our middle class wealth into their own pockets over the past 30 or so years. If enough of us knew the truth, we just might realize that Wall Street is the cause of this increase in poverty and then do something about it. No, they instead are spending millions to convince us that the problem is with our schools, it's not poverty, it's inequality. If only we would throw out this archaic, outmoded educational system and replace it with their test and technology machine, the new and improved education it manufactures will make poverty a thing of the past.

In the bait-and-switch of the "Great Education Myth," then, the corporate "reformers" get to pretend that they care about poor people and brag that they are benevolently leading "the civil rights issue of this era," when what they are really doing is making sure America doesn't talk about the macroeconomic policies that make Wall Streeters so much money, and impoverish so many others in the process.

He also points out a Wall Street motivation that has everything to do with one of the pet projects of big monied interests: unions busting. If it hasn't been obvious to you over the past couple years in places like Wisconsin, Idaho, and Michigan, the knives are out for the teachers unions in the name of "reform." While Sirota stipulates that both sides are motivated by self-interest, he also points out big differences in what those competing self-interests mean to children:

Teachers unions' self-interest means advocating for better teacher salaries and job security -- an agenda item that would, among other things, allow the teaching profession (as in other nations) to financially compete for society's "best and brightest" and in the process help kids. The unions' self-interest also means advocating for decent workplace facilities, which undeniably benefits not only the teacher, but also students. And it means pressing for curricular latitude that doesn't force educators to teach to a standardized test, a notion that would help actually educate students to think critically, rather than train them to be test-taking robots . . . Neither side's self-interest is perfectly aligned with the goal of bettering our education system. But one side is clearly far more aligned with that goal that the other.

In other words, the goals of teachers unions line up quite well with the opinions of the rest of Americans according to the Phi Delta Kappa poll.

So click on through to the Gallup poll results: I think they'll make you feel pretty good. Then click on through to the Sirota piece: I think it'll make your blood boil. 

The silver lining, so far at least, is that it doesn't appear that the "reformers" smear efforts are really taking hold, not when most of us see, first-hand, daily refutations of their lies about our local public schools. We might believe that "those other" schools need "reform," but not our own, and that's what I hope will save our schools.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share


Mother Teresa said...

The movement to privatize education is so heinous. Not only is it motivated by profit, it is dangerous from an ideological standpoint.

Gyan65 said...

I agree that privatizing schools is absolutely the wrong way to go, as is union busting. Our teachers need all the support we can muster! However, I hope that your article is not arguing to keep the status quo: our schools nationwide STILL need to be constantly worked on and reformed. We need to move from an industrial model to one that encourages critical thinking, much like your own preschool does. Whether we "like" our own schools or not has little bearing on the fact that our schools are statistically behind much of the rest of the world.
Opinion (and Gallup polls) is a very subjective measure: we still live in a nation where over 75% of our adults are of the opinion that they are above average in intelligence! Naturally as a people we believe the best of ourselves and our local institutions: it's the rest of the country that needs to fall in line! Until everyone is a long hard look at our own back yard, and willing to improve THAT, our schools and our political process are never going to change.

Anna said...

Oh wow. I am so glad I read this piece. I am in school to become an English teacher at the secondary level, and all my concerns over the potential job market stem from concerns addressed by this very informative post. I appreciate someone out there putting out the good word and keeping a positive light shining on public education!

Deborah said...

I love the water beads Tom:)

Akemanartist said...

I have been shuffled to like four schools in a district when I was younger before I was landed in a special ed class (this all was in California by the way) then I got into a regular sixth grade class, was behind on math because a teacher in special ed didn't let me go on to learn division, she just told me I could stop there, THEN I was moved from one school to the next, my dad kept going to where he could make more money. I went to one place I was started at middle of seventh grade, graduated from there then started HS but got moved so I lost all my friends and HATED the school I was at, grades dropped and I was depressed. started junior year at that place but moved again, this time to Washington state. It wasn't too bad. But because I had so many schools under my belt I came up with my own conclusions, many schools SUCK, or else I just didn't fit in in that kind of school setting. When I read of other HS with great art programs that involved parents actually fought to keep, I wished I had gone to those places. For me and my highly creative brood and individualized education is so much better.

Teacher Tom said...

I agree with you Gyan. We should always be working toward improving our schools in the ways you mention. At the same time, I think it's important to acknowledge that things are not so dire that we need to blow the whole thing up as the "reformers" would have us believe. We're not in a horrible place right now, and many teachers are doing outstanding work within the current system. I'm encouraged that parents seem to understand, perhaps not specifically, but at least in general terms, what quality education looks like. As I see it, that's where the push for real reform has to come: parents and teachers working together.

@Akemanartist . . . I think you once mentioned that you were Aspergers. Our current model really doesn't do a particularly good job educating kids on the spectrum unless parents have the time, energy and knowledge to really get in there and advocate for their kids. This would not be the case if more of our schools took a project or play-based approach to education.

Bonnie said...

There are some wonderful schools and teachers, but there are also those who seem to focus on putting kids in a rigid box. I withdrew my son from public school after kindergarten due to practices such as: the children had to write and draw in their journal each day, the subject matter always had to be real, no fantasy or imaginative ideas. Once they had written about a subject once, eg their pet, they could not choose that subject again. When they went to the library, four children were seated at each table and 4 books were placed on the table. They were to choose one of those books to check out. There was no freedom to explore the library or express a personal literary interest. It was a frustrating experience that had a negative impact on my son's interest in writing and reading.

Carolina said...

I've been doing this a while, teaching for about 15 years in a great public middle school, with Southern California teachers in my family going back to the '20s. I was still shocked yesterday by the term "for-profit charter schools" that I heard in an announcement about Magic Johnson hopping on board the corporate "reform" wagon. Like the for-profit hospitals that came before them, they are contrary to what their basic function in society is about.

RobynHeud said...

I sent this post to my husband yesterday since he's currently studying education and play-based curriculums in particular. As of now, he's reading Ken Robinson's books on not educating the creativity out of our children. He also says we don't need to reform our schools but to transform them and give the teachers the latitude they need to instill in our children a love of learning and discovery and also to avoid learning the mentality that to every question there is only one right answer (and it's in the back of the book, but don't look because that's cheating) and that to be wrong is a horrible, horrible thing.

Anonymous said...

I happen to live in Wisconsin, there seems to be a misguided comment about the teachers unions primary objective being the facilities that they work in. Here at least, the primary objective has been more benefits for the teachers. I had the opportunity to work within our public school system, while I did meet some truly lovely & good teachers. I also had the opportunity to see some of they ugly truth. There are some who seemed either completely overwhelmed or in the wrong profession. I do not agree with the cuts made in the education of the children for the benefit of the teachers. Then the propaganda that goes out states how "we" the tax payers/voters are making that decision. We are already one of the highest states in regards to taxes.

Currently I send my daughter to a private, non-profit school in which she is nutured and loved as well as educated. She is being taught that she has choices and is in control of her life. Children are respected & the older children play a role in mentoring the younger children.

While MPS is not horrible by world standards for the challenges they are dealing with - there is a lot of room for improvement.

Anonymous said...

great post, tom. forwarding it now :)