Saturday, July 11, 2015

“The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations”

These are the words of a pro-education president trying to get legislation passed Congress to create federalaccountability in the classroom, set national standards and priorities, and provide new funding to a countrywide public primary and secondary school system that was rife with dropouts and in steep, perhaps precipitous, decline. The efforts produced a flawed statute that expired eight years ago.
It was 2001, the Present was Republican George W Bush, and the flawed law was the No Child Left Behind Act. Even though the thrust of this law was to increase the federal government’s presence into a failing state educational system, the law passed with overwhelming Republican support; only six Senators and thirty-four Representatives from the GOP voted against the bill. Indeed, there were even a very few Democratic opponents to the law, supporting some teacher union fears as to the implication of that law on their tenure structure and opposing the concept of standardized testing.
The law had lots of issues, including a movement from true teaching to a “teaching to the test” paradigm that seemed to defy the American notion of critical thinking that allows children to think “outside the box.” State after state demanded exemptions and waivers from the law. The results were spotty, and the law just expired. As Congress moved from Democratic to Republican control in 2010, a groundswell of opposition to educational programs, from kindergarten to college, became the hallmark of the new austerity-driven Congress. This esteemed body no long believed that investing in education was investing in our future. In fact the entire notion of “investing” vaporized. Education was now merely an “expense” we could no longer afford to grow… or even to sustain at past failed levels. Still, educational support for public schools is currently a hot debate in Washington.
Cries to disband the Department of Education, once perceived to be the mandate of kooks on the left and right, became increasingly the cry of federal legislators looking to pass the cost of education back to the states, despite the horrific decline in the average student performance in basic subjects like math, science and English and the rise in test scores among America’s competitors worldwide. The United States was and is creating a globally decreasing competence level in its going-forward workforce.
Still, it was obvious that we needed some standards, so educators and scholars in the field began embracing a “Common Core,” that body of basic knowledge that every American should have as a minimum. It was finalized in 2009 released in 2010 and embraced by 45 states and the District of Columbia.
It took some doing, but it was progress (or so most thought). “[A]long came the Obama administration, with its signature program called Race to the Top. In response to the economic crisis of 2008, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Education $5 billion to promote “reform.” Secretary Duncan launched a competition for states called ‘Race to the Top.’ If states wanted any part of that money, they had to agree to certain conditions. They had to agree to evaluate teachers to a significant degree by the rise or fall of their students’ test scores; they had to agree to increase the number of privately managed charter schools; they had to agree to adopt ‘college and career ready standards,’ which were understood to be the not-yet-finished Common Core standards; they had to agree to ‘turnaround’ low-performing schools by such tactics as firing the principal and part or all of the school staff; and they had to agree to collect unprecedented amounts of personally identifiable information about every student and store it in a data warehouse. It became an article of faith in Washington and in state capitols, with the help of propagandistic films like ‘Waiting for Superman,’ that if students had low scores, it must be the fault of bad teachers. Poverty, we heard again and again from people like Bill Gates, Joel Klein, and Michelle Rhee, was just an excuse for bad teachers, who should be fired without delay or due process.
“These two federal programs, which both rely heavily on standardized testing, has produced a massive demoralization of educators; an unprecedented exodus of experienced educators, who were replaced in many districts by young, inexperienced, low-wage teachers; the closure of many public schools, especially in poor and minority districts; the opening of thousands of privately managed charters; an increase in low-quality for-profit charter schools and low-quality online charter schools; a widespread attack on teachers’ due process rights and collective bargaining rights; the near-collapse of public education in urban districts like Detroit and Philadelphia, as public schools are replaced by privately managed charter schools; a burgeoning educational-industrial complex of testing corporations, charter chains, and technology companies that view public education as an emerging market. Hedge funds, entrepreneurs, and real estate investment corporations invest enthusiastically in this emerging market, encouraged by federal tax credits, lavish fees, and the prospect of huge profits from taxpayer dollars. Celebrities, tennis stars, basketball stars, and football stars are opening their own name-brand schools with public dollars, even though they know nothing about education.
“No other nation in the world has inflicted so many changes or imposed so many mandates on its teachers and public schools as we have in the past dozen years. No other nation tests every student every year as we do. Our students are the most over-tested in the world. No other nation—at least no high-performing nation—judges the quality of teachers by the test scores of their students. Most researchers agree that this methodology is fundamentally flawed, that it is inaccurate, unreliable, and unstable, that the highest ratings will go to teachers with the most affluent students and the lowest ratings will go to teachers of English learners, teachers of students with disabilities, and teachers in high-poverty schools. Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Education wants every state and every district to do it. Because of these federal programs, our schools have become obsessed with standardized testing, and have turned over to the testing corporations the responsibility for rating, ranking, and labeling our students, our teachers, and our schools.” Diane Ravitch (educational historian) in the January 18, 2014 Washington Post.
The battle in Congress rages, with fights over hard dollars and notions of how to contain any version of mass standardized testing to vet results. The hard right Tea Party faction strongly opposes anything “centralized” or “standardized” across the entire nation. Some in the GOP, notably Jeb Bush who softly endorses the concept of Common Core, are trying to carve a middle ground, while Democratic leadership on this issue has been muzzled with their minority status in Congress, trying to find a way to work with an angry GOP hell-bent on pulling the feds out of education.
“Congress has repeatedly failed in its efforts to rewrite the law. Two years ago the House passed a bill, but the Senate took no action. In February, the House brought up a nearly identical bill to its 2013 version… But newly elected conservative Republicans, increasingly opposed to the Common Core Standards, which they saw as indicative of an excessive role of the federal government in education, caused House leadership to pull the bill. Members were then permitted to come up with some new amendments to further limit federal intervention… In continued debates about a rewrite of the law, initially passed in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, conservatives have generally pushed for a limited federal footprint.
“Democrats have argued that because the law was originally designed to protect the nation’s neediest students, and that the federal government must play a significant enforcement role to ensure that poor students, racial minorities and students with disabilities all receive an equal education… ‘Let’s remember that holding states accountable for all students will only work if schools get the resources they need to promote student success,’ [Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington] said on the Senate floor [in early July]. ‘Unfortunately, some schools simply don’t provide the same educational opportunities as others.’ The White House is pushing for states to be held more accountable than either bill provides.” New York Times, July 8th. Nothing that would not get vetoed is remotely close to passing through Congress.
Given the financial challenges in too many states, struggling to balance their own budgets, it is equally clear that any shift of financial responsibility from federal back to state governments pretty much insures a continuing decrease in our support for public education. Clearly, our public educational performance continues to fall in global comparisons. As the Washington Post (July 7th) has so aptly summarized, the priorities of the GOP have abruptly changed from the halcyon days of the George W. Bush administration educational platform: conservative “grassroots activists have re-embraced their federalist roots and historic skepticism of any federal involvement.” Still, students are saddled with a state-controlled public school system that, on average, just plain doesn’t work, perpetuates sub-par performance and denigrates our ability to compete with global standards that continue to rise.
I’m Peter Dekom, and there is no real excuse for abandoning and betraying our children; we need to fix the system before it kills us.

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