Reflections from the SOS March
Most grassroots reformers agree that the No Child Left Behind Act has exacerbated educational inequity by sentencing poor children to years of test-prep and multiple-choice assessments. Student scores on these limited and sometimes biased high-stakes tests are then used to justify harsh turnaround penalties such as school restructuring, closings and the threat of losing federal funding. Many mainstream education reform organizations gaining traction in the worlds of media and philanthropy publicly decry this situation as well.
The two schools of thought diverge in their models of what the improved landscape should look like. Some mainstream reformers place primary responsibility for deficiencies in public schools on teachers. This is an interesting conclusion given the fact that the main measure of teacher competence is standardized test scores, which many of these same organizations agree need to be reformed as well. Merit-based pay, which awards teachers bonuses on the basis of improving these flawed test scores, is an equally confusing option sometimes presented.
Charter schools are also often touted as another way to improve our education system. Indeed, some charter schools do achieve great success and the work that their administrators and teachers do, often without union protections, is laudable. Unfortunately all charter schools are not the same. Some have the option of refusing admission to students with the highest need (e.g. homeless, special needs, non-English speakers).
Also charter schools sometimes put a strain on limited resources. In New York City, for example, there have been incidences of “co-location” where existing public schools are forced to “squeeze” their student populations to make room in their buildings for newly created charter schools. But when we go back to the flawed tests, for lack of any other method of determining success, we still see no marked improvements.
Grassroots reform groups are typically comprised of teachers who have tired of seeing the immediate and deleterious impacts of these measures on the students that they teach every day. My most pivotal experiences have been shaped by high-stakes testing and the way it diverts precious human and capital resources from Early Childhood Education, which is critically important for low-income and minority students.
Administrators are forced to place their strongest teachers and financial resources in the tested grades in order to make AYP or Adequate Yearly Progress if they are to receive desperately needed federal funding. This circumstance weakens the early foundations of literacy and mathematical reasoning. It is often impossible to correct these deficits in later grades, which leads to lower tests scores and the same vicious cycle of failure repeating itself over and over again.
This is why I supported the goals of the SOS March held this past weekend. I knew that it was a colossally inopportune time to discuss anything but the economy, with the debt ceiling debate in full swing, but I still felt it was important to attend. I hoped to connect with other educators who shared my desire to create a positive change in the direction of education policy.
I came with high hopes and an open mind but was deeply troubled by the organizing committee’s rebuff of the White House’s efforts to communicate with them. I believe that this act was not only a tactical error but also extremely disrespectful.
I had a hard time understanding why antagonism was being directed solely at the White House when Congress is actively engaged in an ESEA Reauthorization effort that could warp public schools beyond recognition. There was definite agreement that NCLB has hurt our schools but very little awareness of the changes currently being proposed by the House Education and Workforce committee.
For example, HR 2445 proposes the gutting of programs historically designated for low-income and minority students. A previous bill promotes an increase in funding and flexibility for charter schools. Most of the participants I shared this information with were very interested in learning more about this issue.
This is not to say that President Obama’s education policies should be examined less closely than those of any other President. But the fact that his Administration was willing to hear the concerns of grassroots reformers should not have been taken so lightly. That was an opportunity to once again share our concerns and most importantly show respect for the highest office in the United States.
At the heart of the matter is the fact that we are public school educators. When we have a chance to educate anyone, regardless of their position, we should treasure and honor it. The SOS organizers owed it to our young people to put their emotions and political interests aside in the interest of building support for their cause.
Everyone deserves a chance to be heard and nothing is EVER gained through being unwilling to compromise. In fact everything can be lost as a result of limited thinking. The key is opening ourselves up to hearing what others have to say. There is ALWAYS something valuable to take away. As educators it is our responsibility to make sure that we are consistently reflecting that truth for our students, especially if we expect them to be willing to listen to us.