Monday, July 25, 2011

Barkan on "the grand coalition against teachers"

Researcher Joanne Barkan has published a powerful and important new study, found in a recent edition of Dissent magazine, on the influences brought to bear on public education during the past generation and, specifically, the massive, well-funded and coordinated attack on America's education professionals.

In her own words, her study investigates

the fix-the-teachers campaign of today’s “education reformers.” It’s not their only project. They also want public schools run with the top-down, data-driven, accountability methods used in private businesses; they aim to replace as many regular public schools as possible with publicly funded, privately managed charter schools; some are trying to expand voucher programs to allow parents to take their per-child public-education funding to private schools. All this will reshape who controls the $540 billion that taxpayers spend on K-12 schools every year. It endangers the democratic nature of public education as well. But nothing affects children more directly in the classroom than what the reform movement is doing to teachers.

The attack on teachers, she states, is blatant, straightforward and purposeful:

In a nation as politically and ideologically riven as ours, it’s remarkable to see so broad an agreement on what ails public schools. It’s the teachers. Democrats from various wings of the party, virtually all Republicans, most think tanks that deal with education, progressive and conservative foundations, a proliferation of nonprofit advocacy organizations, right-wing anti-union groups, hedge fund managers, writers from right leftward, and editorialists in most mainstream media —- all concur that teachers, protected by their unions, deserve primary blame for the failure of 15.6 million poor children to excel academically. They also bear much responsibility for the decline of K-12 education overall (about 85 percent of all children attend public schools), to the point that the United States is floundering in the global economy.

In the last few years, attention to the role of public school teachers has escalated into a high-profile, well-financed, and seriously misguided campaign to transform the profession based on this reasoning: if we can place a great teacher in every classroom, the achievement gap between middle-class white students and poor and minority students will close; all students will be prepared to earn a four-year college degree, find a “twenty-first-century job” at a good salary, and help to restore U.S. preeminence in the world economy.

A synopsis of her lengthy article doesn't do it justice. But she focuses on the role of administrators in the assault:

Everyone who supports public education believes that only effective teachers should be in the classroom; ineffective teachers who can’t improve should lose their jobs. Accomplishing this requires a sound method for evaluating teachers and a fair process for firing. In the current system, school principals have the responsibility to assess teachers’ performance and dismiss ineffective ones. Making sure that principals do this well is the district superintendent’s responsibility (not the teachers’). The system works if administrators at all levels and school boards do their jobs.

She draws attention to the language of the so-called education reformers and the several targets of their derision:

The ed reformers have a formula for producing an outstanding teaching force: identify and dismiss all bad teachers, replace them with excellent ones, keep the latter on staff by paying them more, and evaluate everyone regularly to make sure no teacher is slipping. Private schools have the freedom to do this. But public schools, according to the credo, are hamstrung by protections for teachers -— due process (imprecisely called tenure), seniority, and set salary scales -— which are written into state laws and union contracts.* Because of due process, the reformers claim, it’s too difficult to get rid of bad teachers; because of seniority, they aren’t necessarily the first laid off; because of salary scales, they get paid as much as better teachers. The reformers want the quality of teaching alone to determine if a public school teacher stays employed or gets a raise.

But how do you measure quality accurately? The reformers promote relying heavily on students’ standardized test scores: students who do well on these tests have clearly learned something, the argument goes. Therefore if you track the test scores of each teacher’s students every year, you can measure how much students have learned and use that number to make personnel decisions. The traditional protections can go, the unions will be weaker (a boon to reformers who consider them roadblocks to change), and, voilĂ , public schools will improve.

Due process, seniority, and salary scales predate unionization; they grew out of state and local civil service reforms in the early twentieth century when political machines thrived in large part by controlling jobs. Civil service laws protected teachers against the graft, cronyism, and favoritism that plagued public school systems under the thumb of political bosses and run by patronage. The laws benefited children by aiming for a meritocracy: teaching jobs would go to those who had training and skills. Since the 1960s when public employees in many states won the right to bargain collectively, teachers’ contracts have included the same protections.

The traditional protections are just that—protections against corruption and favoritism; they have nothing to do with evaluating teachers. Even if an ideal evaluation system existed, teachers would still need recourse when administrators and politicians ignored regulations. Yet the reformers have misleadingly conflated the two issues: we can’t get proper evaluations, they claim, without eliminating protections. Since state laws can be written to take precedence over teachers’ contracts, the most effective way to eliminate protections is to get state laws changed. This is what the reform campaign is doing around the country.

And she examines the role of billionaire ideologues and their charitable foundations in buying off the public debate in state legislatures:

For most ed reformers, better a train wreck than no reform. They want as much change as possible as fast as possible in order to take advantage of momentum and the favorable political climate. The rush to pass state laws has provided their greatest opportunity so far. In response, they’ve skillfully built state campaigns, spending millions on organizers who advise lawmakers and legislative staffs, generate grassroots support, and run ad campaigns. A pipeline of private money—most of it from large private foundations—funds their state operations just as it funds almost all the ed reform movement’s activities. Two groups in particular—Stand for Children [14](headquartered in Portland) and Democrats for Education Reform [15] (DFER, headquartered in New York City)—have played substantial roles by setting up branches in legislative battle states. Stand has a long list of contributors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation [16], which donated $5.2 million between 2005 and 2010. DFER gets most of its money from financiers, especially hedge fund managers.

It’s difficult to overstate the role of the mega-rich private funders: look into any ed reform project—even those that appear to be individual or small local efforts—and you’ll likely come across the large foundations and financiers. This is typical: a small group of Indiana teachers campaigned successfully for their legislature to abolish seniority-based layoffs. They received media coverage but neglected to say that they had been recruited by Teach Plus, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based group that operates on a $4 million grant given to them in 2009 by the Gates Foundation (New York Times, May 21, 2011 [17]).

Finally, she addresses the negative impacts that these "reform" campaigns have had on the profession, particularly in dissuading young people from entering the profession.

With the zealots’ mix of certainty and fervor, ed reformers have made this a wretched time to be a public school teacher. Indeed, fewer and fewer people are interested in trying. In the last seven years, the number of Californians seeking to become teachers dropped 45 percent (California Watch [22], December 14, 2010 [22]). In 2011, due to declining interest, Yale ended both its undergraduate teacher preparation and certification program and its Urban Teaching Initiative, a tuition-free M.A. program for students committed to teaching in New Haven’s public schools. Teachers all over the country—in affluent districts as well as high-poverty schools—are dispirited. In New York City, 50 percent of all new hires leave after five years in the classroom.

Barkan's study is worth much more than the cursory summary I've offered here. Read the full text, and share with others, at Dissent's website.

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