Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Re-Framing the Public School Debate

“Frames are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality—sometimes to create what we take to be reality.” Lakoff

Do you believe that the American business model applied to schools will produce better teachers and more qualified students? Then your thought process about public schools is probably mired in the myths fostered by the 1980’s report, A Nation at Risk, which claimed that, the failure of our public schools would eventually lead to our economic decline and inability to compete in the world market. Those findings were driven by a right wing ideology from the likes of CEO’s and business leaders who posed the idea that we can only keep our competitive position in the world by improving our schools.

Time and our current economic situation have proven that those ideas were pitched to open the door for conservatives to take control of the public school debate. And, they succeeded, as that idea took hold, educators and teacher unions at all levels, ceded their leadership in the field to business moguls who despite public acts of helping schools with funding for charter schools and laptops, secretly professed that they want to ultimately privatize the schools to make a lot of money.

Now, we seem to be stuck in the rhetorical frame that public schools are failing despite the facts that indicate a different reality. That frame is the elephant in the room and no one has been able to change our concept to another reality. Schools are living up to the standards we set for them. Today, according to the 2004 Census, more kids graduate high school than ever before. (We need to improve those numbers for minorities, especially Hispanics, but over all those figures are rising.) Around 28 percent of our national population gets a 4-year college degree and in New York State it’s sits at 30 percent. And, based upon 2006 statistics from G-8 countries, we are scoring very well in most categories of reading and math. (Don't get me wrong, there is still plenty of room for improvement.)

Yet, because the debate is framed around the idea that our schools are failing, those who call for privatizing schools have gained a foothold with the general public in the public education debate. Even though the general public thinks schools are failing, parents consistently think that the schools their children attend are good. The incongruity of that thinking, however, doesn’t seem to make an impression because the picture of failing public schools is so entrenched in the national mind-set.

We also hear, but not so loudly at this moment in our economic history, that the business model should be applied to schools. The belief is that children are revenue sources and schools should be able to generate a profit. How do you increase profit? Add additional revenue sources, reduce expenditures, cut salaries, break the negotiating strength of unions and, of course, eliminate all regulations and standards of accountability. In addition, these business leaders throw in the concept of merit pay as an incentive to teachers so they will teach to the bottom line--standardized tests. It works for businesses, doesn’t it? Well....

To make this all sound palatable to the general public, conservatives have convinced the public that public education has failed the nation and they design schemes that ultimately and deliberately underfund the school system. (Unfunded mandates in NCLB, vouchers, charter schools, home schooling) With unrealistic and ill conceived demands and continuously diverted resources, schools would become nothing but holding pens festering with failure. That’s because conservative school reform movements are akin to the urban renewal efforts that were the results of landlord-arsonists in the Bronx or the fire-bomb deliberately dropped by police in a Philadelphia residential neighborhood to root out a small band of dissidents. Those efforts had the effect of displacing and silencing a noisy, but ultimately, powerless minority for the profit of the few.

Public schools are doing the job they were meant to do. They are acculturating a diverse population that can unite us as one democratic nation with faith in the possibilities of every individual. This last election gave us a glimpse at what that future would look like. Better schools aren't about a better economy. Improving schools is about becoming a better country. That’s how we should frame future discussions about public education.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another Bad Idea: Merit Pay for Teachers

"Teacher unions should not be such willing partners in the merit pay group-speak coming out of Washington."

Teacher unionists are abuzz with the new found attention their profession and their schools are getting from the Obama camp. However, there’s much to raise our concerns, especially the idea that merit pay will make a difference in the quality of teaching and the improved academic achievement in our students.

Over the last generation of teacher unionism, no issues have provoked union leaders more than threats to tenure or the idea of individual merit pay for teachers based on the performance of students. However, because the President said that he would include teachers and their unions in the policy decision-making process, union leadership is giving him a green light on the merit pay concept and AFT/UFT President Randi Weingarten eagerly portrays how her union has embraced a performance-based bonus system in 200 New York City schools.

But teacher unions should not be such willing partners in the merit pay group-speak coming out of Washington, because the concept of merit pay for teachers is fraught with more danger than benefit. If the concept became the norm in our schools, it could set the stage for a Ponzi scheme of supposed academic excellence, in which only a few would benefit, while the rest would find themselves bankrupt.

First of all, Obama is wrong about the research. There is no valid replicable scientific social research out there that proves that individual merit pay will make a positive dent in an objective measure of the overall quality of teaching in a school or school system. It’s mostly intuitive supposition that is based on the “carrot and stick” meme of Western culture. It’s not necessarily a given that the promise of monetary rewards when a goal is reached will improve the quality of the process used to get there.

Secondly, the concept of merit has inherent in it that only a few will benefit. The effect of the promise of financial reward may skew the Bell Curve slightly upward, but most will be in the average range and few will be at the top or the bottom. That’s automatic and it is antithetical to the idea that we must raise all the boats in the harbor. Merit pay is an elitist, anti-union concept that belongs in the tool box of CEO’s, but not in the hands of school systems and governments. Take a look at the stock market, or at our iconic corporate giants, and see where merit pay and bonuses have gotten us.

Embracing a business model for our schools is an idea that’s as defunct as many American businesses and as backward as the 19th Century factory model used to educate our youngsters. Stakeholders, corporate and social, should reconsider the processes used by businesses to achieve their goals and then rethink the ideas behind why we educate our children in the first place. Once we do that, the concept of merit raises for teachers will be a thing of the past.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Rally: City Hall Rumble for Fair Budget Funding

Send your state legislators this letter before April 1, urging them to pass a fair budget.

The Rally for New York on March 5, 2009 brought thousands of New Yorkers out to City Hall Park in an effort aimed at forcing Albany and City Hall to produce a fair budget for schools and other public services.  It is estimated that more than 40,000 concerned citizens, union workers and parents came out to protest what is perceived as an unfair budget that will ultimately punish the most vulnerable in our city—children, the elderly and the infirm.

But as large as the demonstration was some say that this is only the tip of the iceberg as dissatisfaction about the proposed budget cuts is causing a rumble of outrage in all sectors of our society.  Albany is accused of unfairly distributing stimulus funds and shorting various localities like the city.  While lawmakers haggle over the amount of the cuts, funding for schools, hospitals and other services will be held hostage as the state tries to resolve its economic crisis by cuts to education, childcare and healthcare.

Noting that the proposed budget plan places a greater burden on the working class, support for a fair-share tax reform movement is also growing as it is estimated that a modest rise in the income taxes of those who earn more than $250,000—the top 5 percent—could produce revenues of as much as $6 billion per year.

The rush-hour demonstration packed lower Manhattan from the tip of City Hall Park along Broadway up past Worth Street as New Yorkers came out to make sure that the federal stimulus funds are spent in a way that protects communities, schools and the other vital social services that keep the city running.  

While most city workers were represented at the rally, members of the UFT from all five boroughs showed up in force to voice their concern for children and schools. They held placards calling for fair budgets with slogans like "Don't be fools, support our schools," and reminders that "Our children deserve better." Some of the demonstrators are pictured here and while others will be showcased in the following edition of the New York Teacher.

Send your state legislators this letter before April 1, urging them to pass a fair budget.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

National Standards: A society gets the schools it deserves

AFT President Randi Weingarten arguing for national standards said in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, “I am not so naive as to think that it would be easy to reach consensus on national standards, but I believe that most people would agree that there is academic content that all students in America's public schools should be taught, and be taught to high standards.”

Do most people agree on the academic content for America’s public schools? What do we, as a nation, expect high school graduates to know and what skills would we like them to have? Despite, the various commissions that recognize the need for 21st Century workers to have good communications skills and the ability to analyze and resolve problems creatively, there is little if any consensus on how schools can produce that highly skilled workforce. There are so many conflicting interests and aspirations that we are forced to consider why we teach certain things, and not others. Can we reconcile the difference between the education of the individual from the education of the citizen?

In our haste to establish national standards, let’s not neglect those students who fail to complete high school. These are the youngsters who increasingly end up in our penal system. This is a national disgrace, but is it an accident of neglect and indifference or is it intentional? Could there be a hidden curriculum in our schools? Before we can establish national standards we have to honestly assess whether those standards will be for all children or will there always be a neglected class that will have to fend for itself?

Obviously, if there are national standards, unlike NCLB, there should be funds to support the mandates. But, would costs force legislators to limit the scope of what schools teach? Will schools only provide “essential” instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic and drop all the other “non-essential” subjects like music, art, social studies, science and health? In other words, will schools and teachers be forced to teach to the test?

I recall former New York State Governor George Pataki saying that he would not approve increased funding for public education because the state constitution only guaranteed a sound education until the 8th grade. So despite all the talk of improving NYS schools, the Governor fought against additional funding for NYC public schools. Where there’s a will there’s a wallet!

Since education has traditionally been a local issue, and a public school education in Massachusetts is generally much better than one in Mississippi, national standards should start to raise all the boats in the harbor. But, local control of schools is so closely guarded that any perceived imposition from Washington will be bitterly opposed. Local politicians wary of outside control, will scare the citizenry with threats of increased costs from higher taxes. Only the most enlightened communities will look at the increases as an investment in their children and the future of the country. 

A society gets the schools it deserves.