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Michael Petrilli’s charge that the recent elections confirm “[t]eachers unions remain the Goliath to the school reformers’ David” is neither a brave claim to make in a paper serving a right-to-work area of the U.S., nor an accurate portrayal of the lessons of the elections or the balance of power in education reform. [1]

Let’s begin with a question that challenges Petrilli’s initial claim: If teachers unions are the primary or one of the primary forces at the root of the failures of public education, why do right-to-work states such as my home state of South Carolina (where unions have essentially no power in teachers’ hiring, firing, pay, or tenure) also sit historically and currently at or near the bottom of test data we routinely use to evaluate school quality?

And let’s add another question: Since the most prominent correlations between unionization and student achievement show that unionized states have high test scores and non-unionized states have low test scores, why do self-proclaimed “reformers” such as Petrilli ignore that school quality data are primarily reflections of poverty and affluence?

In part, the answers reveal union bashing, “bad” teacher refrains, and finger pointing at the “status quo” to be straw man arguments, distractions from the real problems and solutions.

Wrong Reform, Wrong Policies, Wrong Leadership

Like his misleading assertion about unions, Petrilli’s suggestion that a battle exists between reformers and their “opponents” is false. The reform movement that Petrilli associates himself with includes politicians, think tanks, and advocates constituted of people with little or no experience or expertise in education, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and billionaire Bill Gates.

Educators and scholars rejecting these so-called reforms are not avoiding reform or accountability, but rejecting policies discredited by evidence.

Accountability-based education reform driven by standards and high-stakes testing has existed since the 1890s. A century of evidence reveals that accountability has failed miserably, often entrenching the problems instead of addressing them.

Yet, reformers such as Petrilli, Duncan, and Gates persist in calling for doubling down on the accountability process with new standards, more tests, and misguided assaults on teachers, although public school failures have nothing to do with a lack of accountability or the quality of standards and high-stakes tests.

I have spent 18 years teaching high school English (nearly two decades in the heart of the accountability era, the 1980s and 1990s) followed by another 11 years in higher education working with teachers and future teachers across the Upstate of SC. Below, I want, like Anthony Cody blogging at Education Week, “to draw some lessons for our side”—the side with experience and expertise calling for genuine change.

Public schools reflect and perpetuate the inequity of opportunity found in society. Thus, the only lessons we should take after the recent election are that we need education reform grounded in equity and opportunity, not accountability, and that must occur at three levels—society, school policy, and classroom practices—including, for example, the following:

• Social reform seeking equity and opportunity for children and their families by insuring access to health, dental, and eye care; food security; and stable jobs with strong wages.

• School policy seeking equity and opportunity by addressing teacher assignments (impoverished children and children of color are assigned disproportionately to inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers), de-tracking course offerings, fully funding essential educational structures regardless of community characteristics, reforming discipline policies that disproportionately alienate and punish marginalized students, and dismantling accountability structures based on a perpetual (and costly) process of creating new standards and “better” high-stakes tests.

• Classroom practices honoring equity and opportunity by rejecting teaching-to-the-test, offering all students rich and vibrant learning opportunities based on student interests and needs, dismantling fragmented content-based course structures for interdisciplinary courses, and shifting instruction away from teacher-centered practices and toward student-centered invitations that require students to be active and thoughtful instead of compliant.

For this shift in education reform to occur, however, politicians, policy advocates, and the public must face one important lesson: Education reform is not a battle, as Petrilli suggests, between change agents and defenders of the status quo. Education reform must become a continuous collaboration.

Public education is not failing because of unions, “bad” teachers, or an inadequate accountability system.

We are failing public education, and then also our children and our democracy by allowing the wrong reformers and failed policies to mask that schools, like society, remain too often overburdened by an inequity of opportunity, based not on the merit of anyone’s abilities or effort but on the coincidences of birth that in fact too often become destiny.

[1] This was submitted to the Charlotte Observer as a rebuttal to Petrilli; UPDATE: Run in a slightly edited version December 9, 2012.

Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 07:01 AM PST.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  If only (5+ / 0-)

    we could implement a system like Finland:

    though a good comparison could be with educational reform in Canada.

    Short description: conservative government comes in with adversarial relationship to unions, good teachers leave, education suffers.

    Then, government decides to work with unions, spend money on education, and actually value teachers. Education improves.

    Who'd a thunk it. Both are good reads.

  •  "Public schools reflect and perpetuate (16+ / 0-)

    the inequity of opportunity found in society." That's really the problem, isn't it? But it's so much easier to slam unions and teachers.

    Really the whole "accountability" fixation is a deep insult to teachers, the great majority of whom are dedicated, caring, and underpaid professionals straitjacketed by the odd assumption that education will be "fixed" if only it is made to fit a mass production model that emphasizes intrusive oversight and easy metrics. The approach is wildly inappropriate and empirically shown to be counter-productive, and yet that is what passes for serious educational reform thought these days. It would be pathetic if it weren't so tragic for the kids and for the future of our society and our world.

    We need an ecological approach to human development, not an industrial model applied to human beings.

    Good luck with the Charlotte Observer.

    The GOP can't win on ideas. They can only win by lying, cheating, and stealing. So they do.

    by psnyder on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 01:48:26 PM PST

  •  Great diary! Thanks. n/t (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slatsg, rosarugosa, semioticjim, ciganka
  •  Pretty much. (10+ / 0-)

    But let's not ignore the reality that many of the so-called education "reformers" are really just interested in privatizing the education system.

    See: how proposed reforms always involve some form of taking money from public schools and giving it to private parties (a.k.a. school vouchers, charter schools.)

    28, white male, TX-26 (current), TN-09 (born), TN-08 (where parents live now)

    by TDDVandy on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 03:12:07 PM PST

    •  As a 17 year teacher, I can say (11+ / 0-)

      All enacted reforms that I've seen increase paperwork and documentation requirements, and reduce actual time spent helping kids.

      I STILL want to see Mitt's taxes.

      by Van Buren on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 03:39:39 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Privatizing education and stripping funding (8+ / 0-)

      are the goals. In addition to the huge testing industry, public money goes directly to willing private hands for teacher training, charter schools, Supplemental Educational Services, takeover of "failing" schools, etc. Add to that the popularity of hiring non-educators as superintendents, curriculum supervisors, teacher trainers, etc., often funded by the foundations. School districts are too often run by people who have never been in a classroom, and the solutions they promote do much damage to education. Quality research is pushed aside to jump onto the latest fad. To undermine teacher unions and public school systems meets the goals of those who are after the public funds or children's minds or who are after unions. It is more attractive to the public and cheaper than dealing with the real problem: poverty.

      •  The give away on this is when their sock (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        plthomasEdD, Orinoco, mtnlvr1946

        puppets starting howling over at Chronicles or Inside Higher Ed and referring to education as "the industry".

        The big boys want that pile of public money, just like they want Social Security money.  Then, they can drag it off to their casino on Wall Street.  

        Having taught overseas and also run an educational institute overseas, I can say that it is all about equality of opportunity for students.  

        The inequality of educational opportunity in the US is reinforced by neighborhood schools that receive funding from the poor neighborhood, and not enough from the federal level.

        It gets on my nerves, and you know how I am about my nerves...

        by ciganka on Tue Dec 04, 2012 at 02:53:01 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I appreciate your diary and hope that your Op-Ed (9+ / 0-)

    will be published.

    The core thesis of your piece-- that "public schools reflect and perpetuate the inequality of opportunity found in society"--sent me back to find Jean Anyon's classic essay from 1980, "Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work," in which she describes the teaching methods found in different schools (which she categorizes by class). I assume you know it, and her other work?

    Regrettably, there appear to be too few education reformers who will admit to the legitimacy of your argument. Education is still claimed to be the big engine of social mobility, even as the escalator itself is grinding to a halt. It is thus easier to blame teachers, again, rather than point fingers at the deeper and more intractable sources of inequity.

    I keep wishing for an Education Policy group here at DKos, though sometimes I think I should be careful what I wish for (your present diary a fine exception to those which have given me concern). It's not anything I could organize, yet I'd be an interested participant.

    Some DKos series & groups worth your while: Black Kos, Native American Netroots, KosAbility, Monday Night Cancer Club. If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

    by peregrine kate on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 03:33:43 PM PST

  •  The repudiation of... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ThompsonLazyBoy, ciganka, Orinoco

    ...corporate reformer Bennett in Indiana and the Chicago Teacher's Association's call to action should send a clear message to President Obama that folks are not happy with the high stakes test direction he continues to advocate.

    High stakes testing is bad, bad, bad...

    U.S. Public education is a public good and our investment in our children's future should be equal to our investment in other vital government sectors.

    Caveat emptor is not an acceptable education policy.

    Educational experience based on non-consensual behaviorism is authoritarian mind control.

    by semioticjim on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 07:41:14 PM PST

    •  High stakes testing has become so distorted (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      plthomasEdD, Orinoco

      that the useful information that these exams results could provide has been rendered practically useless.  

      I have a strong background in high stakes exam preparation and administration.

      I am appalled at the misuse of what could be a valuable tool.  

      There is absolutely too much emphasis placed on these exams, and it interferes with the classroom experience.

      IMO, student test results should never be used to evaluate teachers and should instead be used to indicate areas of knowledge where individual students or even groups of students could have gaps.  

      In fact, the whole problem is with the phrase, "high stakes exams".  The exams should not be "high stakes".  Instead these exams should be one of many tools for feedback that teachers should have at their disposal.

      These exams are being abused and transformed into serving a purpose that is far from the original intent for which they were developed.

      It gets on my nerves, and you know how I am about my nerves...

      by ciganka on Tue Dec 04, 2012 at 08:27:08 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Perhaps caveats written by test authors (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        to the effect of

        this test should not be used for evaluating teaching effectiveness, student mastery of the material, curriculum adequacy or school policy
        should be printed on the cover of each test booklet, similar to the surgeon general's warnings on cigarette packs. High stakes tests do none of these things.

        "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

        by Orinoco on Tue Dec 04, 2012 at 12:29:11 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  He he...let's not throw the baby out with... (0+ / 0-)

          I do think that these exams can be a useful part of an evaluative toolkit.  

          However, exam results represent just one very small quantitative factor in what should be a much wider evaluative process - an evaluative process that should also include qualitative factors that are not so easy to measure.  

          Incidentally, this whole evaluation process could most likely best be performed by a teaching team led by the classroom teacher and support staff - just as well paid as any other team of professionals.  

          It gets on my nerves, and you know how I am about my nerves...

          by ciganka on Tue Dec 04, 2012 at 10:23:56 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    plthomasEdD, ciganka, Orinoco

    Thank you for this diary.  You present many of the issues which I have encountered as a First Grade teacher in a title one school.  The pressure even in first grade to conform to standards and prepare children to be good test-takers is outrageous.  

    Teaching Singapore math to children who walk through the classroom door with every disadvantage conceivable coupled with many language barriers is just one of many problems faced by today's teachers.

    Our school systems and students are often compared with other countries, BUT those countries do not offer what we do.  We take any child in our boundary regardless of how long they have been in the states.  We feed them breakfast and lunch.  We often serve as parents, counselors, behavioral specialists,  and language experts with little or no support.

  •  Great diary.... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ciganka, plthomasEdD

    The education of a citizenry responsible for refining civilization will not occur under the current policies that embrace high stakes testing and the perversion of the educational process.
    Caveat emptor is not an acceptable national policy for public education....

    Educational experience based on non-consensual behaviorism is authoritarian mind control.

    by semioticjim on Tue Dec 04, 2012 at 04:33:45 PM PST

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