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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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