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The Miseducation of America

Stephanie Rizzo, a sixth grade language arts teacher at Lockhart Middle School in Lockhart, FL, recently had a sixth-grade student who was functioning at a second-grade reading level. He also had learning and emotional disorders, but in elementary school he had benefited from the presence of a paraprofessional who worked with him one-on-one. Upon reaching middle school, a lack of funding made it impossible to provide someone for him.

“Suddenly he went from having one or two classes and teachers to seven, and the kid was just absolutely lost,” Rizzo says. “He was in a class with 22 other kids, and nobody was getting anything done because he was having nuclear-level breakdowns every single day. After the first week of school, his entire team of teachers was already worn out.”

An administrator called a meeting with all of the student’s teachers to address the situation.

“I asked her: ‘How did he even get here? He can barely read, but he passed the fifth grade?’ ” Rizzo says. “Without missing a beat, she said that it was irrelevant. He was here now and it’s our job as educators to make sure he learns something, anything, while he’s under our care.”

The teachers decided to pair him with responsible students who would be his “buddy” in every class. Rizzo and the other teachers also supplemented his reading material with second-, third- and fourth-grade level passages.

“[When] he left sixth grade, he was reading well enough to be considered literate,” Rizzo says. “He was still two or three grade levels [behind], but he made tremendous progress.”

A Justice Issue

Stories like this are happening all over the country as educators face new economic realities, shifting educational standards and a rapidly evolving classroom demographic.

School districts everywhere are being forced to make drastic cuts. Milwaukee public schools recently cut 519 positions, including 354 teachers. Philadelphia schools announced a plan to eliminate more than 3,800 positions—including 1,260 teaching positions. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in early 2011 that 4,100 New York City teachers could lose their jobs. Precise numbers are difficult to obtain, but close to 20,000 teachers in California were also notified early last year that they could lose their jobs.

In addition to making more money for themselves, high school graduates, on average, do more to bolster the economy

In perhaps the most controversial development, in February 2011, Providence, R.I., issued lay-off notices to every teacher—all 2,000 of them. Providence is facing a $100 million deficit, and because of a state law that requires that teachers be notified by March 1—well before the budget for the next fiscal year was finalized—all teaching positions were cut. In May, Providence rehired 1,445 of those laid-off teachers, but 25 percent of Providence public school teachers still lost their jobs

Teachers aren’t the only ones losing their jobs. In May 2011, lawyers conducted an interrogation (likened by some to an “inquisition”) of all school librarians in the Los Angeles Unified School District (the nation’s second-largest school system). The intent was to determine whether or not they should be considered “teachers”—with the understanding that librarians who weren’t “teachers” would lose their jobs.

The thing about education is that it’s not just an economic issue, nor is it just a political issue, nor is it an issue simply for children and parents. Education is the foundation for a country’s future. And, many times, education is the catalyst for breaking generational cycles of poverty, abuse, drug use and violence. Education, in short, is a justice issue that matters for everyone.

Pro-(School) Choice

It’s been said that bad neighborhoods produce bad schools. But it may also be true that bad schools produce bad neighborhoods. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the median income for a high school dropout (between the ages of 18 and 67) was $23,000 in 2008. The median income for those in the same age range with at least a high school diploma was approximately $42,000—nearly double.

In addition to making more money for themselves, high school graduates, on average, do more to bolster the economy. Because high school dropouts tend to have higher rates of criminal activity, a higher reliance on welfare and lower income tax contributions, the average high school dropout costs the economy nearly $250,000 over the course of his or her lifetime.

In 2001, in an attempt to combat high dropout rates, then-President George W. Bush proposed the No Child Left Behind Act (signed in 2002). No Child Left Behind sought to increase accountability for schools through standardized tests and measuring results in the form of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

In 2009, President Obama introduced Race to the Top, an initiative designed to prompt significant educational reform by forcing states to compete against one another to win sizable education grants from the government—with the largest grants going to the states that did the most to raise academic standards, improve teacher quality, enhance the lowest-achieving schools and expand charter school opportunities.

But are attempts to reform education from the Oval Office effective? Are such reforms making a difference?

In 2010, Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) released his newest documentary, Waiting for Superman, which received critical acclaim. The documentary follows five students who hope to win a lottery that will grant them admission to a charter school. Throughout the film, public schools are portrayed as a failed enterprise and charter schools glorified as the “Superman” capable of saving students—and, ultimately, the American education system.

The documentary is certainly moving. And few would argue with the suggestion that at least some public schools are failing to adequately educate students. But are charter schools really the solution?

The CREDO study, conducted by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond, measured progress in mathematics at 2,500 charter schools (half of all such schools in the U.S.) and found that only 17 percent were superior to a similar public school; 37 percent were worse than a similar public school. Forty-six percent of charter schools registered academic progress similar to public schools.

This year, more states have passed (or are considering) legislation to broaden the availability of school choice (state income tax breaks for private school education in Louisiana, three times as many educational vouchers in Ohio and a voucher program in Indiana that makes vouchers available to nearly half the state, to list a few developments).

Evan Nielsen, a former high school teacher and a survey specialist currently doing research on educational public policy, expresses concerns about the proliferation of charter schools.

“Obviously the documentaries [Waiting for “Superman” and The Lottery] want you to see that there is more demand than supply, and they want you to think this is part of the problem,” Nielsen says. “But the fact is that, in order to get into the charter school, somebody has to take action—whether it’s the parent or the child.”

Nielsen says this raises a large philosophical question in regards to the nature of public education.

“Charter schools fly in the face of the ‘neighborhood school’ situation where every child within certain attendance boundaries has a place at a certain school,” Nielsen says. “The whole issue of charter schools and ‘school choice’ gives the appearance of giving students options, but I think what’s talked about less is that it gives the school options.”

Charter schools may not be allowed to choose students based on criteria, but even by requiring students or their parents to sign up for a lottery for a chance to attend a charter school, over time, it could allow for the smarter, more ambitious students to separate themselves from their peers who don’t take the initiative to apply.

“The ways we seek to evaluate things have become increasingly quantitative instead of qualitative.”

—Evan Nielson

“I think this will increasingly have ramifications for a lot of what our country has stood for in terms of providing education to every student,” Nielsen says. “The spectrum of schools—both charter schools and regular—would suggest that the charter isn’t automatically going to be better, but the Davis Guggenheims of the world are painting an image of what public education should look like, and that could lead to a situation where the charter schools are better than regular public schools.

“Taking that argument—that charter schools provide a better education—to its logical conclusion, then we should continue to proliferate charter schools, and eventually the logical conclusion is that every public school should be a charter school,” he continues. “But if a kid doesn’t get into any of the schools, where does he go? Will there still be some school that has to take the kid? If we don’t have that, then public education in the United States has been fundamentally changed.”

Grading Teachers

Many are convinced teachers are the problem—or, more precisely, that bad teachers are the problem. But the powerful teachers’ union and tenure system—not to mention the difficulty in determining who the bad teachers are—make it difficult to clean house.

“I think everybody recognizes the tenure system can provide an opportunity for bad teachers to hide behind that protection, and I think unions need to be the ones to propose a serious alternative to that,” Nielsen says. “I’m not going to demonize teachers’ unions; I think they serve a function, but I do think they need to [take the lead] in finding a way to weed out the bad teachers.”

Currently an increasing number of people are calling for the overhaul of the tenure system for teachers—eradicating the “last in, first out” (or LIFO) model that, in the event of a workforce reduction, eliminates the newest teachers and protects those with the most seniority. More people are calling for a performance-based model that recognizes and rewards teachers for effective teaching.

In Florida, where Rizzo teaches, a new bill (Senate Bill 6) will make teachers’ salaries dependent upon their performance.

“Under the new plan, our pay will be merit-based—with 50 percent being based on our evaluations and 50 percent based on student performance on standardized tests,” Rizzo says. “This will go into effect in 2014, and everyone is up in arms about the governor signing it, but the thing is, I can see how someone might look at that bill and think: ‘OK, that makes sense. If the teachers are doing their job, then test scores should be going up.’ But anyone who has ever spent time teaching in a classroom understands that test scores don’t necessarily tell the whole story.”

The adoption of a performance-based model for teacher evaluations is useless unless there’s a way to police the teachers and school districts to make sure they aren’t altering test results to bolster their own evaluations (and paychecks). Reports are surfacing about school districts doing that very thing.

A recent investigation into the test results for public schools in Atlanta revealed systematic cheating. Eighty-two educators admitted to cheating (including correcting answers on students’ multiple choice tests) and another 178 teachers pled the Fifth Amendment.

As long as there are incentives for performance, Nielsen says we shouldn’t be surprised by these types of stories.

“When teachers are told, ‘Your performance rating or value is going to be based at least in part on how your students do on these tests,’ or if there’s a bonus that depends on [students’ performance], the incentive is there for the teachers to make it look like they did well—and [altering test scores] is one way to do it,” Nielsen says.

Ultimately, Nielsen believes too much emphasis is being placed on teachers.

“There’s only so much a teacher can do,” Nielsen says. “Great teachers can motivate students, but at the end of the day, the student is still the one who has to do the work, read the book or write the paper. I do think good teachers make a difference, but I don’t think the results of the students’ standardized tests should fall at the teachers’ feet.”

Nielsen believes better administrators could be the key to improving the education system.

“The ways we seek to evaluate things have become increasingly quantitative instead of qualitative,” Nielsen says. “Standardized tests are quantifiable—either right or wrong—and you can compare the results to a student across the state or across the country, so all of that lends itself to talking about things in big-picture terms, but it doesn’t really lend itself to talking about one individual teacher and saying, ‘Did that teacher really teach that student something about this subject?’

“I think principals need to spend more time observing their teachers,” he continues. “This would give them a better sense of what each teacher does. But even if we did it that way, the results wouldn’t be comparable, and that doesn’t jibe with how we assess things in the information age.”

Waiting for the Wrong Superman

While most will agree the education system needs reform, every proposed solution seems to have its contradictory equivalent.

The government needs to do more; the government is too involved. Schools need more federal funds; the government spends too much on education. Standardized tests help gauge teachers’ effectiveness; standardized tests limit teachers’ ability to teach effectively. We need to save teachers’ jobs; we need to remove bad teachers. We need to close “failing” schools; we need to offer incentives so good teachers will go into those schools.

Within these contradictory arguments, there is a consensus: The widespread concern for the future of the American education system reflects a unified desire for quality education.

But rather than pointing to all the things that are wrong—instead of focusing on what’s broken and waiting for others to fix it—why aren’t more people asking this question: “What can I do to help?”

Instead of picketing to protest legislative changes, instead of holding rallies on the steps of City Hall, why aren’t parents establishing study groups for students? Why aren’t churches offering free tutoring services at public libraries? Why aren’t volunteers offering to serve as teachers’ aides? Why aren’t communities trying to raise funds the old-fashioned way (bake sales and car washes, for example) to help reestablish programs that are being cut (arts, theater, choir)?

Do we really have faith that the solutions will come from Washington? From new legislation or more standardized tests? From contests that force states to alter their standards to conform with a template—all in the hopes of earning federal funding? From charter schools run as for-profit enterprises?

Maybe it’s time for everyone to stop waiting—to stop complaining—and start figuring out how to put on their own cape.

1 Comment

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Hesowedshesewed commented…

very interesting, thank you for these words- I am glad you have brought these items to my attention

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