Jan 20, 2014
The following article was excerpted from a presentation made in a public meeting in Detroit in November.
For the last 20 years, we have been repeatedly told our schools are in crisis and are failing the children, that too many children are practically illiterate and will be unable to get a job when they graduate.
The “solution” – pushed by the federal government under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama – is to get rid of the unions and teacher tenure so “bad teachers” can be fired; to “hold teachers accountable” through lots of high stakes testing; to have a “no excuses” doctrine of high expectations for all students, and last, to give parents of students who attend these terrible, failing neighborhood schools a choice by providing competition for the public schools – that is, charter schools.
It’s true that many school systems are failing the children. Most working class parents know their children receive an inadequate education.
And it’s absolutely necessary for schools to start with “high expectations” for every student. But in order for that to happen, we have to look at what prevents that today – what has really created this “crisis” in the schools.
First of all, money plays a very big role in education. Children who come from families where money is tight often arrive at school without the background needed to learn. Poverty and racism, which are the direct results of living in this class society, are the basic causes of educational illiteracy. Blaming, firing and replacing teachers will not make poverty go away!
There is an answer to that: organize the school systems so that a greater share of the resources go into the schools where the students are most in need.
The states do exactly the opposite – the most money goes to schools serving the children of the wealthy. And this outrage is getting worse. Today most states are starving the schools in the cities and rural areas where poverty is rampant. Here in Michigan, Governor Snyder has cut more than a billion dollars over the last two years, and is working to defund public schools of another 825 million dollars this year.
So-called “reformers” push charter schools – to give parents a so-called “choice.”
A little history: The first charter school started in Minnesota in 1991. Many of the early ones were run by universities, or were started up by a small group of innovative teachers. They seemed great; they appeared to foster real alternatives. But now, twenty years later, what do we see? 9,000 charters nationwide, with 90% of them now for profit, either directly or indirectly. Even in a so-called “non-profit,” you can see a fancy CEO overseeing small numbers of students, making $400,000 a year. Charter school chains are sprouting up everywhere like McDonalds.
In 20 years, Michigan’s charter schools grew from none, to holding nearly 9% of all students in the state! And the state continues to authorize even more. The governor says this is providing “choice.” In fact, a large majority of students were forced to go to the charters when their neighborhood schools were closed. They had no choice.
Charter schools are their own school district, with no elected school board, so there is no control over them. They don’t have to follow the state curriculum or rules established for the public schools. What laws there are can be ignored, because there’s little oversight. No curriculum means students can use a 6th grade textbook in a 9th grade class, if they use a textbook at all. More and more charters just park students in front of computers.
Study after study has revealed that, on average, the best charters are doing no better than their comparable neighborhood public schools. Charters are doing much worse – despite the fact that charters can “cherry-pick” their students, and many push out the so-called “troublemakers” or students with low test scores. Nonetheless, the politicians in both parties push the growth of charter schools.
Poor pay, minimal benefits and harder working conditions cause charters to have an average 20% teacher turnover rate; of course, in some schools it’s much higher. This is devastating to the youth who need stability and adults they can count on.
Who do these charter schools hire? Many times they are staffed exclusively or in the majority by young people fresh out of college, with just five weeks of teacher training, sent in by the so-called “Teach for America.”
Teach for America? It may have started out to assist public education by assigning young, idealistic college graduates to teach in high shortage areas like math and science in poverty-stricken inner cities. Though they were not trained at all as teachers, supposedly these young people were better than a new substitute teacher each day.
In fact, “Teach for America” was always a bad idea. If there weren’t enough trained teachers, money should have been put into recruiting them and training them – not into putting a poor imitation of a teacher in schools serving inner-city children!
It’s not only charters that use these untrained “TFAers.” States or mayors took control of “failing” inner city school boards all over the country, kicked out older unionized teachers and replaced them with non-union TFAers. They were used not to just fill vacant positions, but to replace laid-off union teachers in public schools.
TFA has grown so big and important, that in the bill to re-open the government during the shut-down, a clause was slipped in to extend the legal definition of five-week trained TFAers as “highly qualified” teachers.
TFA, along with the rest of so-called “education reform”, has been pushed and funded by some of the wealthiest right-wingers in the country, whose concern is anything but education.
The Koch Brothers, Sam Walton, Bill Gates and Michigan’s own DeVos family give billions of dollars of grant money to Teach for America, to charters or to school privatization legislation. Bill Gates alone threw two billion dollars into the push for TFA, more charters, high stakes testing, and no tenure.
One of the many ways the Koch Brothers use their enormous wealth is to try and buy school board and other elections all over the country. For example, they financed the recent governor’s election in Wisconsin, and supported four TFAers running in the last school election in Atlanta, Georgia, and in Denver, Seattle and many other cities.
But above all, their push has been for “high-stakes testing,” pretending that tests will be used to improve education for the children.
Tests have been pushed as a way to get rid of teachers who have tenure and to close schools, sending the children instead to charter schools – which, by the way, are not required to test in many states!
The result has been constant testing, and preparation for tests – to the exclusion of much else that provides real education. It benefits only the test companies and the test prep suppliers like Pearson & Rupert Murdoch. It harasses the teachers and traumatizes the youth.
For example, in Pittsburgh, there were 270 standardized tests given to K-12 students this past year. There are 33 required tests in 4th grade alone. New laws say no one is exempt from these tests, even Special Ed or English as a Second Language students. Obama’s “Race to the Top” says even kindergartners must be tested to see if they’re on their way to becoming “college ready.”
Of course test scores are lower in high poverty areas. But to pretend that coaching children how to take the tests will give them an education is a lie.
Look at what the reformers do when they do give tests. To raise scores in an area plagued by parents working two jobs, homelessness, violence, drugs, alcohol and all the killing effects of poverty, one of the big charter chains called Klein is using behavioral psychology to raise test scores. If a student does not do their homework, for example, they are publicly ridiculed and made to stand through lunch. Children are bullied, humiliated, beaten down, and pushed out if they don’t perform. This national trend is aptly called nothing more than a school-to-prison pipeline.
All over the country, students are told they must miss recess or music class to make up for their low achievement on certain tests. Schools cancel elective classes to mandate two hours of math and two hours of English, the only scores which “count.” But this is junk science.
It’s well known that children’s minds retain knowledge better if the student has physical outlets such as recess or gym, and that children are more engaged if offered music and art.
But all this is being tossed aside in the new high-stakes testing regime.
Detroit’s new EAA (Education Achievement Authority) was set up for 15 schools that were graded as persistently failing, based on the tests.
Despite widespread poverty, despite the state’s starvation tactics, despite a lack of adequate resources and supplies, schools that actually taught and offered hope to youth still had managed to survive. In one old-fashioned neighborhood public high school, Detroit’s poor young people had a national award winning chess team, a robotics program, partnerships with two universities, a drama club, an award winning choir and dance team, a band, sports teams, AP and honor classes, and provided a safe environment. Millions of dollars in college scholarships were awarded to students from this school. Students came from other neighborhoods because of the school’s reputation. Yet a large percentage of its students could not achieve the state defined “pass” score on the Michigan Merit Exam. Year after year, the school was given an F grade! It was called “persistently low achieving.” Its innovative principal was forced to resign. Twice, half of the teachers were fired, and teachers who were fired at other so-called “failing” schools were shifted over into it. Programs were in disarray. Finally all the teachers were fired. This school, along with 14 others, was given to the EAA.
Today, it is staffed by the inexperienced TFAers, the programs are gone, and students sit behind a computer to learn. This is criminal!
Thousands of schools just like it all over the country have been closed in the name of “reform.”
The reformers have wrecked the hopes of city youth, in order to give contracts to their friends. If we want real reform, we must fight this killing starvation of public education. If we want real reform, we must fight for more funding, more resources to provide smaller class sizes, more elective programs to enrich learning, less testing, and extensive early childhood education. And no excuses!
How can you say there are failing students when society has failed them? How can we accept to put up with a society where over half of our young people live in poverty, and it’s getting worse every day? How can we accept the school-to-prison pipeline? How can we allow only a minority to get access to a real education and a hope of a future?
We say this is “the rape of public education.” The rapists say the victims brought it on themselves. We say these criminals are destroying our very lives. We need to destroy their plans for us.