Education Moves Depending On Your Ignorance

Nov 18, 2011 by

It keeps needing to be said, because people tend to be willfully ignorant when it comes to elementary and secondary education (Oh, the irony there.). It is most likely because education in this country is both valued and pooh-poohed, a tug-of-war of books and experience, of stark contrasts with nothing in-between. Anyone who’s dealt with kids knows that this completely ignores the way their gray matter works…and most kids are bright enough to see that we adults  pay a lot of lip service to education without backing up our words with true, thoughtful action.

Our latest education version of all talk and no walk has seriously ramped up in momentum in the past 20 years or so, coincidentally about the time when major class disparities in incomes began to ramp up, too. As a result, we have folks like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg thinking they know what’s best for the kids without ever having spent time with an entire class of them. Previous efforts to try and reform education have never been backed by so much money and, consequently, so many people willing to treat teachers, kids, and parents as pawns in the curious shell game known as the charterization of schools…and because things have been so far gone in public education for so long, anything at all looks like a good tether to keep it from falling into the abyss. Why ask why? Everything’s okay behind these charter school curtains, folks. Nothing to see.

Well, there are still a few bugs here and there, particularly in the largest contributor to the current crop of public ed teachers, Teach For America:

Though the change happened so gradually, I hardly noticed it, TFA is now completely different than it was when I joined. I still believe in the original mission of TFA as much as anyone possibly can. The problem is, in my opinion, that TFA has become one of the biggest obstacles in achieving that mission.

TFA has highlighted their few successes so much that many politicians actually believe that first year TFA teachers are effective. They believe that there are lazy veteran teachers who are not ‘accountable’ to their students and who are making a lot of money so we’re better off firing those older teachers and replacing them with these young go-getters.

Some TFA alums have become leaders of school systems in various cities and states. In New York City, several of the deputy chancellors are from TFA. I already mentioned ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee who now runs StudentsFirst. John White runs the Recovery District in New Orleans. Kevin Huffman, former TFA public relations VP, is the state commissioner of Tennessee. TFA likes to point to these leaders as the true effect of TFA. Even if they haven’t really fixed the training model much and the first years are pretty awful teachers, and even if those first year teachers aren’t ‘needed’ anymore to fill any teacher shortages, it doesn’t matter since as long as a fraction of them become these ‘leaders’ TFA will have a positive impact in a big way on the education landscape.

Which sounds great except these leaders are some of the most destructive forces in public education. They seem to love nothing more than labeling schools as ‘failing,’ shutting them down, and blaming the supposed failure on the veteran teachers. The buildings of the closed schools are taken over by charter networks, often with leaders who were TFA alums and who get salaries of $200,000 or more to run a few schools.

Rather than be honest about both their successes and their failures, they deny any failures, and charge forward with an agenda that has not worked and will never work. Their ‘proof’ consists of a few high-performing charters. These charters are unwilling to release the data that proves that they succeed by booting the ‘worst’ kids — the ones that bring down their test scores. Seethis recent peer reviewed research paper from Berkely about KIPPs attrition.

TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed.  The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’

They say things like ‘Poverty is not destiny,’ which is true if they’re saying that it is possible for some to overcome it, but not true if they are saying that teachers, alone — and untrained teachers, at that — have the power to do this.

And the very worst thing that the TFA alum turned into education ‘reformers’ advocate is strong ‘accountability’ by measuring a teacher’s ‘value added’ through standardized test scores. It might be hard for someone who is not a teacher yet to believe that this is not a cop out by lazy teachers. The fact is that even the companies that do the measurements say that these calculations are very inaccurate. Over a third of the time, they misidentify effective teachers as ineffective and vice versa, in certain models. ‘Value added’ is in it’s infancy, and certainly not ready to be rolled out yet. But ALL the TFA reformers I’ve followed are strong supporters of this kind of evaluation.

So TFA has participated in building a group of ‘leaders’ who, in my opinion, are assisting in the destruction of public education. If this continues, there will soon be, again, a large shortage of teachers as nobody in their right mind would enter this profession for the long haul knowing they can be fired because of an inaccurate evaluation process. And then, of course, TFA can grow more since they will be needed to fill those shortages that the leaders they supported caused.

Fact is, there’s an important runoff election coming tomorrow. One of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education candidates prides herself on being one of these TFA “leaders” and is relying heavily on the out-of-town funding of her campaign and the power of her backers to get her on the board rather than her connections to the community, which are downright hostile in some circles – being busted over misrepresenting your voting record will do that. Add in Kira Orange-Jones’ conspicuous absences from debates with the District 2 incumbent Louella Givens and you have a campaign built on the all-too-real gamble that voters will stay willfully ignorant as to what this election is really about: Bobby Jindal’s wish to streamline the approval of John White as state superintendent (despite his lack of experience) and then smooth the way for statewide charterization.

We can’t do anything about the BESE elections in other districts with runoffs in this state, but we can be better informed about what we’re getting into when we go in the voting booths here in New Orleans. So much has already been shoved down our throats here in the name of education reform. Let’s check some labels this time to verify what kind of reform it is that we’re being served.


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