As most of you have heard, 350,000 children enrolled in Chicago Public Schools are not in school today. Talks broke down between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools over the weekend and Chicago Teachers Union officials made the decision to go on strike. It does not appear that the major points of difference between the Union and the school district are salary or working conditions. Instead, the major sticking points seem to surround issues of maintaining current health benefits, teacher evaluation, teacher performance, and teacher accountability.
As we start 2012 I propose that we all make the resolution that we begin to be honest with ourselves, and with our children, about education in America. For too long we have led ourselves and our children to believe untruths about schools, teachers, and our systems of public education. This ends for me today. For I believe the only way to move toward fixing our education uglies is to expose them. In that vein, I begin today with a exposing a few lies that we have continued to tell our ourselves and our children about education. Here are a few to get us started:
Lie #1: Schools are all about children.
The Truth: Schools are about money and adults too.
It is true that if there were no children there would be no schools. It is true that children are at the heart of many of the decisions we make in and about schools. But it is also true that P-12 education is a multi-billion dollar enterprise in every state. Thousands of adults in every state are public school employees and state public school systems spend millions of dollars every year on contracts with vendors. All this is to say that schools are also the places where lots of adults work, and many of the decisions we make in and about schools are based not on what is best for children, but on what is most convenient for adults. Whether you want to call this truth good, bad, or ugly, it remains the truth.
Is there any way around this? Would it be reasonable to say that we can get to the point where all decisions in schools are made strictly on the basis of what is best for student learning? Probably not. But it is reasonable to set the goal that children’s learning will become our top priority when making decisions. It is reasonable to say that if a decision comes down to two choices: one option being better for student learning, and the other option being easier/more convenient/more lucrative for policy makers/school leaders/teachers, the clear choice would be the option that is best for student learning. We are not currently at that place.
Lie #2: We believe all children deserve a quality education.
The Truth: We do not.
This one is a pretty obvious fabrication. If it were true we would not continue to provide lesser quality education to students based on their socioeconomic background/neighborhood. The vast majority of children in the US who live in more affluent neighborhoods have a higher quality educational experience than children who live in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. Children in lower income neighborhoods typically attend schools with poorer quality facilities, teachers who are less able to meet their needs, and lesser quality instructional and technological resources. Many factors contribute to this reality. A few of these factors are many teachers’ preference to not teach in predominantly low income and minority schools, teacher preparation programs failing to prepare aspiring teachers to meet the needs of low income and minority students, a failure to attract candidates into the teacher profession who would serve low income and minority students well, differential school funding, and outright neglect of resources in schools that serve predominantly low income and minority students.
Lie #3: All teachers are good teachers.
The Truth: Some teachers are completely ineffective.
The claim that all teachers are effective or even that all teachers have the potential to be effective is ridiculous and is an insult to the teaching profession. High-quality teachers are highly-skilled professionials with a mastery of both the academic content that they teach and the pedagogical skill necessary to effectively deliver that content to students. It is insulting to the profession to assume not only that anyone could do this, but that anyone could do this well. Many of our current crop of teachers are not effective teachers. Some of them have no desire to become effective teachers. These teachers should be relieved of their classroom duties immediately.
Lie #4: People become teachers because they love children.
The Truth: Some teachers/principals do it for the money.
I believe that the majority of educators went into the field because they care about children, but I know very well that this is not the case for a significant minority of educators. Contrary to popular belief, public school teaching is not the worst paying job in town. Some people actually do become educators for the money. The stability and benefits that come along with the profession are attractive to some people as well. Also, it might be a little less than pleasant for the general public to find out the number of teachers that majored in education because it was easier to get into and keep a job than the field they would prefer to be in.
What about the principalship? Well, some principals make really good money (really good)! That is attractive to some educators whether they believe they would be effective at the job or not. Higher education institutions have exacerbated this problem as many education administration graduate degree programs have become diploma mills, recommending principal certification to the state for any living breathing human being who pays two years worth of tuition. Worse still, some teachers go into school administration in an effort to work less directly with children.
Please join me in telling the truth about education in 2012. Being honest about our shortcomings in education is the necessary first step toward making things better, and I really want things to get better. Our children’s future depends on it.
Happy New Year!
A common question that I get from Kentuckians about public charter schools is this: What if they don’t work? I think that’s a fair question and one which any concerned parent and citizen should have of an education reform. Here is the answer:
In exchange for the increased autonomy or independence that charter schools receive they are held to high accountability standards. Does this mean that every charter school works? No, they do not all work. The benefit of the charter school, however, is that if it does not work we can close it down. That is a new breed of school accountability. If the school doesn’t work, we close it. This is why getting good charter school legislation in Kentucky is so important. With Kentucky being one of the last states to consider adopting charter school legislation we can learn from some of errors that lawmakers in other states have made with drafting charter school laws. For Kentucky, we want a charter school law that has a high threshold; meaning applicants wanting to open charter schools will have to meet a rigorous standard before being granted a charter. We also want the law written so that charter schools that fail to meet their agreed upon expectations will be shut down with minimal difficulty. In addition to this outcomes-based accountability that comes with charter schools, any parent that is unhappy with the charter school that their child attends simply takes the child out of the charter school and sends him/her to another school. That’s consumer accountability (Lewis & Fusarelli, 2010).
Let’s imagine just for a second if all public schools had to meet this kind of standard; accountability for student outcomes and direct accountability to stakeholders. Any schools that doesn’t perform and doesn’t give parents what they are looking for would be forced to close. That sounds ideal for me. But that’s a far cry from what we have with the current system. Instead, what is much more often the case is it doesn’t matter if parents are pleased with the school or not or if the school is performing at acceptable levels or not, we will force kids to go to the school and not provide parents with additional public school options. That scenario would be hard to believe in the United States of America if we didn’t all know that it is what happens in many of our school districts in Kentucky today. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We get to write the next chapter of our Kentucky education story.
Lewis, W. D., & Fusarelli, L. D. (2010). Leading schools in an era of change: Toward a new culture of accountability. In S. D. Horsford (Ed.), New perspectives on educational leadership: Exploring social, political, and community contexts and meanings (pp. 111-126). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Kentucky’s state commissioner of education Terry Holiday announced
recently that he plans to request a waiver from the US Department of
Education that would allow Kentucky to drop the adequate yearly progress
(AYP) requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind
law- NCLB. Under NCLB schools must meet yearly goals for the percentage of
students that score at the proficient level on state standardized
examinations. For schools to “make AYP” they must meet these proficiency
targets for the entire school population as well as for subgroups of
students including African Americans, whites, Hispanics, ESL, special
education, free/reduced lunch, etc. These targets get markedly higher
from year to year as we approach the 2014 NCLB goal of having every
student at the proficient-level in reading/language arts and
Because these targets get higher and higher every year, schools find it
harder and harder to reach them, resulting in increased numbers of
schools every year that do not “make AYP” and are labeled as “failing
schools.” I am sure that Kentucky will not be alone in requesting an
exemption from the AYP requirement, and my guess is that US Department
of Education will grant states some type of waiver from the requirement.
AYP will have to be revamped entirely if not totally abandoned with the
coming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
(ESEA). There is little disagreement that the current system is a flawed
one. The goal of having every student proficient in reading/language
arts and mathematics is a laudable but lofty one, and the wisdom
labeling a school as a failing one because every student has not met the
proficiency standard is debatable.
With that said, I believe NCLB through AYP has made a positive
contribution to how we conceptualize school accountability. No more are
the days that a school which does not tend to the learning needs of all
of its students can be considered a good one. I believe we owe much of
that change in our collective consciousness to NCLB and AYP. My hope is
that we will be able to salvage this and other positive contributions
that NCLB has made to our thinking about accountability and move ahead
with new, innovative models of accountability. States like Kentucky are
preparing to push the envelope on school accountability, and I expect
that the innovative efforts of our states will lead the nation into a
new paradigm of school accountability.
The goal of market-style accountability is to improve student achievement by increasing the level of competition between schools. In this context, “good schools” demonstrate their worth by attracting students and maintaining sizeable enrollments, while “bad schools” are held accountable by parents who remove their children from the school. What parents deem to be “good” and “bad” schools is highly subjective, and can vary substantially. But for advocates of this type of system, that’s irrelevant. All that really matters, they argue, is that the educational consumer (parent/student) is happy. Public schools become much like private schools. Private schools determine their own goals, standards, and methods, and must satisfy their consumers if they are to stay open.
The pressure of having to compete for students requires that school leaders adopt a markedly different approach to school leadership than in traditional bureaucratic systems or even in performance-based accountability systems. According to Leithwood (2001), school leaders faced with the pressure to compete for students must continually “recreate their schools as marketable products” (p. 227). It appears that for some urban school leaders, however, in addition to ensuring that schools are marketable, competition with charter schools forces them to aggressively market themselves. Many school choice advocates contend that if traditional public schools were good enough, their outcomes would do the marketing for them; but this may or may not be true. Research has shown that parents choose schools for their children for many different reasons, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with student achievement. So could it be that these urban districts are forced into launching marketing campaigns in order to remain viable?
If so, that scenario raises a host of concerns. First and most fundamental is the question which underlies much of the school choice debate: should traditional public schools have to compete for students in the first place? There no argument against public charter schools having to compete for students. The element of parental choice is fundamental to charter schools. But in systems where charter schools are able to pull large numbers of students away from traditional public schools, traditional public schools are forced to compete for survival in a similar vein to the charters. Additionally, there are questions about the appropriateness of spending significant amounts of public monies on marketing campaigns when urban districts clearly have other areas of need. So here’s my question (just to get you thinking): are school choice policies putting traditional public school leaders into situations where competition forces them to improve, or do these policies force traditional public school leaders into no-win situations where curriculum and instruction dollars go to marketing campaigns rather than decreasing class size or providing additional instructional aides?
What do you think?
Leithwood, K. (2001). School leadership in the context of accountability policies. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 4(3), 217-235.
Simon, S. (2009, August 17). Hard-hit schools try public-relations push. Wall Street Journal Online, http://online.wsj.com