Education reform?

America’s schools are in serious decline, are indeed close to a state of emergency.  Serious reform efforts need to be implemented, soon as possible, privatizing schools, expanding charter schools, and firing teachers (ridding ourselves of the albatross of teacher tenure, and deep-sixing those pesky teachers’ unions).  And we need everyone everywhere to teach the same basic Common Core curriculum.  And to add multiple layers of accountability, and to identify the worst schools and teachers and districts and states (so they can be safely euthanized) we need to test test test test test test test.

Any of that sound familiar?  Because let’s be blunt–there’s no evidence for any of it.  The entire paragraph above is complete bollocks, utter balderdash.  Public education in the United States is NOT failing, is NOT in a state of crisis, is NOT in desperate need of reform.  Of course there are problems with public education.  But the proposed reforms will make things worse, not better.  Are there failing schools?  Yes.  But all the evidence–all of it–points to family poverty as the single best predictor for educational underachievement.  We do NOT have a education crisis in our country.  We do have a poverty crisis, and poverty hurts kids more than any other factor.

This is also not a partisan problem.  No Child Left Behind was a Republican reform program, championed by President Bush.  It misidentified the problem, and proposed a draconian and unworkable solution.  But President Obama’s Race to the Top is as spectacular a failure.  I have a good friend, a Republican and a dedicated veteran teacher, who loathes the Common Core curriculum proposal.  I’ve read his eloquent writings on the subject, and agree with him entirely.

But mostly, I’ve been reading Diane Ravitch. You remember her, right? Worked in President Bush’s Education Department, implementing NCLB. A Republican.  She’s got a new book out, and it rocks. I’ve also been reading Sean Reardon.  And Joanne Barkan.  But back to Ravitch; read Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. It’s Ravitch’s new book, a scathing attack on education reformers and privatizers, with breath-takingly simple and effective proposals for how we can actually fix the real, genuine problems in public education.  Here’s Ravitch on what she thinks public education should be:

Pregnant women should see a doctor early in their pregnancies, and have regular care and good nutrition.

What?  What does that have to do with education reform?  Very simple: poor pregnant women who do not receive proper medical care are much more likely to have children with developmental difficulties. The link is, always, between poverty and education achievement.  And, let’s face it, the basic equality of opportunity that is the essence of the American dream.

Children need prekindergarten classes that teach them how to socialize with others, how to listen and learn, how to communicate well. . . . while engaging in the joyful pursuit of play and learning that . . . builds their background knowledge and vocabulary.


Children in the early elementary grades need teachers who set age-appropriate goals.  They should learn to read, write, calculate and explore nature, and they should have plenty of time to sing and dance and draw and play and giggle.  Classes in those grades should be small enough (less than twenty) so that students get the individual attention they deserve.  Testing should be used sparingly, diagostically, to see what kids are learning . . . (and) test scores should be a private matter, shared with parents only, not shared with district or state.

None of this seems remotely impossible.  If the federal government genuinely wants to get involved in education, how ’bout this: a federal law mandating class sizes of 18 or fewer kids, K-6, with block grants for districts who need help meeting the standard.  Done.

This next bit is my favorite.  It’s long, but read the whole thing:

As students enter the upper elementary grades and middle school and high school, they should have a balanced curriculum that includes not only reading, writing and mathematics, but the sciences, literature, history, geography, civics and foreign languages.  Their school should have a rich arts program, where students learn to sing, dance, play an instrument, join an orchestra, band, choir, perform in a play, sculpt, or use technology to design structures, conduct research, or create artworks.  Every student should have time for physical education every day.  Every school should have a library, with librarians and media specialists.  Every school should have a nurse, a psychologist, a guidance counselor and a social worker.  And every school should have after school programs. . . . And teachers should write their own tests, and use standarized tests sparingly, and only for diagnostic purposes.  Classes should be small enough so that teachers know their students.

That was my high school.  It describes my junior high school as well.  Aside from all the standardized testing nonsense, it basically describes the high school and junior high schools my kids attended. This is not some kind of unrealistic pipe dream. It’s completely achievable.  We just have to decide to do it.

But first of all, let’s take a big ol’ fan and turn it on and blow away all the smokescreens that privatizing education reformers keep clouding the air with.  American public education has NOT failed. Indeed, it’s performing quite heroically, given the real barrier that poverty erects to educational achievement. A recent article on lays out the evidence.  Poverty is the problem.  Income inequality is the problem.

We want to believe that we live in a country where it’s possible for poor people to achieve, where effort and determination and will and talent can make it possible for people from even the most deprived backgrounds to succeed.  And to some extent that’s true.  We can always point to, like, Jay-Z or someone, and there’s that potent American narrative.  “See, he came from a poor inner-city family, and he’s now a billionaire.”  (In the case of Jay-Z, that narrative is complicated by him bankrolling his first rap album by dealing crack.)  But in fact, our society has erected massive barriers to achievement by the disadvantaged.  And the first, and most formidable, of those barriers are failing schools.  And by ‘failing’ I mean, schools with inadequate resources, schools with too large class sizes and not enough books and not enough desks and no playgrounds.  And teachers who have to teach to the test or they’ll lose their jobs. So teaching is supplanted by rote memorization.

So look to Finland.  Best schools in the world.  How do they do it?  By acting sensibly.  By paying teachers enough to attract capable people to the profession.  By allowing teachers to set the curriculum, and trusting them to just teach.  By mandating small class sizes.  And forget standardized testing, and draconian consequences to schools where the kids don’t rote-memorize up to some arbitrary standard.

Above all, by not insisting on privatizing, or ‘introducing competition to failing schools,’ or allowing charter schools to proliferate, or insisting that market forces can improve education.  Or firing teachers.  Or attacking teachers’ unions.

Let’s look openly and honestly at what’s really going on in this country.  Let’s admit that the American dream is more fantasy than reality anymore.  Let’s give poor people a hand up.  Let’s tax rich people more to pay for it.  Income inequality is not just a slogan on a poster at Occupy Wall Street protests.  It’s real, and it’s hurting poor people.  There are real things that we can do (that GOVERNMENT) can do to help.  Like paid maternity leave, and child-care subsidies, and Obamacare, and expanded Pell grants and block grants to public education and expanded small business loans.  Above all, let’s stop pretending that education is in a state of crisis, and that privatizing reforms are the answer.  Let’s tell the truth for once.  We need more teachers and we need to pay them better.  And free them to teach.  Let’s start there.



4 thoughts on “Education reform?

  1. Carrie Ann

    I agree with helping people out of poverty. Parents who make enough money to feed their family have more time to actually take care of them. However,I use common core every day and it is brilliant,especially combined with standards based grading. We are able to see exactly what the kids know,and what needs to be done to help them catch up. I know that wasn’t the point of your post, but I do love common core, and thought I’d add my two cents.:)

  2. juliathepoet

    Carrie Ann- I have at least a dozen friends who are mandated to use Common Core. Some love it, more OC them hate it, and a few try to ignore it as much as possible. I think that programs like Common Core have a place, and if they fit a teacher’s style of teaching, that is wonderful. What worries me is that there are lots of other wonderful programs that would work better for teachers with different teaching styles and personalities, and right now it is rare to find schools that give the teachers choices in what they teach and how they teach it. That is why I think the point about *trusting teachers* is so important. Of course, there will be some teachers who learn they are not cut out for teaching, or who don’t connect to students, but that will be true whether they are teaching Core Curriculum or not. I have seen, in the kast few years, a much higher rate of teachers who are relatively new to the profession, driven out because the curriculum gets in the ways of them connecting to their students, and i think that we would not see that quite as often, if teachers are allowed to teach in ways that engage them.

  3. Blaine Sundrud

    Some people say you can’t throw money at a problem and fix it, but in this case, it would make a huge difference. After college, I went on to pursue my dream of teaching. I taught high school to some amazing underprivileged kids in Arizona, and I feel I made a difference in their lives.

    And after two years, I was bankrupt. I couldn’t afford to keep my 720 square foot home, pay my student loans and cover the medical costs of my two children.

    I took on second and third jobs around the school, even running the scoreboard during JV football games. I went to the superintendent and he agreed that I was worth a lot more than I was getting paid, but he couldn’t pay me “one more nickel.”

    I had no other financial choice but to leave town and start working in the “for profit” world. My first job, shilling for OfficeMax paid 3 times what I was making as a professional teacher. Even though I felt I had sold my dreams for 30 pieces of silver, at least my girl could keep seeing her doctor.

    My point: teacher salaries matter in very real ways. I ache inside every time some politician claims they are “family oriented” then refuses to fund the education systems that truly could help. If you want the best teachers, you have to pay for them.

  4. Marvin Payne

    As far as my limited understanding of the situation allows me to do, I agree vigorously with what Eric has written, particularly about teachers’ pay, teachers’ discretion, and class size. However, it appeared to me that “proliferation of charter schools” was kind of casually thrown into the “fake solutions” list. The couple of charter schools I know something about seem to be trying to bring to the kids the solutions (bar family income) that Eric is asking for.

    As per funding, I’m embarrassed to live among people who revolt at the idea of federal funding, with all its diabolical strings attached, but refuse properly to fund their own schools with increased local taxes. I think that cheerfully paying a whole lot more local money for more (and much better paid) teachers in smaller classes and for more arts programs administered by genuinely qualified people may effectively test the conservative idea of a rising economy floating all boats. I’d like to see the “freedom isn’t free” notion actually play out as more than a clunky song lyric.


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