The Seattle teacher’s union just negotiated its labor contract with the district. In the middle of August, during contract negotiations, I got a letter from a teacher that raised all sorts of red flags for me. The district superintendent had just introduced a proposal that would a) base teacher evaluations on the results of standardized tests given to students; and b) give her broad powers to lay off teachers. Once I started looking into it, I learned that this proposal was part of a national push for some dangerous education reforms. The reforms are an attempt to:
- Weaken teacher’s unions
- Replace schools that failed under NCLB with charter schools;
- Staff those charter schools with inexperienced teachers; and
- Expand standardized testing and “teaching to the test”
Although the superintendent’s proposal was weakened in the final contract, I remain concerned about the future of education in Seattle and nationwide. The reforms are coming quickly, and most people are not well informed.
I’ve been looking for ways to frame this conversation when talking to other parents, which is especially difficult because many parents and teachers did ask for some of the reforms in the teacher’s contract, and some of those reforms are an attempt to solve longstanding educational inequalities of race and class.
However, as the PR gets going for education reform, it is becoming easier to see and discuss the big picture. The September 20th issue of Time Magazine has two articles in support of these two reforms. They’re part of the national PR effort for education reform. Read uncritically, they paint a rosy picture. But we can read them critically to expose their lies; to see the hidden reform agenda; and inform ourselves about the dangers of this reform.
Lies About Charter Schools
The first article, “How to Fix Our Schools,” argues for charter schools. It begins with an announcement of a movie, “Waiting for Superman,” which depicts failing public schools and successful charter schools. It then goes on to state in big, bold numbers in a graphic that 17% of charter
schools significantly outperform traditional public schools (p.38). But it buries the proof that charter schools on the whole do worse than traditional public schools. The article states, “But only 1 in 6 charter schools significantly outperforms traditional counterparts. And more than a third underperform.” This means that twice as many charter schools (2/6 vs. 1/6) underperform as overperform.
This is lying by burying statistics.
It’s true that some students leave schools with poor student test scores to attend schools with high student test scores. Leaving aside the problem that student test scores completely leave out the social/emotional development of our children, there is also the problem that a greater number of students attend poor charter schools than quality ones. The scenario depicted in Waiting For Superman, therefore, is essentially an emotional appeal. The final paragraph of the article builds on the emotional impact of the movie, by describing scenes in which “mothers weep and children cross their fingers in hopes of a desperate future,” and quotes an education reformer in saying “The rawness of the emotions of the parents gets to me – that unbelievable, desperate hope” (42).
This is lying by appealing to emotions rather than facts.
Lies about TFA Teachers
The next article, “How to Recruit Better Teachers,” makes an extremely sneaky argument for staffing “the toughest classrooms” with inexperienced teachers. It starts out with “beloved teachers” who “came to the profession after holding other jobs first.” So far so good. But the next paragraph subtly links these beloved teachers to poorly trained teachers. “It has never been easier for nonteachers to become public-school teachers, sometimes with just a few weeks of training” (p.46).
The next page talks about Teach for America (TFA), a program that places teachers in schools after a few weeks of training, and subtly links them to Ivy League graduates by saying that TFA got “a crush of applications from Ivy League and other elite applicants.” It does not say which percentage of TFA applicants came from Ivy League schools. It says that only 12% of 46,000 were accepted, which implies that a large number these 12% were largely Ivy League applicants. Again, though, it doesn’t state the percentages.
This is lying by implication.
The hidden truth is that 5520 applicants were accepted. This means that TFA expects that 5520 positions will be opening up around the nation. The Seattle Foundation is seeking grants for 150 TFA teachers in the Puget Sound area. How is this possible, given that state law doesn’t allow for this type of teacher? One possibility is that education reformers will be pushing for changes to state law.
Buried in the article is the reason why TFA will harm our classrooms. It gives an example of a first-year TFA teacher who couldn’t handle the discipline problems in the classroom and says, “This is a big problem with program like TNTP and TFA: they require a commitment of just one and two years” and “participants often spend the entire first year learning their jobs. A vocal minority of TFA veterans have complained that the program does little good for the students who must endure their inexperience” (p. 50).
This is lying by burying information.
How does Time propose to solve this problem? It goes on to describe a program called the Boston Teacher Residency, which requires a four-year commitment and a master’s degree in education. “Boston teacher residents spend that first awful year working with an experienced teacher, one who helps them learn the craft. The residents are in classrooms from Day One but never alone as most participants in the alterna-programs are.”
This is an argument against TFA programs that, however, lends credence to the idea that some alternative teacher certification programs are of high quality.
This is lying by association.
Having made the argument against TFA programs, it then presents a distracting argument about retiring baby boomers. “But half the nation’s 3.2 million teachers are baby boomers. They are retiring in droves.” Is this really why we need TFA teachers, or is it something else? The article goes on to say, “So until teaching becomes a more attractive long-term option, we’ll need both paid volunteers and professionals.” By using the word “so,” the article ties the need for TFA teachers to the retirement of baby boomers, but hides the fact that teaching is not an attractive long-term option.
This is hiding a lie in plain sight.
The final sentence returns to the implication that TFA teachers are from the Ivy Leagues and makes an emotional appeal to the readers. “How bad can it be that thousands if Ivy Leaguers, though inexperienced, want to help fill the void?”
This is lying by appealing to emotions.
Teacher Layoffs and Firings
The Time Magazine article has lied by implying we need TFA teachers because of retiring baby boomers is a lie. Why, then, do we anticipate a sudden need to staff 5520 classrooms with TFA teachers?
The answer is that other education reforms are making it easier to fire and lay off teachers. In July the superintendent of Washington D.C., Michelle Rhee, dismissed 127 teachers threatened to fire 737 more (p. 42). She used an evaluation that included “data about how much their students’ scores have improved compared with those of other kids performing at similar levels” (p. 42). That is, she used the results of standardized tests given to students as the basis of her layoffs.
The Seattle superintendent Goodloe-Johnson was planning to do the same thing – the proposal she introduced into the teacher’s contract gave her broad powers to lay off teachers based partly on the results of standardized tests given to students. Fortunately, concerted effort on the part of teachers and parents weakened her proposal considerably.
But if it’s happening in Seattle, where else is it happening?
Reform is Happening Quickly – But We Can Have an Impact
There is a concerted effort to make these “reforms” happen quickly. As Ripley writes, “The pace of change is, relatively speaking, breathtaking” (34).The movie Waiting for Superman, this article, and other PR efforts are meant to build popular support for “reforms” that have not been approved by teachers, parents, or students.
Some amount of education reform is unavoidable.
But, as teachers and parents have proven in Seattle and elsewhere, some of it can be stopped by concerted local efforts. We need to be closely monitoring our school districts and state legislators, educating one another, giving teachers our support, and making our voices heard.