Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Michigan's Education Coup Attempt

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
On November 6, Michigan voters repealed Public Act 4, allowing Detroit school board to reclaim control over 15 “failing” local schools from the short-lived Education Achievement Authority. Within days of the election, GOP lawmakers introduced a bill into the Michigan House to codify the EAA into state law, in an attempt to nullify the November election results.

Advocates for the EAA argue that “real” education reform takes five to seven years to show success, according to the Detroit News, and thus the EAA should be allowed to continue, despite voters’ wishes. In reality, there is no consensus about what “real” reform even means, let alone any evidence that reforms share a five to seven year timeframe. Nevertheless, if the EAA were allowed to continue its control over these schools, we would likely never know if they “improved,” since the new legislation would exempt EAA students from the state exams that are used to compare schools and judge their success.

The EAA was a corporate coup that usurped local control of 15 Detroit schools from parents and the community and handed it over to an unaccountable cabal of business leaders. The new legislation not only keeps the schools out of the jurisdiction of Detroit Public Schools, it also allows the EAA to work outside the authority of the state superintendent and elected state school board. It would also be permitted to take over hundreds of other low performing schools throughout the state, as well as many that are not low performing, potentially making the EAA the largest school district in the state.

The EAA was never really about improving educational outcomes for low income students, as proponents have argued. Rather, it is about transferring tax dollars into the hands of private education profiteers. The agency was described by its chancellor, John Covington, as a “public body corporate,” according to an article in Counter Punch, which describes the EAA as a “for-profit” vulture seeking to take over financial control of the 50,000-student, predominantly poor and black school district. The EAA was created in 2011 as a joint venture between Eastern Michigan University’s board of regents and DPS, with the support of Gov. Rick Snyder, who hired a former GM executive to manage it. (It should be pointed out that soon after Covington left his former district, Kansas City, the district lost its accreditation). 

The EAA funnels public funds into the hands of private corporations by outsourcing many of its education services, including food concessions and maintenance. It can also profit by leasing or selling unused school buildings to private charter schools. The curriculum is heavily based on canned computer lessons purchased from Agilix and School Improvement Network, the Huffington Post reports. Each child gets an individualized learning plan ostensibly tailored to his or her needs. However, these plans are tied to the computer lessons, which students must master before advancing to the next level. Thus students are tied to their computers and the digital curriculum, while the companies that produce the curriculum are guaranteed long-term customers.

Supporters argue that the curriculum and pedagogy are “student-centered,” which is a catchy edu-babble way of saying it is superior to other pedagogies. One EAA teacher even invoked Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, suggesting that the EAA digital curriculum was a positive move away from the didactic, “banking” model of traditional public schools, according to the Counter Punch piece.

Of course this is completely absurd. While the curriculum may in fact be adaptable to the needs of each individual student, it also isolates students from their peers and denies them the social aspects of learning. Placing children in front of computers for hours at a time is not only unhealthy physically; it also undermines their development of communication and collaborative skills. But it may help them adapt more easily to a future career in an office cubicle.

The EAA’s digital pedagogy is just another form of “blended learning,” one of the many trendy national “reforms” that undermine the quality of education and the integrity of the teaching profession in order to transfer public education revenues to the private sector while weakening the public sector unions. With a uniform curriculum created by outsiders and imposed on all students, there is no longer a need for skilled, credentialed teachers. A warm body will suffice—somebody who can take attendance, make sure kids stay on task, and send them to the office when they misbehave.

The EAA’s assault on teachers goes well beyond the deskilling of the teaching profession. EAA teachers have been stripped of their collective bargaining rights and they are paid less than their peers in DPS. The EAA is also forcing them to pay for 40% of their own medical benefits, while depriving them of pensions, according to the Detroit Free Press. They are also required to work 40 more days than their colleagues in DPS.

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