Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The New Network for Public Education

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons

 A new anti-reform education reform movement is taking shape: The Network for Public Education
Led by Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody, Leonie Haimson and other lefty ed reformers, the NPE is calling for an end to privatization schemes; increased funding; assessments that are used to inform instruction, not to penalize schools, students and teachers, among other reforms; community control; teacher autonomy; and a host of other reforms..

As far as reformist movements go, the NPE’s initial platform seems like a reasonable start. However, when examined more closely, it’s hard to tell what the NPE is actually demanding or how it intends to achieve its goals. For example, what do they mean by “democratic control?” One parent, one vote? One teacher, one vote? School Site Councils, (which are essentially advisory and subservient to school boards)? The abolition of school boards (representative democracy) to be replaced by some sort of direct democracy? Workers councils led by employee delegates who are recallable at any time by their colleagues?

Currently, most public schools already have some sort of democratic control (e.g., school site councils, PTAs and elected school boards), but these are heavily influenced by moneyed interests and politics and provide the actual stakeholders (e.g., parents, teachers, students) only nominal influence over decisions that affect students’ learning conditions and teachers’ working conditions.

Similarly, what do they mean by providing resources “that students need” or “equitable funding?” Bringing the poorest schools on par with the wealthiest schools is a pretty mild demand, considering that even the best-funded schools do not have sufficient resources. Creating equity from peanuts just means that all schools receive a paltry share of the peanuts.

Perhaps it would help to set some benchmark goals, like one nurse for every 250 students; class sizes that never exceed 25:1 in the secondary grades and never exceed 15:1 in the elementary grades; free preschool for all, and generous, ample funding, rather than “equity” from the pittances we currently receive. Likewise, how about mandatory wages and benefits that are not only adequate for supporting school employees in the communities where they work, but that are actually generous and allow a degree of luxury and security?

The NPE argues that there should be more emphasis on early childhood education because the achievement gap begins before kindergarten and early childhood education can help mitigate this. However, preschool and Head Start, alone, cannot erase the pre-K achievement gap, because this gap is a direct product of poverty. Will the NPE also fight for programs and initiatives that close the wealth gap and reduce poverty, since this is the number one cause of low student achievement and will continue to hinder children’s academic success, regardless what happens in the classroom?
NPE calls for the evaluation of teachers by professionals, not by unreliable test scores, yet they say nothing about who these professional should be. As long as evaluators continue to be site administrators there will be an inherent bias that can lead to good teachers being disciplined or fired and incompetent or corrupt teachers being promoted. These professionals should be highly trained, objective outsiders (ideally teachers, themselves), who evaluate teachers blindly. Furthermore, the evaluations should be used to support professional growth, not to punish teachers for petty infractions or to fire them for being union organizers, student advocates or higher paid veterans.

Lastly, while NPE opposes profiteering off of public education, they have not yet indicated whether they expect this to wither away through voting and protesting, or if they recognize it as an inevitable product of education’s role in capitalism. All the other problems they criticize stem from this relationship. Even without the transfer of tax dollars from public school budgets to private charter schools, tech companies and test and textbook publishers, there will continue to be an incentive by the state to spend as a little as possible on education and keep its employees under tight control (e.g., accountability schemes, limitations on unions and strikes).

Ultimately, even with a more coherent and specific plan, NPE, like all other liberal/reformist initiatives, will at best only be able to reduce the problems they identify with public education, since all of these problems have capitalism, itself, at their root. For example, when teaching is no longer tied to wages, the problem of administrators firing teachers (or giving them bad evaluations) for being union organizers, student advocates or higher paid veterans would cease to exist. There would no longer be a need for high stakes tests, since there would no longer be a motivation for sorting students by ability in order to track them into wage work versus management. Schools could be funded rationally, based on their actual needs, rather than being held hostage to a system designed to make the wealthy even wealthier by reducing social spending to the bare bones. Perhaps most importantly, in addition to practical skills (e.g., critical thinking, reading, writing, math) teachers could start teach what students themselves want to learn, fostering creativity, curiosity and an intrinsic love of learning.

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