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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Conspiracy Theory: Privatizing Public Education

By Peter DeWitt — August 23, 2012 5 min read
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  1. Expend money with the expectation of achieving a profit or material result by putting it into financial schemes, shares, or property, or...: “getting workers to invest in private pension funds"; “the company is to invest $12 million in its new manufacturing site”
  2. Devote (one’s time, effort, or energy) to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result (google).

We have experienced many changes in education over the past few years. Anyone reading this blog knows that already. We have had to implement Common Core State Standards (CCSS), new teacher and administrator evaluation which includes high stakes testing data, as well as deal with serious federal and state cuts to our school budgets.

Many people in the public may not understand what is happening to the public school system. They hear stories about new curriculum or state tests and believe that those things don’t impact schools too much. The truth is, schools have seen hard times but the potential of what will happen in our very near future could mean the end to many public schools.

I sound like a conspiracy theorist and perhaps I am. However, if you have had your eyes open over the past three years you know that things have been difficult and they do not seem to be getting any easier. In New York State, we are not experiencing educational policies; our new changes (i.e. APPR) have been put into law. That sends a very loud message that the governor and many others in control mean business.

The Hidden Curriculum
“Never waste a good crisis.”

There are many reasons why people believe that the overall goal at the state (not all states) and national level is to privatize education. Some of the changes happening in education are a product of the economy; while other changes are a product of policymakers who see this as a time to strike at the public school system. After all, they don’t want to waste a good crisis. This is the perfect time to keep moving forward with plans, no matter what the collateral damage may be.

The reality is that many educators aren’t resistant to change, they’re just resistant to change that is clearly not good for kids. For decades, policymakers have argued that schools are doing a poor job and they will use whatever means possible to make that true. It’s really easy to do it. Start a campaign and say that teachers and administrators aren’t doing their jobs. Blame unions and global competitiveness on schools. Go even further and blame job loss and poverty on schools.

Schools need to change. They need to be more creative and innovative. Unfortunately, high stakes testing and APPR point scales will not change schools for the better. Student portfolios, goal setting with teachers, and effective leadership will improve education. Top-down rules that force people to chase their tails in order to prove they’re effective is counterproductive to what state and federal education departments should be doing with the very people they’re supposed to be leading.

The Changes to Education
The changes that schools are facing would be monumental if only one came along at a time. Public schools are being hit with all of these changes at the same time. The following are some of those changes:

Budget cuts - every public organization is experiencing budget cuts. In education, teachers, psychologists, social workers, and administrators are losing jobs. This is all happening at a time when more people are needed to meet the unfunded mandates that are being given to schools.

High Stakes Testing - There has been an increase in the number of questions on high stakes tests as well as the length of the test. Regular education students are tested 90 minutes per day for three days of math and three days of ELA. Special education students who have time and ½ or double time can be tested up to three hours per day, which means that testing interrupts when they can eat lunch, which is a basic need.

Harder tests - In New York State a sample 3rd grade ELA exam was released to educators. The exam included a passage by Tolstoy....yes Tolstoy (ELA Sample). I understand that Tolstoy wrote some children’s literature but this is not appropriate testing material for third graders. The questions that came along with the reading passage will leave many students bored and baffled.

Competitive Grants - At the state and federal level, competitive grants have been offered to every school district. Those school districts with the best applications will be awarded money. Unfortunately, not all schools qualify to fill out the application. If they lack the right percentage of free/reduced lunch students, they do not qualify for a grant. Just because they may not have enough free/reduced lunch students does not mean they aren’t a school in need.

The other issue with competitive grants is that schools lack the people to do the work. Therefore, only the districts with personnel will be able to go for these important grants. This will widen the gap of inequalities in schools.

Increased class sizes - Less teachers = more children in the classroom.

APPR - Most teachers and administrators will tell you they want to be evaluated. Point scales and using high stakes tests are just political ways to say that schools can’t do the job that most of them have already been doing. Many schools have had solid evaluative methods in place already.

Social-emotional Issues - Schools have seen an increase in students with emotional issues, even at the elementary level. Unfortunately, there is less staff (i.e. school psychologists, social workers) to work with these students. As the students get older, the problems get larger. If principals are spending their time doing multiple observations and paperwork, who will be there to help students going through tough times?

Investing in Education
It’s a term that educators hear often. Politicians and policymakers state that they want to invest in education. The only issue is that invest has two meanings. People can invest in something so they make more money, or they can invest in order to improve an outcome. When publishers get contracts to create high stakes tests for states and then happen to offer the textbooks that will help students do better on those high stakes tests, it’s seems to be more of a monopoly on education, and not an educationally sound approach to educating students.

In the long run, all of these changes are sending a message to public schools that public education will eventually be private. Parents in urban settings join lotteries to get their children into charter schools and parents in suburban and rural areas are putting their children in private schools or turning to homeschooling. At some point schools will fail to meet the mandates of the policymakers dictating the rules and it would be great if school systems started speaking a little bit louder about all of that.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.