Federal Opinion

John Thompson: On the Eve of the March, Phony Reforms are on the Ropes

By Anthony Cody — July 26, 2011 5 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson

On the eve of our Save Our Schools March, we should look anew on the “reform” wars. The S.O.S. March will highlight educators’ ideas for improving our schools. To save and improve our schools, teachers and school administrators must show that we have the better ideas for helping our kids. But we should also remember that we will be rallying at a time when data-driven “reform” is on the ropes.

The devastating indictment of bubble-in accountability by the National Academies of Science did not get the attention it deserved. But the cheating scandals in Atlanta, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, and elsewhere have. And they are just the tip of the iceberg of corruption.

A lower-profile method of cheating by using “credit recovery” to pad graduation rates also has been documented in Colorado and New York City. Even so, the NAS reported that graduation rates have declined by 2% due to test-driven accountability. Even Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post is telling uncomfortable truths about the way that New York City pressures schools to just pass kids on, and when more stringent Regents Examination rules are adopted next year, another of the city’s educational “reform” miracles will disappear.

Speaking of Murdoch, his plans for schools seem to be headed down the path of his soulmate’s educational agenda. Joel Klein has shown his true colors and hitched his career to that of Murdoch’s News Corporation. In doing so, he follows in the footsteps of Michelle Rhee, who is now joined at the hip with Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.

Similarly, Klein’s NYC, and Rhee’s D.C. have joined the “Texas Miracle” and Alan Bersin’s supposed miracle of reform in San Diego in proving to be mirages. It is too soon to write off the Duncan Administration’s Race to the Top and School Improvements Grants as failures. The press, however, is covering the difficulties faced by states in implementing their RttT promises. There has been coverage of a successful turnaround that was more than a decade in the making, and the good start made in turning around a school that got rid of a fifth of its students. But where are the stories of high-dollar turnarounds and transformations that worked with the “same kids in the same building?”

Speaking of which, the press is covering the actual charters that claimed that they were closing the achievement gap without “creaming.” Although social scientific research has shown that the overwhelming majority of charters do no better than regular schools, and many have a worse record, their advocates pointed to charters in New York City and New Orleans which were supposedly producing better outcomes. The New York Times, however, has blown a hole in those claims for that city by documenting the way that three high-profile charters used disciplinary policies, and student application information to deny access to more difficult-to-educate students. The Times also showed how the city’s “choice” program for regular schools also increases segregation.

On the other side of the country, Los Angeles charters are showing the logical conclusion of the “reform” vision. Due to long hours and the unbending commitment of charter leaders to their ideology, L.A. charters have a teacher turnover rate of 50% per year.

And at Aspen, “reformer” Jonah Edelman articulated the billionaires’s solution for closing the achievement gap. They rammed through a law in Illinois which was designed to give the mayor the unilateral power to increase the school year without increasing salaries. Acknowledging that “trying to lengthen the day while paying people no more is obviously going to stress them,” the accountability hawks have tried to engineer better teachers who are impervious to stress. So, they funded a personality screening test for Chicago teacher applicants, TeacherFit. It screened out teaching candidates who did not answer correctly when asked how they felt about working extra hours without pay. TeacherFit had “blacklisted” 30% of applicants before publicity forced the district to back off from it.

The expose that documented the most horrific abuses and the worst ways of pushing kids who are more challenging out of charters was The American Independent’s documentation of the “brutal” disciplinary systems of the New Orleans State Recovery District. It drew upon work by the Southern Poverty Law Center showing how these charters “react to minor rule violations by forcibly handcuffing children to furniture, brutally slamming them, banishing them from their schools and cutting short their education.”

As we approach the Save Our Schools March on July 30th, teachers will rightfully be stressing the contributions that we make to real reform. By now, the public and the press are recognizing that it is the educators who are protecting our students from self-righteous zealots.

I will not be able to make the S.O.S March in D.C. I regret not being able to meet some of the teachers who pioneered professional development programs such as National Board certification and peer review evaluation and mentoring systems. I wish I could meet in person the Teachers of the Year who I read in the edusphere. Above all, I will miss the chance to swap best practices with my colleagues.

But, I will attend our S.O.S. rally that day in Oklahoma City. We will gain strength by knowing that educators are gathering across the country. We should also gain confidence by recalling the string of defeats that have been suffered by “reformers” who want to turn our schools into test prep factories responsible solely to the Market. Now is the time to gather our courage, and strike hard to put away the “reforms” that threaten public education, as we continue our efforts to serve our students.

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

What do you think? Are the phony reforms on the ropes? Are real solutions going to be given a chance?

[Editorial note: Education Week Teacher is not affiliated with the Save Our Schools event; the views expressed in this opinion blog do not reflect the endorsement of Education Week or Editorial Projects in Education, which take no editorial positions]

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.