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Tough Choices and privatization


Dear Deborah,

I think we are in a very strange and disquieting time for public education. "Reforms" are being implemented that will have unforeseen consequences. I was one of the early supporters of charter schools, as a means of establishing more choice within the public system, but as they proliferate I wonder what the end game is, where are we heading? I have not had any beef with those who said that private managers could step in and do a better job with the lowest-performing schools—after all, when schools are not managing to educate the kids, why not try a different strategy?

Both ideas ran into considerable resistance for a long time, but the resistance seems to have eroded. Now as I see these ideas that made sense as limited outlets being turned into basic strategies of an entire school district, it worries me. Maybe I wasn't smart enough to see that this was the road we were heading down.

We keep alluding to the "Tough Choices or Tough Times" report. It is time to discuss it directly. In my view, the most radical proposal of that commission was that every public school should be operated by an "independent contractor." Maybe they meant groups of teachers, but I rather think they meant the big chains of charter school operators that have been growing by leaps and bounds. Whether those operators are non-profit (like New Visions for Public Schools in New York City) or for-profit (like Edison and Victory), the result is the same: to privatize the operations of public schools.

Some educators think all this is just so much hot air, that it will never happen. But it is starting to happen here in New York City, where I write. Under mayoral control, the system is setting up three alternative pathways that principals may choose. One involves becoming an "empowerment" school, quasi-autonomous from any district regulation; another involves signing up with a private manager, the names of which have not yet been announced; a third permits principals to join some amorpous thing called a Learning Support Organization, headed by someone who used to be a superintendent but has no power to supervise.

It is hard to say what the endgame is in this situation, though insiders believe that our Chancellor Joel Klein is trying to follow the "Tough Choices" recommendations (he was a member of the commission that drafted the report and he signed it).

It does seem to be an effort to dissolve the New York City school district, to remove from central officials all responsibility for curriculum and instruction, and to put in place an elaborate system of accountability. That's what I suspect the endgame is: to put the schools into a marketplace situation, where it's "every prinicipal for him/herself," and "every school for itself" in a struggle to compete for high-performing students, to exclude low-performing students without getting caught, and to be judged above all by test scores.

Unlike you, I have never been opposed to testing, though I would like to believe I have been a steadfast advocate for better tests, not just multiple-choice, bubble-tests.

I admit, however, that I am appalled by the idea of a school system that has a mandated method of instruction (balanced literacy and the workshop model) but no curriculum. I think that is exactly backwards; if we learn from other countries that have a successful education system, they have a strong curriculum and leave teachers free to teach in the ways they think best.

I am also appalled by the idea that a school system would care not at all whether students were learning the essential elements of education, such as the arts and history and geography. And I am appalled that testing and accountability have somehow become the only strategies to "reform" schools. Such a strategy, I predict, will not reform schools. It will only turn them into testing factories. Principals, knowing that their job hinges on test scores, will find ways to exclude low performing students, and if that doesn't work, find other means to get the scores to save their job.

I find all of this not only appalling but abhorrent. And this is where I think we are heading. And it is frightening.



Hello...just stopping by to take a gander at your new blog.

It's no sae bad. Always interesting to read what you and old DB have to say. DB and I would disagree on many things but not all. We both care about kids and AUTHENTIC EDUCATION AND LEARNING. If schools do not educate and instruct then they are like armies that do not drill and fight. They might as well be disbanded. Sooner or later the Barbarians will come of course and do it for us. I have this vision of being the last teacher in the ruins of a former public school with only a handful of private students and like the last teacher before the fall of the empire I die before I can answer a student's question when the roof falls in. In Ian Pear's Scipio's dream the students do no lament the deaath of the school or the teacher. They say :"I suppose this means no refund".

I agree with you entirely that turning schools into testing factories -and testing factories worshipping at the alter of THS SCANTRON GOD is turning schools into unhappy murder machines of educationa and culture.

IF the tests were more authentic and required writing and some imaginative work (a la AP tests) it would no be so bad but now we are in the situation where, increasingly we are told never to teach ANYTHING except what is on the test.

Personally I would never give a single multiple choice test in a language or history class ever.

For one thing with 35,39, 40 students packed in a classroom, cheating is rampant. It never ceases to amaze me how athletes get 100% on a MC test (which I cound for 40% only) AND THEN LEAVE THE TERMS AND SHORT QUESTIONS COMPLETELY BLANK). So they fail and are very bitter. But how can they be bitter if they do not even know how to answer the simplest questions such as what is a citizen, what is nationalism and what is a monarchy? THey are not bitter due to unfairness but only because I have caught them at CHEATING.

Anytime you put so much empahasis on MC tests you are going to get cheating. And of course from a classroom teacher's point of view it devalues their own tests and grades.

At present students have no fear whatsoever of failing classes. There are so many makes and alternatives and each alternative gives the credits out faster and easier thatn the previous class!

So yes, schools that turn into testing factories like this turn into MURDER MACHINES of the if teachers, the MIND and culture.

I have been a classroom teacher for more than 20 years. I do not expect schools to get better. I expect them to gradually get worse and worse until no sane person would stay in teaching.

And I will think of my many years in my Red Bricked Nook of the Many Welcomes and think SUCH SUCH WERE THE JOYS.

And the day is coming soon when I will retire, gladly, to my library and dedicate myself entirely to my private life. I know when that time comes I will probably not have any nostalgia for school but be glad to be out of these new Satanic Mills, these Murder Machines of the Soul and Mind.

We are,perhaps, much closer to Fahrenheit 451 than anyone could ever have imagined.

I have spent most of my teaching career in North Carolina, where testing has been a factor since the 1980's. I have long noticed that, while students can recite the characteristics of a mammal, they are horrified to learn that a cow has to have a calf in order to give milk. That they do not know nursery rhymes or fairy tales or many other markers of cultural literacy. If it's not going to be on a TEST, it's not taught. We are not becoming testing factories. We're already there.

Other nonsensical policies: We are mandated by the State to give final exams, but our grades are due at 3:00 on the afternoon of the exam, even if the exam period did not end until 1:30. Therefore, I spend an entire semester teaching my students to take a foreign language test in the multiple choice format, even as I use many other forms of assessment to ascertain that they are learning the material. My exams, thank goodness, are teacher-generated, so that they test what I have taught, and I never have less than three versions of the same test in the classroom at any given time. (Can we say that teachers work much harder than their students do?)

At times, I feel like the child in the children's story who pointed out to his father that the emperor had no clothes. The testing elephant is all illusion and no substance. Testing does not lead to accountability; assessment does. I have always been accountable for what happened in my classroom. First, I hold myself accountable, as do my students and their parents. My administrators also hold me accountable. And the ultimate accountability? How do my students fare with their university-level studies in my subject area? Very well, thank you. Do any of them choose it as a major? Yes, and some of them return to teach it. Can they use it in the community? Yes, and that makes them proud of their achievements.

Let's stop experimenting with our students and return to teaching them. After all, one of the purposes of education is to pass our culture on to succeeding generations, and by any measure of accountability, we are failing to do that, just as we are robbing students of the joy of learning because we are so "test-focused."

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.

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