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The Pattern on the Rug

Dear Deborah,

There comes a time when you look at the rug on the floor, the one you've seen many times, and you see a pattern that you had never noticed before. You may have seen this squiggle or that flower, but you did not see the pattern into which the squiggles and flowers and trails of ivy combined.

In American education, we can now discern the pattern on the rug.

Consider the budget cuts to schools in the past four years. From the budget cuts come layoffs, rising class sizes, less time for the arts and physical education, less time for history, civics, foreign languages, and other non-tested subjects. Add on the mandates of No Child Left Behind, which demands 100 percent proficiency in math and reading and stigmatizes more than half the public schools in the nation as "failing" for not reaching an unattainable goal.

Along comes the Obama administration with the Race to the Top, and the pattern on the rug gets clearer. It tells cash-strapped states that they can compete for federal funding, but only if they open more privately managed schools (where few teachers have any job protections), only if they adopt national standards that have never been field-tested, only if they agree to evaluate teachers by student test scores, and only if they are ready to close down low-performing schools, fire the principal and staff, and call it a turnaround.

Race to the Top seems to have catalyzed a national narrative, at least among the mainstream media. The good guys open charter schools and fire bad teachers. The bad guys are lazy teachers who get lifetime tenure just for breathing and showing up. Most evil of all are the unions, who protect the bad teachers and fend off any effort to evaluate them. Anyone who questions the headlong rush to privatization and the blind faith in standardized testing will be smeared as "a defender of the status quo" who has "no solutions." Even if all the "reformers'" solutions are destructive and stale, even though they consistently have failed to produce better education, the reformers never think twice about their palette of "solutions."

Just by happenstance, a major documentary appears in September 2010 ("Waiting for 'Superman'") to recapitulate this narrative to millions. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation puts up the money to ensure that this morality tale of good reformers and bad teachers is shown to state legislatures, to civic groups, to people living in housing projects. The movie itself is financed in part by an evangelical billionaire (Philip Anschutz) who contributes heavily to libertarian and ultra-conservative causes.

At the same time, a small group of high-profile figures, led by Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, proclaim that low test scores are caused by bad teachers, and if they had their way, they would abolish tenure, seniority, and any other job protections for those greedy, lazy teachers. Freed of those encumbrances, teachers would hold on to their jobs only if their students' test scores went up. Economist Eric Hanushek adds another twist to the emerging scenario: fire 5 to 10 percent of the teachers whose students get the lowest scores, and amazing things are sure to happen: Bad teachers will be replaced by average teachers, test scores will rise to the top of the world, and the nation's gross domestic product will rise by trillions of dollars.

Governors and state legislatures heed these messages. How could they not? In state after state, men with vast personal fortunes invest in campaigns to end teachers' tenure, end seniority (now called Last In, First Out, or LIFO), and clear the way for private takeovers of public schools, where teachers work with no job rights at all. Understandably, the message is embraced by right-wing governors like Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, and Rick Scott of Florida, but also by Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York and Daniel Malloy of Connecticut, as well as independent Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.

Meanwhile, the richest foundation in the United States, the Gates Foundation, pours hundreds of millions of dollars into a project to find the perfect teacher evaluation system, thus reinforcing the "reform" narrative that the best way to fix what ails public education is to create a foolproof way to find and fire those malingering bad teachers. Where the Gates Foundation leads, many other foundations follow, sure that this philanthropic behemoth is wisest because it has the most money and presumably the best thinking.

Just recently, the fabulously rich foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, released an accounting of its grants in the education sector. This foundation is known for its love of all things private, and its antipathy for unions, government regulation, and public education. This year, Walton handed out $159 million to its favorites. Tidy sums were paid to the KIPP schools (mostly non-union) and to Teach For America, which claims that neither training nor experience is necessary to succeed in the classroom. And along with grants to "right to work" organizations, libertarian think tanks, and promoters of voucher and charters, there were grants for allegedly liberal or nonpartisan organizations like Education Trust, the Brookings Institution, Education Week (the weekly newspaper for K-12 news, which hosts our blog), Bellwether Education Partners (home to Time magazine columnist Andrew Rotherham), the United Negro College Fund (which helps explain, along with over $1 billion from the Gates Foundation, why the president of UNCF recently urged wavering legislators in Georgia to vote for charter legislation), and Stand for Children (whose founder Jonah Edelman, son of civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman, gets hefty donations from equity investors, promotes charter schools, and led the successful battle to curtail teachers' job protections in Illinois). Walton granted $2.2 million to IFF, an organization that recently drafted a report to redesign the District of Columbia's public schools by increased privatization, and awarded $500,000 to Mind Trust of Indianapolis, whose plan proposes to eliminate the central school district and privatize public schools in that city. Walton gave $1 million to Michelle Rhee's Students First campaign, which works with Republican governors to oppose teachers' unions and job protections for teachers and to advocate for vouchers and charters.

The bitter fruit of the past few years of reform: The latest survey of the attitudes of American teachers shows a deeply demoralized profession. Job satisfaction of our nation's teachers has plummeted since 2009, the period in which attacks on teachers soared while budgets shrunk. Nearly one-third of teachers—1 million teachers—are considering quitting. That's a 70 percent increase since 2009. Who will replace them? The latest survey published by Gates and Scholastic found that: "Only 26 percent of teachers say that the results of standardized tests are an accurate reflection of student achievement."

Our policymakers claim that they are infusing business values into education, but what smart corporation purposefully demoralizes its employees and measures their worth with a metric the employees don't believe to be valid or accurate?

And while the new value-added assessments are supposed to identify the best and worst teachers—those likeliest to get a bonus or a pink slip—the public release of teacher data reports in New York City demonstrated how inaccurate and unreliable these ratings are. While policymakers eagerly await the evidence they need to begin firing the lowest-rated teachers, a new study by the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, or CALDER, finds that teacher turnover demoralizes the entire staff and lowers achievement, not just for students whose teachers were removed, but for all the students in the school.

Last week, I met a principal from Tennessee at the annual meeting of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. She said her school is one of the highest-performing in the state and has been for many years. Every year, it gets an A for achievement and an F for value-added. She spends most of her time evaluating teachers to meet the demands of Tennessee's Race to the Top award. She reminded me that Tennessee has been doing value-added for 20 years, that it started this process under the auspices of William Sanders. She reminded me that he was trained as an agricultural statistician. She said, he thinks that children are like wheat, and their test scores should be equally predictable. She's retiring in a few months.

The pattern on the rug grows clear. Teaching will become a job, not a profession. Young people will typically spend a year or two as teachers, then move on to other, more rewarding careers. Federal and state policy will promote online learning, and computers will replace teachers. Online class sizes will reach 1:100, even 1:200; the job of monitoring the screens will be outsourced, creating large economies for state budgets. For-profit companies will make large profits. The Common Core standards will create a national marketplace for vendors, as Secretary Arne Duncan's chief of staff, Joanne Weiss, predicted. Entrepreneurs will reap the rewards of the new American style of education. As profits grow, the cost of education will be contained. Public education will increasingly be handed over to businesses designed to maximize economic efficiency and produce dependable profits for investors.

The report last week from the Klein-Rice commission of the Council on Foreign Relations reveals how this manner of thinking about education has become the conventional wisdom. Public schools as we know them, the commission suggests, are a threat to national security. What's needed to protect us from foreign enemies is more competition and choice, more privatization of our public schools, more No Child Left Behind, more Race to the Top. Big commissions tend to reflect the status quo. This one does, for sure.

See the pattern on the rug? It grows clearer every day. It is not about improving education. It is not about helping our society become more literate and better educated. Follow the money. We are indeed a nation at risk.

Diane

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