When a district in Rhode Island announced its intention to fire all teachers at Central Falls High School in an unmistakable gesture of blame seeking, I knew without knowing it was an impoverished school. When a school board in Kansas City announced it would close 28 schools before the start of the next school year I knew they were the poorest of the poor.
Indeed, just a little research revealed that Central Falls is one of the poorest cities in the state and after the exodus of some 18,000 students to charter schools and more affluent suburban districts, the remaining 17,400 students in the schools scheduled for demolition in Kansas City are “mostly black and impoverished.”1
If we take a hard look at what the government under the dictates of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) considers failing or failed schools they are invariably schools impacted by a community in poverty. Moreover, if we consider the effects of the recent economic implosion (high unemployment, home foreclosures and declining home values) and the disproportionate impact on impoverished communities, it is easy to see why schools are struggling.
Whenever data is generated by any credible source, the correlation between poverty and educational achievement is so strong it is impossible for any unbiased individual to ignore. When schools are ranked according to quality, those on the top of the list are invariably wealthy and predominantly white while those at the bottom are invariably poor with high proportions of minorities.
As anyone who took Statistics 101 can tell you, correlation does not translate to causality but as anyone who advanced to Statistics 102 can tell you: When you are searching for answers to guide public policy, correlation is where you begin. Ignoring the effects of poverty on education is like ignoring the effect of criminals on crime.
It was therefore disheartening when President Obama seemed to sanction the mass firing in Rhode Island for it signaled a continuation of the Republican philosophy of education embodied in NCLB and cleared the way for Democrats and Republicans alike to join in one of oldest political tricks on the books. I call it: Blame the Teacher Syndrome.
In California we have recently witnessed the now familiar solution to budgetary crises: Fire the teachers and break the back of public education. We also learned that the Golden State has attained the singular honor of being last in the nation in per capita funding for public education. For years the state held steady at number 47 but now it has sunk below the Katrina ravaged states of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Having reached that lofty status you would think it would be impossible for any politician to stand before the electorate and proclaim that we can no longer expect to solve the problem of education by throwing money it. Yet that it precisely what they are doing and have done with a great deal of political success. With a straight face they proclaim that we cannot sacrifice our children’s future by running up deficits, but that is precisely what they have done by supervising the decimation of our public school system.
No Child Left Behind (the lasting legacy of George W. Bush) was nothing more nor less than a prescription for blaming teachers and opening the door to the privatization of public education. One of the primary means by which they intended to achieve that objective is the charter school alternative. Charter schools are self-governing and exempt from the testing mandates and accountability measures that regular public schools confront. They are increasingly administered by private for-profit corporations.
The latest available data obtained by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found in 2003 that students in charter schools performed poorer than comparable students in regular public schools. The government’s solution to the problem was to stop collecting data.
So much for accountability.
Another means of achieving the goal of undermining public education is commonly known as school vouchers. Under this increasingly popular program public funds are siphoned from public education to finance private schools. Once again, the private alternative is not subject to the same mandates and accountability measures as public schools and, again, there is no data to support any advantage in educational achievement.
So the solution to under-funded public schools is to steal already limited financing and award it to private schools with their own faith-based agenda.
So much for the future of our children.
It is encouraging that President Obama recently announced a strategy for reforming No Child Left Behind. He wants to lessen the importance of standardized testing by expanding success criteria to include such factors as attendance and “learning climate.” He wants to replace the overriding goal that all students should achieve proficiency in reading and math with the goal that all students should graduate prepared for college and career (begging the question: How are students not proficient in reading and math prepared for college and career?) He wants to emphasize the achievement gap between rich and poor students and he wants to expand criteria for teacher evaluations.
It is perhaps a beginning, a modest improvement, but like so many of his administration’s initiatives it is dramatically inadequate. It does not lessen the testing burden that has done so much to transform our schools into testing factories. It does not address the underlying privatization motive of NCLB. It does not put a halt to public funding of private schools.
Most importantly, at a time when schools across the nation are being pounded with budget cuts, the Obama education policy does not address the systemic problem of chronic under-funding of the public schools.
The Obama policy does not even ask the essential question: Why do impoverished schools produce impoverished results? Why indeed would any quality teacher want to work in an impoverished district that will almost inevitably blame him or her for the failures of public education?
I would have liked to announce with the Obama administration proposals that the age of blaming teachers was at a close but I am afraid it is only entering a new chapter.
- NY Times, March 11, 2010. [↩]