2011-04-29 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

The ‘Brains’ Behind The School Reform Movement
Commentary By Howard Schwach

There is lots of brainpower and even more money behind the school reform movement that is sweeping the country and that drives our federal education secretary’s every waking movement.

Because the people who are funding the movement are smart and rich does not mean that they know anything about education, however. In fact, the majority of those driving the massive move to accountability (read, using invalid test scores for everything from rating students to rating schools to firing teachers) have never, ever, stepped foot in a public school classroom for anything but publicity shots.

Let’s take a look at some of the players.

Bill Gates, tech genius and the founder of Microsoft. Gates is the man who developed the operating system that controls the majority of computers in the nation. He has given millions of dollars to school reform programs. His reform vision included linking teacher salary, tenure decisions and firing decisions to student test scores. His school growing up: the very private and expensive Lakeside School in Seattle, Washington.

Michelle Rhee, the darling of the school reform movement and ex-chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system, where she closed plenty of schools and laid off plenty of teachers until everybody involved, including the new mayor of the city, realized that she had not moved the system forward very much. She now runs a prominent school advocacy group. Her school growing up: Maumee Country Day School in Toledo, Ohio.

The Broad Family, a husband and wife team that runs a school change foundation that pours funds into school systems that agree with their ideology. Two years ago, they presented their Broad Prize to New York City and Mayor Bloomberg for drastically increasing test scores until the state pulled the plug and showed the world that those increased scores were phony, that the state had cooked the books by continually dropping the “cut score,” the number of right answers necessary to achieving a passing score. When the cut score was put back where it was years earlier, everybody saw the reality of Bloomberg’s failure in the school arena.

That failure can be seen in one peninsula school – Middle School 53 in Far Rockaway.

In 2009, the school received a school report card grade of A, with 95.5 points out of 100. Records that year show that 60.6 percent of the students in the school were reading at either level 3 or level 4 – the top two levels, which indicate “proficiency.”

After the state was forced to restore the cut score to its rational level after dropping it for four years in order to make the mayor look good and to draw money from the “Race to the Top” fund, the school’s scores in 2010 showed a very different picture.

TheschoolreceivedaCgradewith39.6pointsout of 100. Records showed that 18.8 percent of the students were reading at either level 3 or 4 – a drop of approximately 42 percent.

Where did all the high-functioning kids go? They were still there, but the test was not rigged to make them look like scholars. For this, Bloomberg and the schools got the Broad Prize.

Middle School 53 was not alone. Citywide, 400 schools dropped one report card grade and another 350 schools dropped two report card grades.

In 2009, Rockaway had 11 schools that received an A grade. In 2010, there were only three.

Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida and the brother of George W., of “No Child Left Behind” fame. It was the Bush era law that generated the entire move to accountability and using the invalid test scores as a be-all and end-all. Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, took it one step forward by bribing districts to follow the school reform ideology if it wanted federal money for needed programs. Bush attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

Davis Guggenheim, the producer and director of “Waiting for Superman,” the movie that propelled the school reform movement into pop culture and made a fortune for him, championed charter schools and dismissed traditional public schools as dropout factories. What school did he go to? Sidwell Friends, the yuppie, ultra-liberal school in Washington, D.C.

The movie is pure propaganda for the multi-million dollar charter school industry, which is backed by the same people who brought you junk bonds and derivatives, and provided home loans and then bet against the homeowners.

Three of the four federal legislators who sponsored the No Child Left Behind law in the first place were Judd Gregg (Philips Exeter Academy), Edward Kennedy (Milton Academy), and John Boehner (Archbishop Moeller High School). They all went from private elementary schools to private high schools to college. None ever touched a (Gasp!) public school seat.

Even Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education, went to a private school for his early education – University of Chicago Laboratory School.

You begin to get the picture.

Massive money backing people who have never stepped foot in a public school except for a quick publicity shot.

A number of them have suggested that public schools raise the class size limits and then compensate for the large number of students by striving to put “excellent teachers in front of each classroom.”

Gate’s school had an average of 16 kids in a class and Duncan’s, 19.

The movers and shakers of education reform have no idea what education really means, let alone any idea of how to reform the school system. They should take their money and ideology and use it elsewhere – some field where they have expertise; like fleecing investors.

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