2011-09-16 / Columnists

School Scope

The State Of Education On September 10, 2001
Commentary By Norman Scott

Imagine if I issued a call for a series of radical reforms of the public school educational system that would turn every school in the nation into the equivalent of the most elite private school. How about class sizes under 20 for every single child in the system – 15 for the earliest grades? A highly trained assistant teacher in each classroom. Classrooms stocked full of supplies. A rich and varied curriculum that includes travel to far away places. And one-on-one tutoring for every child that needs it. How about a laptop for every child? Every single child in this nation offered a world class education.

You’re saying: This guy must be nuts. Doesn’t he know the nation is broke and the political system is in shambles? But what if I had issued this call on September 10, 2001? Or September 10, 1991? Or ‘81? There would have been the same basic reaction – you’re nuts – too expensive, an impossible dream.

Yet, after September 11, 2001 an estimated $3 trillion or more materialized seemingly out of nowhere to fight two wars and fund an immense security machine from airports to just about every aspect of people’s lives. And these costs keep rising every single day.

So, without going into the politics of it all, there is some indication here of where the priorities of this nation lie. Since I started teaching in under-resourced schools in 1967 in the midst of the Vietnam War I have raised the issue of the immense defense department budget compared to what is spent on education. When that war ended there was no massive shift of money to education.

Then came September 11, 2001 and all hope for that world-class education was doomed. Today, the US spends more on defense than the combined total of every nation in the world. Instead, we have seen a so-called education reform movement that has focused the blame on the teachers and their unions – in actuality a third war funded by billionaires.

Let me backtrack a bit for those new to the school wars. Over the past decade there has been a radical shift in the debate on education towards a business model market-based school system – urban schools only, of course – based on competition between schools and teachers, primarily through the push for charter schools, mostly non-unionized and stocked by many newbie teachers, often recruited from Teach for America which offers a six-week summer training course before turning these recruits loose on the schools (most TFAers leave teaching after their 2-year commitment). Schools are branded as failures and closed down based on standardized test scores. Teachers are given merit pay or fired based on these scores. Charter schools competing for the same children are opened next to or within public schools to offer so-called “choice.” Private management companies, some for profit, are brought in to manage charters and even some public schools. Enormous sums are spent on testing and data management while starving the classrooms. Anyone bringing up poverty or other outside school conditions is branded as an apologist for teacher unions or an excuse-maker or a supporter of the status quo.

The system was first implemented in Chicago in 1994 and we have had this system in place here in NYC since Bloomberg took over the schools in 2002. George Bush codified things nationally with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) around the same time. Obama has not only adopted this extreme appliance of capitalism to the schools whole cloth but extended it with Race to the Top which forces states to grovel for federal ed money by imposing narrow prescriptions on state education departments to conform to the corporate reform agenda. Not exactly a socialist, this Obama guy. What has been the outcome? Disaster. Applying a business model that almost brought the nation’s economy down in 2008 has had the same impact in education. City after city has been wracked by test cheating scandals. The Big One hasn’t hit NYC - yet. (It is interesting that Bloomberg and Klein removed the erasure analysis monitoring system when they took over, claiming it – ahem – cost too much.) Who are these people pushing the agenda? Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family, Rupert Murdoch, and numerous hedge fund managers – you know, all those millionaires and billionaires who have demonstrated so much concern about poor kids. David Sirota writing in Slate calls it: The bait and switch of school “reform”: Behind the new corporate agenda for education lurks the old politics of profit and self-interest.Google the article for some enlightenment on what is behind the curtain.

We have branded these people as ed deformers while the people putting forth the ideas in the first paragraph are “Real Reformers.” It is a David vs. Goliath battle but as the defects of the ed deformers continue to show up daily, there are more and more defections from their camp, with Diane Ravitch being the biggie and celebrities like Matt Damon joining the cause, thus giving the RRs a puncher’s chance.

Choice in schools but not in politicians.

Ed deformers throw around the words “school choice,“ as if people were shopping for varieties of corn flakes in a supermarket. So I found the recent local political races affecting us in Rockaway interesting. Wave editor and former teacher Howie Schwach said it as well as anyone in last week’s edition – The Least Objectionable Candidate. Schwach named just about everything objectionable in each of the four candidates. Convinced me. I, too, held my nose as I voted. As I wrote in my last column, I felt I really had little choice when it comes to my core issue – education. I did receive a nice call from Phil Goldfeder who said I would be surprised. Of course he used the ed deform stock expression – we must hold on to our talented young teachers – which I told him is code for an attack on teacher seniority protections. He said he didn’t realize that. We’ll see where he stands when Bloomberg comes after “Last in First Out” this year. He promised he would hold the line.

If Anthony’s Weiner had still been running against Bob Turner instead of the hapless Weprin, I still would have had little choice since Weiner also supported the ed deform program. (By the way, if Weiner hadn’t self-destructed I’m not sure he would have won, given that Turner had 40 percent of the vote the last time.) Turner, of course, an MOC – More Objectionable Candidate since he doesn’t believe in government and drinks tea. But I do expect him to support putting a Jerry Springer show in every pot.

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