05/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Obama Flogs Teachers to Teach Better

One of my favorite expressions was written on a sign in my colleague's office when I first started teaching at SUNY, Cortland in the late 1960's: "The flogging will stop when morale improves." President Obama's new proposals for improving graduation rates in "failing" schools by firing "half the staff" (which half?) as a way of giving incentives to other teachers to "do better or else" reminds me of that witty saying. Only the results aren't going to be very funny.

Faced with losing their jobs, as has been happening in New York City under similar circumstances, teachers in threatened schools will not only "teach to the test" until all semblance of learning is driven out of the classroom: their supervisors will do the kind of "creative accounting" that will miraculously increase graduation rates, including the use of "credit recovery," a way of granting failing students high school diplomas without their passing the required exams.

In fact, in one of the southern states, in order to increase graduation rates, the single math course required for a high school diploma--an elementary algebra course--accepted a 24% grade as "passing." This was often only accomplished when the student had had a number of opportunities to retake the test after being coached.

My major problem with the criteria being used to determine if a school is "passing" or "failing" is that I'm unconvinced that standardized tests are an accurate way to measure student learning. In the relatively short time that I have been writing blogs on education, I've seen increasing evidence of these tests' unreliability. The vast discrepancy between the 97% A's and B's given to New York City schools last Spring in the State tests and the miserable results on the more demanding NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests are such examples. The one argument that standardized tests and graduation rates seem to have in their favor is that they provide "data" and that data can be used for all sorts of political purposes.

I've cited in past columns how "intelligence tests" given to World War l soldiers "proved" that Eastern European Jews were less worthy of being accepted for immigration to the United States than Northern Europeans because it was shown that the Jews were "intellectually inferior." It is this kind of "data" that can be used to justify the serious mistakes in educational policy that are being made in our schools today.

I went to a New York City high school in the late 1950's that you would assume had a lot of "great" teachers. Drop outs were almost unheard of, and 98% of those who graduated went on to college. I can't remember a single "prep test" although our teachers advised us--on our own--to look over the old Regents exams in a review book.

The fact was that not only were our teachers, for the most part, "average," although several of them were inspiring; a number of them, particularly the ones I remembered who taught math, were by anyone's standard "failing teachers": disorganized, unclear, impatient: bad. That, of course, didn't prevent most all of the students from passing their Regents exams in math. And by any standard of measurement, my high school, Music and Art--now LaGuardia--was extraordinarily successful. What was the secret of our success?

All--or almost all--of us came from middle-class, well-educated families who had a high regard for the arts, learning for its own sake, and an open-mindedness about what their children should read. Most of us, the sons and daughters of second-generation Americans, were also Jewish or of other newly immigrated backgrounds whose families regarded taking the time and expense to allow their children to excel in the arts as an obligation and a privilege.

It's unfortunate that the public assumes that the best students have the best teachers, and the worst students the worst teachers, because that simply isn't true. There are many "good teachers" in low-performing schools and more than a share of bad ones in outstanding schools. But to increase the number of good teachers in all schools, they have to be given conditions in which they can teach their best and that means when students can be raised in the best learning environment, an environment free of poverty. In the following analysis of Obama's program for improving the schools, I wish first to point out that the President does not mention any of the environmental factors that have a significant impact on whether or not the schools he considers "failures" would have a good chance of success in a "learning friendly" environment.

Of the four solutions he offers to what he sees as "failing schools," the "Turnaround Model" is, to me, the most thoughtless. The dictate is to "fire at least half the teachers and principal" and "implement a new or revised instructional program." If the objective in this exercise in the numbers game is merely to raise standardized test scores, the "instructional program" will be pretty much the same as its failed predecessor.

In the "Restart Model" a charter school or "management organization" will replace the regular public school (read: privatization of public schools). Not all charter schools are bad, certainly. However, one must consider the negative impact they have had on New York City as reported in this and many other similar blogs in setting parents of minority communities against each other and stigmatizing the students and former graduates of "failed schools" that are replaced by charters. Moreover, there is little evidence that charters are performing any better than regular public schools given their "ability" to cherry pick the most ready learners and reduce the number of students with learning disabilities and language limitations from being counted in their "test scores." It is hard not to conclude that charters are not the solution to the problems of public education: in fact, they add to these problems.

"School Closings" as a solution by enrolling "students in higher achieving schools in the district" presupposes that there are other schools in the district within easy access to the students who have just lost their neighborhood school. It also does not recognize that the schools to which these students transfer become overburdened and will themselves become low-achieving. A recent example of this educational catastrophe occurred when after the closing of Far Rockaway High School, the flood of students that overcrowded and overwhelmed the resources of Beach Channel High School has brought it down as well, at least according to Chancellor Klein's bizarre notion of "failure."

Finally, Obama's "Transformational Model" leaves the school intact but requires it to address "teacher effectiveness, instruction, learning and planning and operational flexibility." To what end: so it can get higher numbers on standardized tests?

If President Obama believes that some teachers should be fired, I agree with him: for molesting a student; for not showing up for class; for failing to make an effort to provide a positive environment in the classroom within the limitations imposed by social and economic conditions. But a teacher should not be fired for being unable to raise standardized test scores. Using test scores, especially when they are so arbitrary in what they prove, as a way of measuring a teacher's fitness to continue to teach is, as politely as I can put it: non-productive.

Most, although not by any means all, of our educational issues can be ameliorated by addressing the underlying problems which contribute to the likelihood of a poor education: poverty. With no mention of the many factors caused by poverty that lead to poor learning conditions, Obama's program for improving education in the United States is as likely to succeed as getting better weather by firing the local meteorologist