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Educating for Democracy: Who's Listening?

10/20/2010 07:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last Sunday (October 17, 2010), I attended an education forum sponsored by the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats at the Union Synagogue in Brooklyn. The presenters included Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, Akinlabi Mackell, director of the international organization SEEDS (Service Education Economic Development Science) Mona Davids, founder and president of the NY Charter Parents Association, John Tarleton, a reporter for The NY Indypendent and Martha Foote, founding member of Time Out for Testing. Each presented compelling evidence to stop the present "accountability" craze that is doing great damage to the public school system in this city, especially to the student population its most supposed to help.

Haimson demonstrated through a series of graphic statistics how not only has Mayoral control of the NY City schools NOT improved student learning but in many respects made it worse. She revealed the way in which high school graduation rates in these schools have been distorted by doubling the "discharge rate" of students not able to complete high school so that the percentage of students actually graduating look much better than they are. In terms of her special concern, although when he first took control of the schools Mayor Bloomberg had promised to reduce class size, it's actually increased.

Mackell stressed the importance of giving teachers in the city the educational tools and training they need so that they could teach minority students effectively by acquiring "cultural competence." He argued that the leadership of the schools and the educational system must be given to real educators rather than politicians and businessmen and that the classroom should be "student centered" rather than "teacher centered." He also presented the challenge to teachers to develop ways of motivating students to do their best learning through making their subjects relevant by relating them to the students' own experiences of everyday life.

Davids, a charter school parent, pointed out that despite impressions to the contrary created by the Mayor and Chancellor Klein, charter schools are NOT public schools. They are controlled by board members selected by charter operators with little if any teacher or parent input on policy decisions. She explained that for many of the "hedge fund operators" investing in a charter school, it was a business enterprise, not an educational enterprise. Tarleton also centered his presentation around the sources of money for supporting charter schools. He cited in particular Bill Gates and the Walton Family as major players in promoting and spreading charter schools. He also noted the trend toward "gentrifying" community colleges through screening out immigrant students and tied in particular the changes in programs at Medgar Evers College where a special program for providing education to prisoners was cancelled by the new president of the college.

Martha Foote focused on the misuse of high stakes standardized tests, which even the publisher of the tests, McGraw-Hill, warns should not be used as a principal source of information for determining student learning. She criticized the direction that student writing and reading was going in when they are being taught the "five-paragraph essay" instead of given complex writing assignments and are being required to read passages from texts instead of books. As she sees it: "the test has become the curriculum." As an alternative to over reliance on high-stakes, she suggests that student achievement and evaluation of successful teaching should be determined through multiple measurements such as class work, portfolios, teacher observations and home work. She indicated that instead of demonizing teachers and putting the blame on them for problems in learning, the public should be made aware of their value and their proper role in determining how to educate students instead of being dictated to by administrators.

In a forthcoming article (November 11, 2010) in the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch, the eminent educator, critiques the movie Waiting for 'Superman', which she deconstructed with her usual incisiveness and profound knowledge of the history of recent educational "reforms." She questions the simple-minded thesis of the film which presents charter schools as an "answer" to the "crisis" in education -- a "crisis" that has been around for the past forty years, ever since, as I believe, the standard of living of the working class began to decline -- and that the key to charter schools' success are "good teachers" and the removal of "bad teachers":

Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.

All of the issues that I and many other educators have advanced were powerfully and compellingly articulated in this article as well as the presentations at the Education Forum . But with all that educators know about what has to be done to improve learning in the schools, there is really one fundamental problem that has to be faced: Chancellor Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, the now-former superintendant of the DC schools, The New York Times and many other of the powers that be KNOW THE TRUTH. THEY'RE JUST NOT LISTENING! They know that doing anything to deal with these systemic failures of our economic and social system would be much more difficult than bashing teachers because it would challenge the status quo of the most powerful corporate entities in the country. They aren't interested in improving education: they are concerned with CREATING THE APPEARANCE OF DOING SOMETHING TO IMPROVE EDUCATION. As long as the public, many of which themselves did not get a solid education, believe that the Emperor has clothes, no reasoned discourse, even based on empirical evidence, is going to have an impact on changing the course of this educational disaster. To make a change in the direction in which we are going would require a massive protest of teachers to "stop the machine" and the parents of students who are getting trashed to support them. And there is a division within the most affected communities over the illusion that charter schools are "the answer."

But let's think about the happy day when there are no more charter schools but those run by parents and teachers; "high stakes" only refers to expensive sirloin; class size is down to fifteen in most schools; and all the teacher's unions are run by leaders who are socially conscious and not just "pork chop" unionists. Then what?

  1. Where are the "best and the brightest" teachers going to come from when the pool of the most able women who used to go into teaching are now in the "more respected" (read "lucrative") professions? When will teaching be given its due as it is in other countries, as a respected, difficult and demanding career especially with its recent denigration?
  2. When are we going to have a "national clearing house for teaching methods'" so we can have some consensus on "best practices" and develop seasoned mentors to give young teachers the guidance they need to make these teaching strategies work given there is nothing that works the same way for all young learners?
  3. When are poor economic conditions that definitely make an impact on young learners going to be seriously ameliorated in the only way possible: with a massive income redistribution through radical tax reform?
  4. When are the effects of racism and "nativism" going to be dealt with in a way that will unite rather than further divide our society?

When are these conversations going to be developed in order to arrive at solutions when most all of the intellectual energy many educators are spending now is in trying to stop and reverse the "accountability" mania?

Who will be listening to these issues in order to solve them?

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