THE BLOG
05/06/2013 02:04 pm ET | Updated Jul 06, 2013

The Sky Isn't Falling on Public Education

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When I was in kindergarten, my class put on a Mother's Day rendition of the play Henny Penny for our mothers, grandmothers, and other adoring fans. Almost three decades later I entered the education reform community and have been reliving scenes from this fable ever since. Only in this grown-up version instead of Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, and Goosey Loosey confusing an acorn falling from a tree for a falling sky, it is the varying factions paid to protect the education status quo who are confusing an attempt to authentically engage parents, evaluate teachers partially on student progress and expand high quality education options with a falling sky.

Take for example the current, though almost over, Missouri Legislative Session. In late January Representative Kathryn Swan (R-Cape Girardeau) filed legislation to require that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) issue a simplified school report card that would identify all schools as having received an A, B, C, D, or F.

Anyone without a Masters in Education who has tried to understand Missouri's current school report card would appreciate why a new one is needed. The lobbyists representing the teacher unions, administrators, school boards, and others assigned to protect the current system went pleading to legislators and editorial boards that if this bill became law, the sky would fall. They claimed that once a transparent school report card was implemented the first thing to fall from the sky would be a voucher system, then teachers and students with exceptionally low morale would come tumbling after, followed closely behind would be plummeting real estate values. Lastly they told legislators they would need to find much bigger umbrellas to protect themselves from the hoards of parents falling from the sky onto the Capitol grounds while advocating for expanded school choice.

Unfortunately for all those who spread the message to policy makers that the sky would fall if parents really knew how schools were doing, the real numbers tell a different story. This preliminary information, obtained from DESE through an open records request, reveals that about 75 percent of schools in Missouri would get an A or a B under the proposed legislation and that less than 15 percent of Missouri's 2000+ schools would be deemed failing.

Likewise, when reformers and legislators have proposed teacher evaluations be based in part on student academic growth, the education establishment's reaction has been paramount to Henny Penny's. For example, in Missouri an American Federation of Teachers Local 420 representative told the Senate Education Committee that if we altered teacher evaluations and then "...fired all the bad teachers in places like Saint Louis..." we would have "tons" classrooms with no certified teacher. However, in a New York Times article on March 31, 2013 it was reported that changing evaluations only resulted in a small increase in the number of teachers rated below effective. These findings support what education reformers in Missouri have been saying -- we don't want to change evaluations so that the sky will fall on Missouri's teachers. We want to change evaluations to begin measuring and providing meaningful feedback to educators about the only thing that really matters, student academic growth.

Lastly, the screams to duck and cover because the sky is going to crush us all are at their most shrill when someone dare suggest children should have access to more high quality education options. To see examples of this you again need not look beyond Jefferson City, Missouri. This year, Representative Dwight Scharnhorst (R-Saint Louis County) and Representative Jay Barnes (R-Jefferson City) each are offering modest proposals to provide educational opportunities to unique learners. Scharnhorst offered HB458 that would provide a scholarship tax credits to children on the autism spectrum. Barnes offered HB470 to allow enrollment in a virtual school program for no more than 1.75 percent of Missouri K-12 students. These two bills combined would affect an incredibly small number of children in an enormously positive way.

To no one's surprise when these two bills started moving through the Missouri House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee first the administrators association began running through the Capitol hallways and sending emails shouting that the sky was falling. They were followed closely by the teacher unions who went along with them yelling about the falling sky without question. Eventually the school board association and cooperating school districts of both Kansas City and St. Louis went along with the others. They were all chanting in panicked tones to legislators that if they give permission to parents of autistic children to send their child to a school better equipped to educate them that the sky would fall and crush the entire $7 billion public education system in Missouri.

Once again, the evidence that such panic is not only unnecessary but also in many ways a deliberate attempt to mislead, is strong. Idaho, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, and Virginia all have virtual school options and yet the sky did not fall on their still strong traditional public school systems. Likewise, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia have scholarship tax credits for children with special needs and in each of those states the sky is still firmly in place.

At the end of Henny Penny, all the barnyard animals are so desperate to get to the King to warn him of the falling sky that they believe Foxy Loxy when she tells them she knows a short cut. Sadly for them, they follow Foxy into her lair where she presumably eats them. The barnyard animals' ridiculous panic about the falling sky blinds them from the actually dangerous fox. This is also not much different than what is happening with in the factions of the education establishment. Their fear of change is blinding them from the real danger -- they are becoming stagnant and unable to meet the changing needs of America's parents and students. I would hate to see our public school system meet the same fate as Henny Penny and the bunch. Maybe soon one of them will look up and see the "dangers" are actually just acorns.