Public School Held Hostage
Written as an Open Letter to Education Week, the author, a teacher, has also sent a copy to President Bush. The frustration and rage she expresses is echoed by many teachers and parents wjose messages fill by in-box.
This past week I gave my 8th grade algebra students the CA STAR test, and wondered to what avail? The notion we can force students to learn by testing them is absurd and defies common sense, just as assuming that people can improve their health merely by getting a check-up or physical exam.
Statistics prove the lowest performing schools are located in areas with the highest number of children living in poverty while highest performing schools are in wealthier districts. Students living in poverty, whose primary language is not English, who are transients, learning, physically or emotionally disabled perform poorly on standardized tests. More testing will not improve their academic achievement, but will reinforce their abandonment by the government and the system. More testing will make their "failure" more official, so the schools they attend and the teachers who work with them can be cast as the scapegoats. In reality, the under-funding of Head Start, nutrition, health, tutoring, after-school programs counseling and other vital services is what has adversely impacted their ability to bridge the achievement gap. The National Research Council (in a congressionally mandated report) found high-stakes testing has the unwanted result of "punishing and undermining the academic achiev ement of students who already face unequal educational opportunities." Furthermore this report stated: such testing is a bipartisan betrayal, reinforcing the worst aspects of the status-quo, categorizing millions of students as failures, while holding educators accountable (who have no control over socio-economic or other factors affecting student "performance"). This is akin to holding meteorologists accountable for the weather conditions (rather than for the accuracy of their own reporting or forecasting).
Public schools are held hostage by corporate interests. Businesses want highly-skilled, well-educated workers, but they want them without being taxed or investing in education; they have lobbied for these pseudo-reforms to evade their responsibility to children, schools and communities while expanding their influence and self-serving interests upon them. Educators and school administrators are simultaneously given more responsibility, increasing demands, constraints or mandates, and held accountable as their resources and decision-making latitude have diminished.
The demand to drill for tests intensifies. Educators must abandon teaching when and how to apply knowledge and concepts to real-world situations. Being able to work a math problem correctly does not indicate a student can reason and apply the concept empirically, any more than identifying a gerund or participle suggests a student is capable of composing and writing an essay.
The NCLB law makes capricious, unattainable demands. Expecting every student to achieve grade-level proficiency in reading, math and science within thirteen years is preposterous. Would the government require the Justice Department to reform every criminal in the U.S. within this same time limit, threaten to close prisons, hold wardens and guards liable for the outcome?
Can anyone be naïve enough to believe the reduced funding of public education (on federal and state levels) has no correlation with a decline in levels of student achievement? When funding levels in our state were among the highest, our rankings were consistently 1st nationwide. Current levels of funding in our state are well below the national average with California ranking 48th of all 50 states, and student achievement rankings 46th. Yet prevailing rhetoric insists there’s no relationship in the parity of adequate funding and student achievement.
Educators in California are among the highest paid, which many decree as an outrage. Yet according to the CPI, average salaries of teachers (currently $50,000 in California) would be the equivalent of $28,300 in all other states (except Hawaii and Alaska). The government’s 2004 HHS Poverty Guidelines established a national poverty level of $21,370 for a family of four. Highly qualified teachers are flocking to affluent suburban districts (where salaries and benefits are better, and measurable test/achievement scores will reflect well upon their “merit”), or leaving the profession for jobs that pay far better with less stress.
To be equitable, all governing policy-makers and legislators (from the President down to local and municipal office-holders) should also be held accountable when the objectives set for them are not met. Would anyone of these leaders be willing to leave office, forfeit pay and benefits if they did not attain stringent goals within a specified time limit? Will our President, who advocates accountability hold himself liable should he fail to achieve what most citizens expected of him, such as: eliminating the national debt, balancing the budget, insuring the sustained solvency of Social Security, fully enforcing EPA standards, ratify sane gun control legislation, eliminate terrorist groups and threats world-wide, enact campaign and election reform, term limits, fair (non-regressive taxation – flat tax), etc.? Would those same leaders promoting accountability and merit-pay initiatives for educators leave everything they've worked for behind, based upon a one-size-fits-all ind icator by which to gage their "performance?”
Clearly, the education reformists and policy-makers would not be able to meet standards and demands they’ve set for classroom teachers. Few of them could even pass the tests I just gave my 13 year-old 8th graders or the CAHSEE (high school exit exam), much less the tests required for certification of educators and administrators.
I teach 8th grade math in the San Francisco Unified School District, hold multiple subject and math credentials, am completing my master’s degree, and have received consistently favorable evaluations from the administrators each year being assessed and observed. I pay for workshops, conferences, continuing professional development and education (done on personal time), as the school district cannot afford to subsidize these or compensate me. My average class size is 32 students with a disparity of abilities all in one room together: GATE, mainstreamed special education, RSP or ELL. Many students are victims of abuse, neglect, poverty, street or domestic violence, living in homes wrought with substance addictions. Nearly 10% of my students live in group, foster homes, or with extended relatives, their own parents having abandoned or being incapable of caring for them. I have a couple from YGC (juvenile detention) on study-release. I buy supplies for my classroom and stud ents out-of-pocket since the school can’t afford them. The actual cost far exceeds the $250 Educator Expense deduction allowed on my income tax return. (An amount 4-5 times that figure would be more realistic).
I am not a fan of labor unions any more than I favor religious, political or corporate self-serving interests and agendas intruding into my classroom. I find myself increasingly vulnerable, relying upon the protection of and collective voice of professional educators (in the NEA, CTA, AFT) as provocative rhetoric castigating my profession, colleagues, compounded by the cannibalization of public education intensifies. Contrary to former Secretary Paige’s assertion that educators’ unions are “terrorists,” public school districts, dedicated administrators and educators who work with children are the ones being threatened and terrorized by NCLB and similar initiatives deceptively designed to dismantle public education in favor of vouchers that will be exploited by the savvy, influential or wealthy to fund private education for their own children (at public expense), causing an even wider chasm between affluent and indigent children.
Governor Schwarzenegger had promised to restore funding of California schools under Prop. 98. He promised to be an advocate of children and education, but has betrayed the citizens (who passed the initiative to guarantee a minimal level of school funding). He’s lowered taxes for businesses (from whom he’s taken contributions), while contending educators are a “special interest group.” My only special interests are the 160 individual students I teach and mentor daily (from whom I take nothing, and to whom I give my time, effort, needed supplies and even cash – for lunch or bus fare). Can he say the same? Having played a “Kindergarten Cop” by no means qualifies him as an education leader. He will be the first California governor to be the “Terminator” of our children’s and the state’s future.
K. M. Andreou
Open Letter to Education Week and President Bush
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES