Monday, July 11, 2011

The Grand Coalition Against Teachers

Firing Line: The Grand Coalition Against Teachers
by: Joanne Barkan, Dissent | Op-Ed

IN A nation as politically and ideologically driven as ours, it’s remarkable to see so broad an agreement on what ails public schools. It’s the teachers. Democrats from various wings of the party, virtually all Republicans, most think tanks that deal with education, progressive and conservative foundations, a proliferation of nonprofit advocacy organizations, right-wing anti-union groups, hedge fund managers, writers from right leftward, and editorialists in most mainstream media—all concur that teachers, protected by their unions, deserve primary blame for the failure of 15.6 million poor children to excel academically. They also bear much responsibility for the decline of K-12 education overall (about 85 percent of all children attend public schools), to the point that the United States is floundering in the global economy.
In the last few years, attention to the role of public school teachers has escalated into a high-profile, well-financed, and seriously misguided campaign to transform the profession based on this reasoning: if we can place a great teacher in every classroom, the achievement gap between middle-class white students and poor and minority students will close; all students will be prepared to earn a four-year college degree, find a “twenty-first-century job” at a good salary, and help to restore U.S. preeminence in the world economy…..

For most ed reformers, better a train wreck than no reform. They want as much change as possible as fast as possible in order to take advantage of momentum and the favorable political climate. The rush to pass state laws has provided their greatest opportunity so far. In response, they’ve skillfully built state campaigns, spending millions on organizers who advise lawmakers and legislative staffs, generate grassroots support, and run ad campaigns. A pipeline of private money—most of it from large private foundations—funds their state operations just as it funds almost all the ed reform movement’s activities. Two groups in particular—Stand for Children(headquartered in Portland) and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER, headquartered in New York City)—have played substantial roles by setting up branches in legislative battle states. Stand has a long list of contributors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which donated $5.2 million between 2005 and 2010. DFER gets most of its money from financiers, especially hedge fund managers.

It’s difficult to overstate the role of the mega-rich private funders: look into any ed reform project—even those that appear to be individual or small local efforts—and you’ll likely come across the large foundations and financiers. This is typical: a small group of Indiana teachers campaigned successfully for their legislature to abolish seniority-based layoffs. They received media coverage but neglected to say that they had been recruited by Teach Plus, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based group that operates on a $4 million grant given to them in 2009 by the Gates Foundation (New York Times, May 21, 2011).
Evaluating Teachers: It’s Not Rocket Science and Shouldn’t Be
While ed reformers push a top-down technocratic procedure, the programs for assessing teacher performance that actually work take a radically different approach. They’re based on two assumptions: administrators and teachers should design and implement a program together, and it should incorporate “professional development” (showing teachers how to improve). One such program—“Peer Assistance and Review” (PAR)—is being used successfully in seven school districts around the country: in Toledo since 1981, Cincinnati since 1985, Rochester since 1987, Minneapolis since 1997, San Juan since 2000, Montgomery County since 2001, and Syracuse since 2005….
With the zealots’ mix of certainty and fervor, ed reformers have made this a wretched time to be a public school teacher. Indeed, fewer and fewer people are interested in trying. In the last seven years, the number of Californians seeking to become teachers dropped 45 percent (California Watch, December 14, 2010). In 2011, due to declining interest, Yale ended both its undergraduate teacher preparation and certification program and its Urban Teaching Initiative, a tuition-free M.A. program for students committed to teaching in New Haven’s public schools. Teachers all over the country—in affluent districts as well as high-poverty schools—are dispirited. In New York City, 50 percent of all new hires leave after five years in the classroom.
Read the entire piece.

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