I just read a wonderful book on the devastating effects of education reform in Newark. It helped me put together a long term perspective on these “education reform” efforts, and I wrote the following essay. I hope you find it useful.
One thing that really struck me. These “reformers” are relentless in pursuing their agenda, over a period of decades. And, like Republicans, they are completely resistant to the decades of facts that show that their agenda does not improve student learning. This is, of course, because student learning is the last thing they care about.
I would be interested in your feedback. Enjoy!
I just finished reading The Prize by Dale Russakoff. It is well worth the read. It describes the changes in the Newark Public Schools resulting from Mark Zuckerberg’s eye popping $100,000,000 donation to them.
Several things struck me about this book:
1. The Newark Public Schools are woefully underfunded.
2. In spite of many well-attended community meetings, the leadership (Zuckerberg, Cory Booker, Chris Christie) knew exactly what they wanted to do and did it anyway. The community meetings were just a sham – the thousands of people attending them had no meaningful input.
3. The playbook was the standard playbook – close many “failing” schools, replace them with charters, fire many teachers and other school workers, disrupt the lives of hundreds of students by transferring them to new and unfamiliar schools.
4. Sweeten the pot for charters by lavishing large amounts of money from Zuckerberg’s donation on them. This paid for useful things – extra teachers in the classrooms, social workers and other support staff that could help students needing extra help and, of course, newly refurbished facilities. Mind you, this extra money wouldn’t last forever, but in the short run, they make the charter schools seem attractive. And by the time the money runs out, the public schools are badly damaged.
5. What struck me most about this “reform” is how exactly the same improvements could be made in the regular public schools if there was enough money, and if they money got to the classrooms, and not into a bloated central office bureaucracy.
Let’s go back to the issue of funding. Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980. His first major initiative was to:
1. Double the military budget in peacetime.
2. Give an equal amount of money to the top 1% in the form of tax cuts.
3. Greatly reduce federal aid to the states. Massachusetts saw a $600,000,000 cut in federal aid (this is 1980 dollars). As a result, state aid to cities and towns was slashed, and local school boards were left to make up the difference, either by raising property taxes (regressive, and always unpopular), or by cutting the school budget. They coped in many ways, one of which was to defer maintenance. Unwilling to cut services directly (increase class size etc.), they instead raided the maintenance budget to pay for the day-to-day running of the schools. This can work for a year or two, but after 35 years, you wind up with the situation in Newark, and indeed all over the country, where the school buildings are literally falling apart.
These policies were continued under both Bush presidencies, squeezing the public schools, and, indeed, all human services, even more.
The remedy for all this is money – lots of money, reliably available every year, and funded by taxes. All the schools in the country need to be rebuilt, not just a few “charter schools,” and with taxpayer money, not philanthropy, which comes and goes, has many strings attached and is not accountable to an elected body.
What was most striking about the book was how an infusion of serious money could transform regular public schools into much higher performing schools simply by paying for the things that private philanthropy pays for in charter schools.
They gave the example of a particularly gifted kindergarten teacher who had taught successfully for many years in the Newark Public Schools, and who was deeply committed to the public schools, as opposed to charter schools. But in 2014, she left the public school for a charter school. Why? In her public school class, she had a class with two disturbed children who would throw furniture at her and the other students. Her repeated requests for an aide who could help her handle this situation went unheeded. Then she went to the charter school. She has a class of 26 children. In the classroom are also another full time teacher and a learning specialist who conducts small sessions with students in groups of eight or nine. When she has a disruptive student, the administration sends in a social worker to help. All of this is paid for with Zuckerberg’s philanthropy.
This example made a deep impression on me and left me with several questions:
1. It’s obvious that exactly the same interventions, paid for with taxpayer money (the money stolen by Ronald Reagan and his successors), done in the regular public school in this same teacher’s class would have had exactly the same result. This is how education should be funded.
2. What happens in ten years, when the charter school philanthropy money runs out? We will be left with a shattered public school system, whose faculties are being decimated and whose buildings are being destroyed. I doubt we have the money to rebuild the system. And the charter schools, without the extra support will be even worse. Their model is high teacher turnover. This, in the long run is not good for a school or for students. Interestingly, through all the upheaval caused by the education reform in Newark, the test scores did not improve.
My final question is the really big one. To me, charter schools and the education reform movement are simply stealth ways of destroying the public schools. Public schools are an enormous middle class entitlement. They also, collectively have a budget of approximately $700 billion per year. This is over 4% of the GDP. There are all kinds of venture capitalists who can’t wait to get their hands on this money to enrich themselves and their friends. They are willing to invest enormous sums of money to destroy the public schools, using the rhetoric, of course, of “improvement.” It is vital that they be stopped in their tracks immediately.
The implications for MTA and NEA are enormous. The movement to destroy public schools (“education reform”) is a well organized, national movement, with a long perspective. They have already been at it for several decades, and, despite repeated failures, they persist with their agenda. They are not interested in student achievement, and will not change their behavior just because the facts don’t support their assertions. The only way to counter this is for NEA and state affiliates such as MTA to also take a decades long view. The first thing to do would be to document and publicize the amount of money cut from school budgets since 1980. I’m sure it will be hundreds of billions of dollars. The next thing would be to show what could be done with that money right in the context of today’s public schools. I know this is a massive undertaking, but it is what is necessary to counter the education “reformers.”
It might seem surprising that, in spite of this philanthropy, the test scores in Newark did not improve. And yet this is perfectly understandable if you look at how charter schools work. They mainly rely on bright, young, idealistic and totally inexperienced teachers to do the teaching. They burn them out within a few years, ensuring that there will always be inexperienced teachers in the classroom. And they give them highly scripted lesson plans to follow. This is not a recipe for engaging or inspiring teaching. To the contrary, it encourages rote learning without the engagement that is so essential to genuine achievement. Students at charter schools may be well behaved, but they are not being inspired.