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“School Reform” Manifesto: The Reality Check

Last week the Corporate Model School Reformers issued a manifesto.  Like most manifestos, it’s simple and slick … and wrong.

And like most of what we get from Madison Avenue, let the buyer beware. Look past the platitudes and read the fine print.  (User Guide: Platitudes underlined; fine print Translations in italics; followed by Reality Check):

  • Remove archaic rules on hiring teachers. (Translation:  Anybody can teach.) Reality:  Corporate School Reformers never talk about doing what Finland has done to reach its top international rank. In Finland, it’s harder to get into a college of education than a law school.  Their preparation is rigorous.  All teachers earn master’s degrees.  All complete residencies under the tutelage of master teachers. Finland makes it impossible to hire an unprepared teacher.
  • Easily replace veteran teachers with “new, enthusiastic” teachers. (Translation: Younger is better than Older.) Reality:  The Corporate School Reformers are biased against career teachers even though research shows that it takes time to learn the art of teaching. My first year teaching was probably my least effective year. 
    Models built around churning new teachers into tough schools and churning them out after a year or two leave those schools in the worst possible predicament. Schools need experienced teachers who will stay the course.
  • Make it easier to fire bad teachers and reward good ones. (Translation:  We want to evaluate, pay, and fire teachers based on students’ standardized test scores.) Reality:  Teachers have the right to defend themselves if they feel they are being dismissed unfairly. Unions don’t want incompetent teachers in the classroom either.  The unions have the right to ask for a process that’s fair and reasonable. What’s not reasonable is the mantra of Corporate School Reformers:  High test scores get you money. Low test scores get you fired.
  • Tons of research makes it clear that high test scores do not equal high quality education. But Corporate School Reformers like to keep it simple, and test scores certainly are simplistic. They’re a one-size dipstick being used to check quality.  Kids need more than test technicians.  They need teachers who know class management, instructional design and presentation, best practices on assessment, how to use data effectively. And they need teachers who inspire them.
  • Demand all children achieve. (Translation:  All kids must score high on standardized tests.) Reality:  Standardized tests are extremely limited and hyper-focusing on them actually results in less time being spent on things that are more important—thinking, creating, designing, synthesizing, analyzing, building, communicating—just about all the “ings” that get you a good job or into college.
  • Give parents choices. (Translation:  More charter schools.) Reality:  There are very good charter schools and there are very good public schools.  The problem is that the hype about charters exceeds the reality. There are very bad charter schools.  There are very bad public schools.  (Only 17% of charter schools score better than public schools.  A whopping 83% do worse or no better.) The real issue isn’t how many charters but rather how do we create schools that work for all students.

    Students work on a counting exercise at Denver's Math and Science Leadership Academy

    What really matters? The freedom to collaborate—like Denver’s Math & Science Leadership Academy, a public school?  Creative ways of welcoming parents from immigrant communities—like Putnam City West High School in Oklahoma?  Parents want choices that will prepare their kids for college and careers—things like afterschool programs and sports and the arts.  They want safe and healthy schools.  They sometimes need community services, health and dental care.  We need to learn from each other and make sure all students have these choices, not just those who win a lottery.

  • Label teachers unions as an obstacle to reform. (Translation: Unions don’t care about kids or good teachers.) Reality:  A first-year kindergarten teacher called me when her principal said he was not renewing her contract.  Stupidly, he admitted to her that she was a very good teacher; but that he had promised his friend’s daughter a position.  The union saved the job of that very good teacher.
    Good teachers want to be treated fairly, and unions make sure teachers get their due process rights. But that’s not all they get from their union.  Good teachers also want us to fight for reasonable class sizes, books, and new technology. They want us to stand up against testing abuse.  They want us to fight for their professionalism and respect.

Finally…

It would be nice if Corporate School Reformers got out more.  Maybe see other people.

They only see New York City, Chicago or Washington, D.C. and they assume that’s how all public schools look. They never mention places where the union is leading the transformation of public schools.  I proudly taught in Salt Lake City suburbs and homeless shelters for 20 years and got to be a part of our union-supported career ladder program.

I’ve seen what teachers and their union are doing in Seattle to make parents true partners.  Helena, Montana has a model evaluation and pay system—that the union helped design—to attract the brightest and keep the best.

Hamilton County, Tennessee, is building better teachers through thoughtfully designing professional development—funded by the union.  Manitowoc, Wisconsin, negotiated a contract with the teachers’ union that demands accountability and excellence from staff.

The Corporate School Reformers’ manifesto is an ode to the past decade where we labeled, ranked, punished, hired and fired on the basis of standardized tests, and where we ignored the comprehensive needs of poor communities because we were all about simple solutions.

No more cosmetic school reforms.  It’s time for something real. Something that’s already working in our public schools.  Time for a cable news truck to pull up to Helena, Montana.

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3 Comments

  1. Linda Somo says:

    Loved your insightful, informed responses to the Corporate Model. You give us great ammunition for answering those who wish to destroy the best institution this country has ever developed, public education.

  2. Donna Waelter says:

    Thanks, Lily, for a very thoughtful response. I’ll share this with many colleagues!

  3. Sabrina says:

    They not only need to see other people, they need to see other movies! Instead of Waiting for Superman, try August to June or Race to Nowhere!

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