Sunday, October 25, 2015

School Reformers Cry “Wolf!”

What’s wrong with America’s educators these days? Why don’t they believe school reformers when they say they have plans to “fix the schools?”

Maybe it’s because real educators want nothing more than to work, unimpeded, with actual children.

Maybe it’s because the reformers have cried, “Wolf!” once too often. Or twenty times too often.

Doubtless, millions of educators across the country could add examples to this kind of story. But I’ll start with Rod Paige, Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush. You may recall that while serving as superintendent of the Houston City Public Schools, Mr. Paige won acclaim for the “Houston Miracle.” On the strength of his walk-on-water powers, he followed Mr. Bush to Washington in 2001, where the Texas duo promised to duplicate miracles on a fifty-state stage.

Simply stated, Mr. Paige claimed to have reduced dropouts in many inner city high schools to zero.

Yep: zero!

It turned out later that the “Houston Miracle” was less miracle and more a matter cooking the books. One Houston high school, for example, managed to classify all 462 dropouts as “transfers.” Unfortunately, by the time everyone realized Mr. Paige couldn’t turn water into wine he was ensconced at the U. S. Department of Education.

On January 8, 2002, President Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law. Now it was the turn of Congress and the president to shout “Lupus!” Once this blockbuster legislation was implemented, they promised we could erase all racial gaps in academic performance. Follow the rules and regulations and every child in America would be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

So, what really happened? Rules and regulations spread like kudzu. Standardized testing and test prep overwhelmed everything. Time for art, music and physical education were slashed from the curriculum. Data-collection dominated the lives of frontline educators and took time away from doing what they truly needed to do. Days and weeks and in some cases months that should have been devoted to meaningful instruction were wasted. The National Assessment for Educational Progress would report in 2009 that racial gaps in reading and math were not closing. Despite all the time, effort and money poured into testing, scores in reading and math at the fourth and eighth grade levels rose no faster than they had before No Child Left Behind passed, when educators were still free to work with students in their own creative fashion.

Millions of educators on the frontlines of learning knew testing wasn’t working. What they knew didn’t matter. More and more reformers, most of whom had never bothered to teach, added to the cacophony.

“Wolf,” blundering billionaires like Bill Gates shouted, insisting everyone should listen to them because they had so much money. They knew what was “best” for the children and demanded all kinds of new “standards” for public school students. They said teachers had to be “held accountable” for test scores and prodded like dumb cattle to advance in the direction the reformers had charted. But they had no idea what was good for those teachers, and more importantly, no idea what was good for all those public school children. Frankly, they preferred to send their offspring to private school where educators were treated like adults and professionals.

“Wolf,” snarled Michelle Rhee, for a time the nation’s most famous school reformer. Rhee actually taught for three whole years but spent the rest of her time in education clambering to the top of the bureaucratic ladder. In 2008 she took over the Washington, D. C. schools. Appearing on the cover of Time magazine that fall, she promised to raise test scores or raise hell for teachers and administrators. Over the next three years several hundred educators who failed to raise scores were fired.

Others, who did raise scores, received fat bonuses. Then Rhee skipped town just in time to avoid responsibility for a massive cheating scandal. It turned out raising scores was easy if you knew how to ply an eraser.

Across this great nation, bold reformers like Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel I. Klein continued to put forward their new plans. Yes, they promised. They could “fix schools”—in this case, in New York City. So Bloomberg and Klein “graded” schools. And they closed “failing” schools. And they opened up lots of charters.

Sure enough! Graduation rates rose! The racial gaps in performance narrowed! Test scores went up!

At first, there was celebrating in the ranks of the reformers. But it turned out schools under intense pressure to raise graduation rates simply made graduation easier. It didn’t matter that 1-in-5 New York City kids was chronically absent and that this wasn’t actually the fault of educators. Dennis Bunyan, a senior at Wadleigh Secondary School in Harlem, was typical, admitting he was absent so often from his senior English class that he “basically didn’t attend.” Yet, through a special program of “credit recovery,” he was allowed to do three essays in ten hours and gain a full Language Arts credit. “I’m grateful for it,” he told a reporter, “but it also just seems kind of, you know, outrageous. There’s no way three essays can cover a semester of work.”

Next, it turned out that the racial gaps in performance hadn’t narrowed at all in New York City.

Frontline educators knew that most “racial” gaps had far more to do with poverty than race or any other factor. Yet, when they tried to point this out reformers shouted, “Wolf!” all the louder.

In any case, when the State of New York phased out tests tied to No Child Left Behind and new tests tied to Common Core were implemented, New York City’s “progress” turned out to be evanescent.

Scores in the city (and across the state) plummeted.

With the election of President Obama and the appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education new voices joined in all the shouting. Mr. Duncan promised to lead a “Race to the Top” and tame the sharp-toothed beast. The wolf, he assured everyone, wouldn’t stand a chance once he took office.

Something was still wrong, however, and frontline educators knew it. Like Secretary Paige, Secretary Duncan first won acclaim for fixing big city schools, in Mr. Duncan’s case, the Chicago Public Schools. Oddly enough, after he left the Windy City, the schools he “fixed” didn’t stay fixed. Gang violence, to cite just one terrible example, continued to plague the city. School-age kids were cut down by the hundreds  and a focus on testing did nothing to staunch the blood.

After Mr. Duncan moved to Washington, a fresh reformer joined the fray. Mayor Rahm Emanuel claimed—what else!—to have a plan to tame the wolf. He turned many schools over to private corporations to run as for-profit charters. He hand-picked a new superintendent. Meanwhile, one Chicago charter chain made headlines by charging misbehaving students $386,000 for discipline packets. The new superintendent decided to hand over $23 million in no-bid Chicago Public School contracts to a former employer. In return, company officials promised a huge signing bonus whenever she left her CPS post and rejoined their operations.

It turned out there were huge profits to be made by those who shouted “wolf” in the most vociferous fashion. In New York City, in 2013, sixteen top executives for sixteen charter chains “earned” more than the chancellor of the New York City Public Schools. Deborah Kenny of Village Academy led the big cash parade with $499,146. In Columbus, Ohio, seventeen charters went out of business in a single year, but not before founders walked away with large stacks of taxpayer dollars. Across the country, 2,500 charter schools closed their doors and went bust, founders often taking everything, including the last rolls of toilet paper with them. K-12 Inc., an online charter operation, to cite one especially egregious example, paid five top executives $34 million in just two years, 2013 and 2014, and devoted $26.5 million, most of it taxpayer cash, to advertising in 2010 alone.

And what about that “Race to the Top,” touted so loudly and so often by Mr. Arne Duncan?

It turned out that real educators and real students were forced to wade through an ever deeper quagmire of rules and regulations and devote days and weeks to test prep and test-taking, for no real purpose.

After listening to reformers shout, “wolf, wolf, wolf,” reading scores for high school seniors were lower in 2013 than twenty years earlier.

Billions had been wasted on tests and test preparation. Math scores for seniors—after a decade of misguided reforms—rose no faster than before all the “school reforming.”

After all the focus on testing the racial gaps—actually, the poverty gaps—still refused to close.

And, even though more students now graduated, ACT scores remained flat from 1990 until now.

And SAT scores in reading, math and writing (that third test added only in 2006) all declined.

It never mattered. The reformers kept up the shouting. The people who actually worked with America’s youth kept doing the best they could. Here in Ohio, lawmakers said we had to prepare students for tests in reading, math, science and social studies. “Wolf,” they cried in 2002. Educators were fooled into believing. But the tests in science and social studies proved expensive to grade. They were poorly designed, too. So the people who cried “wolf” said, “never mind.”

Those two tests were killed in 2009.

In 2010, Ohio lawmakers decided all the tests tied to No Child Left Behind were useless. Educators would have to be on the lookout for a wolf of a different color. Suddenly, legislators in Columbus and more than forty other states cried out in favor of Common Core! This time the tests politicians were demanding and paying fresh billions to have created would fix everything!

Only this wolf, too, was a figment of the imagination. In 2014 lawmakers in Ohio and in many of those same states that voted to implement Common Core rubbed their eyes—and the wolf they feared was no longer there—and they decided Common Core was a terrible idea.

But wait! Was that another fanged monster approaching? The tests used in Ohio in 2014, and tied to Common Core, would be tossed. New tests would be created—at new cost to taxpayers. Teachers and students would again be required to prepare for a battery of tests they had never seen, even though a decade of testing had resulted mainly in damaging the process of learning.

“Wolf!” the reformers cried yet again.

Only now, educators no longer believed them. The educators grumbled and cried and cursed at all they had been put through, at all the time lost when they could have been helping children.

Parents, too, began to understand. The people who kept shouting “wolf” had fooled them far too often.

John J. Viall is the author of Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching, a book about what good teachers can be expected to do, as well as a look at what others must do if students are to achieve a well-rounded education.

The story is based on his 33 years of experience in junior high and middle school classrooms.

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  1. The first cry of wolf that I'm aware of was in 1983 when President Ray-Gun, the evil emperor of the U.S. for eight years, released a flawed and fraudulent report called "A Nation at Risk" that was later revealed as a fraud by the Sandia Report in 1991, a report that has been ignored by every president since Ray-Gun.

    1. Ah, true, true; I didn't want to go back too far. And who can forget that tower of virtue, William Bennett, his Secretary of Education, who went on to blow several millions in Las Vegas.

  2. Paul Meyer commented on the Facebook page of Dump Duncan:

    When NCLB first hit my school, the powers that be did start noticing the "underserved groups." I was given a job to oversee and monitor our many hundreds of ELs - as 1/6 of my day. This was indeed an improvement over zero, and I worked at it during many extra hours. However, it lasted one semester and was terminated for the old standby "lack of funds." The responsibility for monitoring and counseling all those students was then tacked onto the already-overfull list of duties of a member of the office staff. And then it just faded away, along with primary-language and bilingual classes, and we were back to "sink or swim." But the testing (in English) of these students who don't know English continued to expand to the intended point, i.e. that those students and the school as a whole sank and could be labeled "failing" and part of the school could be taken over by a charter.