Public Education on the Endangered Species List

It’s not really news that education “reform” remains a top priority for the Governor Rick Snyder and the legislature.  As a person with a direct stake in the outcome of this latest wave of teacher-bashing, I will continue to advocate on behalf of public education and I will continue to fight the Christian right’s attempt to take over the minds of our children.  This attempted take-over will be hidden behind a smoke screen of calls for more choice in education, less cost to the state, more free-market opportunities, etc.  But when the smoke is cleared, a small group of very self-interested folks with money see all of those things as a means to an end.  And that end is more of their religion in our schools.

Before I get accused of either creating or buying into some elaborate conspiracy theory, look at who has been given the job of rewriting Michigan’s School Aid Act.  It’s none other that the MackinacCenter’s Richard McClellan.  Yup, the same Richard McClellan who “championed” the failed school voucher system some years back.  The same Richard McClellan who runs the Oxford Foundation which is behind the latest attempt to dismantle public education.  The Oxford Foundation won’t tell us its Board of Directors, won’t reveal its funding sources, has nothing to do with Oxford University, and isn’t a foundation at all.  Yet Governor Snyder has entrusted them with re-writing the School Aid Act.   Richard McClellan has spent his life trying to get the state to pay for religious education; and he’s the man our governor has appointed to “reform” public education.

In so doing, no input from public educators was accepted.  Not one public school teacher, administrator, school board member, etc was invited to take part in the discussion of how our children will be educated in the future.   And what is the result of the Oxford Foundations elaborate “study”?   More cyber schools, more charter schools, less money for public education, and more.

The keys to infusing more religion into the minds of our young people come via charter schools and cyber schools.  Despite a sufficient track record on charter schools, there is no evidence that they are any more effective in educating children than public schools.  Rather than funding a comprehensive study of charter school effectiveness, the Oxford Foundation advocates lifting the cap on charter schools and opening charters to for-profit corporations, churches, etc.   The data on cyber schools is even more discouraging.  Without any sort of track record whatsoever, the floodgates have been opened on cyber school opportunities in Michigan.

Anecdotal evidence suggests cyber schools are especially inept at educating children. Cyber schools essentially allow students to sit at home, log into their computers, and sop up “education” online.   As for-profit companies are made in charge of developing curriculum and then assessing the success/failure of that curriculum, it doesn’t take a very big leap to see where this is going to go.   Lost in all of this is any sense of a definition of “effective education.”

We have come to accept that throwing “data” at a process automatically validates that process.  If we want to measure the effectiveness of education, let’s develop some standardized tests and then we’ll be able to see what is working and what isn’t.   People uniquely unqualified to develop genuine measures of effectiveness or to interpret results of those measures get star-struck at the prospect of being able to point at a graph on a screen to show where the successes and failures are in our educational system.

Several years ago I was on a school committee trying to figure out why so many students where not passing classes.   A group of teachers and administrators were assigned to a sub-committee to gather “data” on the problem.   A couple of months later they returned to the entire committee with puffy chests and pretty charts.  As I sat through their presentation I began to sink deeper into my chair.  Administrators were nodding their heads and smiling as each new slide was put up.   The sub-committee had surveyed students with failing grades and asked them why they thought they were failing. They gave them a list of possible reasons and tallied up what the students said.  I’m making up the numbers here, but they’re really no less valid than the “data” gathered by this sub-committee.  They revealed that 43% blamed apathy, and 32% blamed attendance, and 20% blamed failing to do homework, and on and on.

At the end of the report, everyone was smiling and proud of their hard work.  I raised my hand.   “Where is the answer choice: ‘My teacher sucks’?”  Silence in the committee room.  The air leaked out of their puffy chests and my principal frowned at me.  (He would later visit my classroom and tell me that I had to lighten up on my colleagues because, after all, they had put so much work into this.)   I laid out my objections to using this data to decide any policy.  My point was that we had asked students to identify causes of failure that were centered entirely around student behavior.  We didn’t ask about quality of teaching, the level of academic support, how education was affected by starting time of the school day, or parental support, or any number of other things that may contribute to student failure.  But here we were ready to actually implement policy because we had “data” and presumably because some people had worked “hard” to get it.

On the state-wide level, our measures are no more valid than those developed by those well-intentioned, but completely unqualified members of that sub-committee.  Standardized tests seek to measure student growth and school effectiveness.  To an educator, the idea that these things can be measured by testing students, under extreme time pressure, to recite back “knowledge” that was fed to them is an appalling insult to the profession.

Some years ago, Michigan abandoned parts of its own testing because it was just too darn expensive to invent the test, administer the test, score the test, and analyze the results.  But there had to be something.   What to do?  What to do?  In its infinite wisdom, the state decided to administer the ACT test to all high school juniors and THIS would be the valid measure of student growth and school effectiveness.  What is the ACT?  The ACT is used by colleges to presumably assess the college readiness of students across the country by asking 215 questions in a extremely tight time window.

It’s not hard to make the argument that the ACT is a really poor tool for assessing college readiness, since nothing on the test replicates what is done in college.  But that’s another argument for another day.  As shaky as the ACT might be in assessing college readiness, it’s a complete disaster for measuring student growth and school effectiveness.  The state issues a plethora of “content standards” which schools are supposed to teach students at every grade level.  When you take the ACT and try to match up what it is testing to those content standards, you won’t find a very good match.  In addition, if you accept that the ACT is a valid college readiness test, why are you giving it to hundreds of thousands of students who have neither the means, the desire, nor the tools to attend college?  Why are thousands of students in special education, some barely functioning, forced to take this same test and why are schools penalized when these students cannot score very well on this test?  Why?  Because it’s DATA!  We can take this test that doesn’t measure what we want our schools to teach and we can assess how well they’re doing their job!

I was talking to a student a few days ago about the ACT and about ACT math specifically.  When I told him that 4 of the 60 math questions were trigonometry, he slammed his pencil down and said “What?  I’m taking an entire semester of trig so I can answer 4 questions on the ACT?”  It was at that moment that I saw just how harmful the ACT is on a practical basis.   If students have now come to believe that the only thing worth learning is what is likely to show up on the test, we’ve gutted education and redefined it.  We have created a bunch of numbers that don’t measure things we’re interested in and we’ve discouraged students from really learning.

So it is under this same cloud that charter schools and cyber schools are now going to spread across the state.  Instead of offering students the opportunity to do some real thinking, we’re going to institutionalize the “Campbell’s Soup Model of Education.”  Let’s roll the kids down a moving belt, fill their heads with all the good things they’re supposed to know, seal up the can, and move them into the warehouse where thousands of identically labeled (and educated) students can now go out and NOT change the world.

But if McClellan gets his way, he and other religious zealots will have unencumbered access to our students and our taxes will be paying them to do it.  McClellan’s raison d’etre was defeated twice at the polls.  And as this administration seems quite willing to accept that the people just don’t know what’s good for them.  As loudly as we, the people, have spoken against infusing our education with religion, the governor is hell-bent on doing it anyway.


3 Comments on “Public Education on the Endangered Species List”

  1. Ann January 8, 2013 at 2:46 am #

    Interesting since this list suggests that numerous teachers, administrators, etc met with the Oxford Foundation

  2. Mark Pontoni January 8, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    Ann, thanks for reading and commenting. I never meant to imply that the Oxford Foundation didn’t talk to people from public education. The sad fact is, however, that no decision makers on this proposed legislation were from public education. Catholic schools, charter schools, yes. I will try to be more specific in future writings.

  3. Matt January 9, 2013 at 1:45 am #

    I actually called my local legislator and asked if there were any “traditional” public school representatives at table…. Response..”. There were public charter school reps….I’ll check into others”…that was six weeks ago.

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