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Eugene Weekly : Lead Story : 10.20.11

Reforming Education Reform

Teachers fight Wall Street/politicians’ war on schools 

by Alan Pittman

After a decade-long war on public education by Democratic and Republican presidents and Wall Street that has wracked schools with high-stakes bubble tests and crowded classes beyond fire codes, but has left kids no better educated, teachers are finally starting to fight back.

“Last year students at my school spent four to five weeks taking standardized tests, that doesn’t even include the time they spent preparing for those tests,” said teacher April LaCombe last week. LaCombe spoke through a bullhorn to a group of teachers protesting outside while U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech to Oregon Business Association (OBA) executives in Portland. Duncan joined Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates last year in calling for larger class sizes and privatization of public schools.

“When Barack Obama was elected, we teachers rejoiced,” said LaCombe, an east Portland teacher with 20 years of experience. “But with a heavy heart, we teachers watched those hopes disappear into thin air.”

“This year I gave three standardized tests to my students within the first month of school,” veteran teacher Joyce Rosenau told Obama’s education chief in a Portland middle school packed with teachers who had come to educate Duncan about classroom reality before he met with the corporate group. “Those students had to do test prep work instead of their reading groups,” Rosenau said. After the test cramming, “those students said they now hated reading,” she said.

Schools “are no longer rich nurturing places where children became problem solvers and active participants in their own learning,” Rosenau said. “I would ask you, Mr. Duncan, to remove the business model of education,” she said to wild applause from the teachers.

The Gates and Walmart foundations, Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg and other foundations headed by Wall Street hedge fund billionaires, technology executives and developers have worked closely with the Obama and Bush administrations and school districts to transform education into a corporate model with a bottom line focused on privatization and testing. Although they face the concentrated power of the most powerful politicians and wealthiest tycoons in the world, a grassroots uprising of teachers is fighting back. 

As Occupy Wall Street protests spread across the nation, a groundswell of teachers across the country are now fighting to end the bipartisan Wall Street occupation of public education. In July, thousands of teachers converged on Washington, D.C., for a Save Our Schools march on the White House. Local teachers plan to rally for better schools at noon this Saturday, Oct. 22, at the old Federal Building at 7th and Pearl.  

If schools spend about 20 percent of their time on standardized testing, as some teachers claim, then the nation has spent more than a trillion dollars forcing kids to fill in bubbles over the last decade alone. 

There’s little to show for it. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation’s most respected standardized test, shows scores that are essentially flat over the past three decades for 17 year olds. In international tests, the U.S. now trails far behind Finland, which has no standardized tests.

 In Oregon, where Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber has joined Republicans in pushing for using high-stakes tests to fire teachers and privatize schools, $6 billion has been spent on testing over the last decade using the same formula with similar flat results on the NAEP. 

Meanwhile, Colleen Works, the 2011 Oregon Teacher of the Year from Corvallis, said she struggles to educate the crowds of students crammed into her classes. “The Obama administration keeps talking about needing accountability for the teachers in the classroom, and yet I see no measure of accountability for those who are setting up the conditions that are set up to hold me accountable for my students when I have 199 students a day and less than 30 seconds for each one of them.”

Obama hired Duncan to head the nation’s schools even after the Chicago school system he ran failed to show significant progress on the NAEP. Duncan, who has no principal or teaching experience but did play professional basketball in Australia, went to a private high school with ample funding and small classes. 

That private school pedigree is also shared by many of the other powerful politicians and billionaires pushing big changes in public schools. Obama went to a private school in Honolulu and sends his kids to an expensive private school. Bill Gates went to a private high school that, like Duncan’s private alma mater, is exempt from government testing requirements and markets itself for small class sizes. 

In Oregon, Kitzhaber sent his son to a private school and just appointed a private school teacher to head his education efforts. 

Duncan, Kitzhaber and Wall Street school reformers have pushed converting public schools into privately managed charter schools as part of their reforms. 

But multiple studies have shown little evidence that charter schools are any better than public schools. While some are excellent, some are horrible and many are mediocre. 

“The research is clear, 80 percent of charter schools perform no better and often worse than traditional public schools,” Suzanne Cohen, a Portland seventh grade math and science teacher, told Duncan. 

This year Kitzhaber cut a deal with Republicans to get more power for himself over schools in exchange for allowing for-profit online charter school companies to make big profits by diverting more money from state education funding. 

The virtual schools have “limited accountability, oversight and transparency, and the largest one in Oregon failed to graduate 70 percent of its students,” Cohen said. 

This year private organizers of a hip-hop charter school in Portland spent $500,000 in federal school money without ever opening for a day of class.

Last year Duncan argued to conservative executives at the American Enterprise Institute that funding cuts for education were the “new normal.” The low funding “can, and should be, embraced to make dramatic improvements,” he said. Duncan called for increasing emphasis on testing by linking bubble scores to teacher pay, reducing pay for teachers with master’s degrees and “targeted increases in class size.”

But Forest Grove teacher Suzanne Cordes questioned the Obama administration’s spending priorities. “Those of us in the classrooms and working with Oregon students are extremely frustrated that our nation continues to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we can’t fund our programs and teachers in the classroom and even textbooks,” she told Duncan to loud applause.

Other teachers questioned a high-stakes testing focus that penalizes teachers and schools for trying to help the hardest-to-teach students. 

“Instead of punishing teachers for working with the students in the most impoverished neighborhoods, let’s gain stable funding, secure housing and a child poverty rate that is far below the 22 percent that we have now,” said LaCombe. 

Kevin Mechling, the dean of students at Portland’s Roosevelt High School, the poorest in the state, told Duncan, “We are held accountable for our students’ success in a society that is unable to provide them with their basic needs, needs that include a roof over their heads and food on their plates. When the students come into our classrooms, they are already at a disadvantage.”

Researchers have long known that family poverty is one of the greatest predictors of test performance. But testing advocates have dismissed consideration of poverty, calling it an excuse for bad teachers. 

But raising test scores has often had little to do with education. The most effective way to boost scores is to get different students.

That happens when privately run charter schools skim off the most motivated families. Only the most stable families with the most educated and motivated parents are likely to enter or even know about charter admission lotteries months before school starts. Those parents’ kids are already the most likely to succeed in school. Meanwhile, public schools are left with the least motivated families, special education kids and children learning English. 

 Another way to raise scores is to cram to the test. Studies have shown that cramming may raise scores on the target test, but does little to increase education and scores on other tests like the NAEP.

Another way is to simply cheat. Testing advocates hailed Atlanta’s rising scores, but this year the district was wracked by the largest cheating scandal in the nation’s history involving administrators and teachers at 44 schools. 

Another way is to simply change the test. Many states have dumbed down tests to show increased scores.

Test-driven reformers have called on modeling school reform on corporate America’s focus on bottom line results. But in recent years, the nation has seen scandal after scandal on Wall Street as once-lauded company executives like Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling and investors like Bernie Madoff have landed behind bars for cheating on results, and billions in supposed corporate value have evaporated.

With a tough re-election looming for Obama, there’s evidence that his administration is retreating from bashing the millions of teachers who worked to get him elected. 

Duncan has announced that he’ll allow waivers of the stringent No Child Left Behind requirements installed by George W. Bush and reinforced by Obama and which would have punished almost every public school in America as “failing” by 2014.

But it appears Duncan wants to exact even more high stakes testing in exchange for the waivers. “As we leave much of NCLB behind, we will never abandon accountability,” Duncan told the OBA executives. 

 Obama has called for increasing education spending as part of his jobs bill. Duncan told the OBA that Oregon would receive $350 million to prevent layoffs and support the hiring or rehiring of 4,600 educators,” under the proposal.

But Duncan has used previous government stimulus money as a lever to push increased high stakes testing. He bashed Oregon for his department’s ranking the state near the bottom for “Race to the Top” grants. The chief criteria for the grants were a state’s commitment to increase high stakes testing in response to Duncan’s demands. Tennessee, which scores below average on the NAEP, won a Duncan grant, while Oregon, above average on NAEP, got bashed.

Duncan defended charter schools in Portland, offering that he had seen an unnamed private operation perform well. But he did say “where charters don’t have good accountability that’s not something I would support.” He did not say what, if anything, he would do to increase the accountability of the privately run schools using public money.

Duncan did strike a more conciliatory tone with teachers in Portland. “I appreciate the hard work,” he told them. But he then praised the Oregon Chalkboard Project, drawing hisses and boos from teachers. The Chalkboard group of corporate foundations has drawn fire from teachers for pushing the use of high-stakes testing to fire teachers. 

The $36 billion Gates Foundation funds almost every major education nonprofit in the nation including Chalkboard and also the other big education nonprofit in the state, Stand for Children. Stand for Children has drawn fire recently for promoting Waiting for Superman, a documentary viewed by many teachers as anti-public schools, and for using millions of dollars of Wall Street money to lobby against teachers in other states. Stand has denied that it’s pursuing a corporate school agenda. 

“I hear you,” Duncan said to the Chalkboard boos. But a few hours later, he praised the “outstanding” Chalkboard work to the OBA executives. 

There are indications that reforming the testing and privatization war on schools is possible. Diane Ravitch advocated for high-stakes testing and privatization as a member of the first Bush administration. But last year she slammed the tycoon and politician reforms as hurting public education in a book that’s helped inspire the current groundswell of opposition.

So without high-stakes testing, how can people identify the schools and teachers that most need help?

The answer isn’t rocket science. Ample research shows schools and classes with the most poor kids have the biggest challenge teaching and need the most help. Oregon has maintained detailed rankings of all state schools by socioeconomic status, which includes poverty and parents’ education level, for more than a decade.

 Identifying and helping the relatively small numbers of teachers that aren’t performing well is a matter of good school administration and will require change. Mike Haliski, a consultant who works helping teachers in Oregon City, told Duncan that teachers have told him, “I can’t really recall the last time my administrator came to my classroom and gave me quality feedback.”

Using administrators to closely supervise and coach struggling teachers in the classroom will require money to attract enough high quality supervisors to do the job, and/or backfill teacher time for peer evaluations and coaching. 

Eugene so far appears to be resisting the national tide for using high-stakes testing and privatization to slam teachers and public schools. 

“We have to stop bashing teachers and teaching,” said 4J’s new Superintendent Sheldon Berman to applause at the City Club last month.

“The solutions being proposed at the federal level and by some of the funders like Gates are going off in the wrong direction,” Berman said of the high-stakes testing to punish and privatize management of schools. 

“The vast majority of teachers are doing extraordinary work,” Berman said. “The direction has to be how do we really build capacity, how do we elevate our teachers so that they are the best they can be.”

Duncan said the Obama administration is now interested in bringing teachers to the table with the corporate executives it has been cozying up to for education reform. “What we’re trying to do is be a much better partner” with teachers, he said. “They (teachers) need to listen to us, we need to listen to them,” Duncan said. 

But Deborah Barnes, a North Clackamas teacher, questioned why Obama and Duncan had turned first to Wall Street for education policy rather than asking the front line experts trying to teach the nation’s kids every day. “Our voice, and more importantly those of our students, needs to be heard and valued,” she said.