Dear Mr. Obama, Please Stop!

I have become desperate. Desperate enough to write a letter to the president. I decided to post the letter that I will be sending him and CCing to Mr. Duncan. The recent news day about the one error that New Jersey made on such a high-stakes RTTP application, which will resulted in a $400 million lost to students, has shown that something is wrong. I hope that Mr. Obama listens to some of my concerns.

President Obama

Dear Mr. Obama,

This is my plea to you. I am quickly losing hope in your education agenda, and so are many of my colleagues. My state applied for Race to the Top funds and lost. That’s fine, but you have fundamentally changed education to become what author Alfie Kohn says is a “quantification mania.”

I have one question for you Mr. Obama.

What happened to learning for the sake of learning?

Albert Einstein in On Education argued, “[the] crippling of individuals I consider [is] the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.” Who knew that Albert Einstein had such a viewpoint on modern education even during his time? Mr. Obama, in your “truce to teachers” you said that your loosening up on some of the “quantification” rhetoric has nothing to do with politics; rather “it’s a back-to-school message that fits squarely into [your] plan for economic recovery, stressing the role of educators in shaping a competitive American work force.” Why wasn’t your message about learning, developing as an individual, or enhancing upon a democratic society? Mr. Obama with all due respect, whether or not you toned down the more inflammatory rhetoric of your agenda, the underlying tone is still prevalent – using market based tactics in education.

“The advent of the standards and accountability movement in the 1980s, with its reliance on test scores to measure student performance, gave economists the tools to gauge the effectiveness of schools in a more nuanced way.” (Harvard Education Letter, Sept. 2009) There are two important elements in regards to the advent of the standards and accountability movement. First, the 1980s saw the surge of ECONOMISTS in education. Mr. President, this is a far cry from the early days of curriculum and learning development that centred on the advice of psychologists and educators. Secondly, the use of the same tools that economists use to understand the markets and labour has created a nuanced way of looking at educational issues.

I understand for better or for worse economists are part of the group of people offering their perspective on education especially in a 21st century global economy. However, it is important that policymakers (like yourself and Mr. Duncan) exercise pause when developing the techniques that will be used for economic reform. The “nuanced way” that economists use to look at education reform has muted or silenced the various different issues that exist in school districts and more importantly AROUND school districts. The more disturbing element is that the reforms developed by economists are being implemented where the help is needed the most. This is why it is important that you remember your constituents (educators, parents, teachers, and the union) and stand up against unyielding adoption of market tactics in education reform.

Mr. Obama, I agree with you 100%. We absolutely must fight against the status quo. However, who or what is your definition of the status quo? One of the most ubiquitous terms used to describe people who fight against market tactics in education is the STATUS QUO. A study of history of the status quo will yield that depending on the particular decade/era, this group of people has changed. The status quo has been the government, districts (in the 80’s), parents & students (in the 90’s), schools (in the 00’s) and now the new decade has ushered in teachers as members and perpetuators of the status quo. In each of these decades there has been propagation that reforming whomever the status quo entails will be the “step in the right direction” towards improving education. “With knowledgeable scholars (like yourself) uncritically embracing broad generalizations about the relationship between [the status quo] and academic achievement, it is not surprising that we also find widespread acceptance of this perspective among educational practitioners and the general public.” (Noguera, 2003)

It is the “knowledgeable scholars” who side with the “nuanced view economists” that have allowed the skewing of the discussion of education reform for the last thirty years. There are many people who are more knowledgeable than I am on the specific reforms, however I am aware that the US has been working on education reform for more than thirty years (i.e after deindustrialization). I would venture to say that working on anything for thirty years should yield positive results. However, we still deal with chronically failing schools (especially in urban/rural school districts). How are we going to change this paradigm if we continue to place the blame on a new group of people? How are we going to change this paradigm if we continue to take a nuanced view of issues about AND surrounding education? How are we going to change this paradigm if our “knowledgeable scholars” do nothing to fight against the cycle of blame and the tunnel vision view that has become ubiquitous in education reform?

No Child Left Behind and your program Race to the Top are the most contemporary “nuance view” reforms that have come out of the White House. Both have contributed to the cycle of blame and both have gone in with unproven tactics that so far have yielded little results. NCLB and RTTT have adopted market tactics like performance pay, longitudinal data systems, and choice/competition among schools. Even on face value, do you think that this will improve LEARNING for students? I agree with Alife Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes who said, “I have yet to meet an economist who understands the nuances of how children learn, [and all] the messiness of learning is reduced to data points observed from a mountaintop.” I think the key word in that quote is “messiness.” There is no way to control the messiness of learning, especially the messiness of learning of so many populations of students with different abilities, languages, customs, and experiences. Albert Einstein astutely said it best, “the education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow-men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

Mr. Obama, please reconsider your role in education reform. You are not only alienating teachers, parents, and the infamous union leaders, but you are also hurting students. Learning is messy! Data, incentives, and competition cannot solve that messiness. However, working with qualified teachers to develop strategies for learning is the best way. That, Mr Obama, has been proven.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Martin Palamore

Concerned Educator from the Great State of Illlinois

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Battle Lines: Edujobs v Teacher Job Leverage

Rick Hess Straight Up Blog on Education Week

Today, as I did my usual morning reading of the education news of the day I ran across this blog on the EdWeek blog site by Rick Hess called “Straight Talk”. Mr. Hess used this blog piece to discuss how the Edujobs bill was harmful and wasteful. I was enraged at large parts of this post, which prompted my to draw some Battle Lines.

Mr. Hess began his piece by claming that “for more than a half century, we’ve spent more dollars on K-12 schooling each year than we did the year before. The problem with this is that no one makes tough choices in flush times.” There are a couple of issues with his claim whether or not it is empirically correct. During the time period that Mr. Hess mentioned that there has been an increase in spending on K-12 schooling there has also been an increase in the amount of students being educated. The increase in student spending comes from the obvious increase in population, but it also comes from federal mandates to educate students of colour, students with disabilities, and students who speak English as a second language. A federal mandate was only necessary due to the fact that these groups had not been given the education investments in the past. The addition of these populations on the educational landscape prompted research for intervention methods and tools to help accommodate these new population groups. Even after all of these years, educators still struggle with English Language Learners, Special Education students, and students of colour. Using the empirical “[spending] more dollars on K-12 schooling each year than we did the year before” is a disingenuous argument even for Rick Hess, which is void of an historical conceptualization of why there has been the increase in K-12 spending.

I agree with Mr. Hess in his argument that K-12 school districts and superintendents need to reassess the programs and the money being devoted to it. Additionally, I believe he was correct in his assertion that “[even] if you’re a tough-minded for-profit CEO or a cuddly koala of a non-profit executive; nobody is eager to squeeze salaries, shut down inefficient programs, seek out savings, or trim employees when they can avoid it [and] a manager who tries when times are good is just a mean-spirited S.O.B. who alienates staff and creates disruptions.” However trying to align K-12 schools on the same playing field as a for-profit or even a non-profit organization is misguided, and it is that type of thinking that has led to the privatization of public schools, the adoption of corporate tactics, and the view that schools are businesses. The Edujobs wasn’t a bill for a particular district, a particular state, or particular school. The Edujobs bill was developed to address an INDUSTRY problem. Using the recession as leverage for advancing any agenda is just plain wrong. Education administrators should not be trying to use the “path of least resistance” to make changes that affects teachers, parents, students, and the community. This is what makes Race to the Top problematic. Race to the Top is using state deficits as leverage to push an agenda. Whether or not someone agrees or disagrees with the agenda, it should be left to the stakeholders in conjunction with the superintendents to make that decision and not just be labelled as perpetuators of the “status quo.”

Barney Frank clearly articulates my issue with the notion of “efficiency-hungry organizations.” “But it is clear that left entirely untouched by public policy, the capitalist system will produce more inequality than is socially healthy or than is necessary for maximum efficiency.” Mr. Hess’ unfounded argument that schools have taken part in a “lethargy that takes root in bloated bureaucracies” is the same tired rhetoric that many people who favour privatization or the adoption of business or “market” tactics in education. While the “market” has garnered many successes and failures in the past (in booms and busts –including the most recent recession) “the market purports to possess divine attributes that are not always completely evident to mortals but must be trusted and affirmed by faith.” (Ideology and Education, Smith, pg. 1). In that vein, Mr. Hess argues “the series of edu-bailouts has made it harder for state chiefs or superintendents inclined to stand up and try to address this trend (lethargy). Visions of free money–especially free money targeted for “job preservation”–makes anyone looking to squeeze payrolls look like a surly killjoy.” Again, I do believe that district expenses need to be re-examined but most superintendents are elected. Therefore the superintendent is accountable to the people they serve and not just the balance sheets, the city, or the federal government. It is only in the most “martketized” school districts do the mayor appoint the superintendent to make those decisions that Mr. Hess is purporting is being stifled by this bill. “If a supe knows that plumping the payroll is going to make things worse next year [and] lock in new benefit commitments” is just plain irresponsible and that supe needs to held accountable.

I am glad that Barack Obama finally showed the leadership on education that he campaigned on during his election (e.g. on the sides of the teacher, community members, parents, students, and UNIONS). Many may read my response and disagree with my arguments. I hope we can all agree on the fact that it would be contradictory for the Obama Administration to want to make us number one on the globe for education, but use its teachers as leverage.

So TEACHERS enjoy your jobs, enjoy your work, and in the words of Richard Hess “Gee, I hope [you[ really enjoy that $10 billion.”

All for None: The Racial Failure of the Duncan/Obama Agenda

Barack Obama

Barack Obama at the Urban League Conference Discussing Education

“There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” These were the words that echoed throughout the mind of many Americans as they watched Barack Obama ascend from a state senator to a prominent Democratic US Senate candidate. These words also echoed into the psyche and the rhetoric that has surrounded the idea that we currently live in a post-racial America. Who knew that in three short years he would be elected the first African-American president of the United States? What better indication that we truly live in a post racial America?

Ronald Takaki wrote in his book A Different Mirror using Maya Angelou’s words, “Race has functioned as a metaphor necessary to the construction of Americaness in the creation of our national identity. ‘American’ has been defined as white.” American has been defined a white. As inflammatory as one may see these words, there is truth to those words. Mr. Takaki went on to talk about how a cab driver thought he was immigrant, because he has Japanese heritage although his family had been in America for 100 years. The cab driver (whether intentionally or unintentionally) has portrayed the fact that a “Post-Racial America” is a nice idea, but doesn’t align itself with the actual reality of the situation.

Unfortunately, Barack Obama working with his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has ascribed to the idea that because we are all “American” that their “revolutionary” education reform plan Race to the Top is a measure that will benefit everyone equally. As Tim Wise discusses “To be fair, of course, the rhetoric of post-racial liberalism wasn’t something invented by the current President. Rather, it has its roots in the period immediately following the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for instance — an advisor to President Johnson before becoming a United States Senator — who first suggested that the nation would do well to engage in “benign neglect” when it came to the issue of race.” However, the “benign neglect” doesn’t just affect the rhetoric or the discussion it affects the future of Black Americans, Hispanic Americas, Asian Americans, Arabs Americans, etc. Why? Because despite what people may want to believe in their hearts, the history, experiences, and position of these people are very different from each other. A one-size-fit-all approach to education reform in his country is NOT the answer. Furthermore, reform measures like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTP) will not solve the problems of everyone. What it does it is make “Americans” be able to sleep at night.

Jonathan Kozol in his book Shame of the Nation discusses the paradigm of the one-size-fit-all approach.

“New Vocabularies of stentorian determination, new systems of incentives and new models of castigation are termed “rewards and sanctions,” have emerged. Curriculum materials that are alleged to be aligned with governmentally established goals and standards and particularly suited to what are regarded as “the special needs and learning styles”…a new empiricism and the imposition of usually detailed lists of named and number “outcomes” for each isolated parcel of instruction…are just a few of the familiar aspects of the new adaptive strategies.”

I read a lot of education blogs and education newspaper columnists who praise these efforts as a way of turning around education for “everyone.” However Kozol sheds light on the actual outcome. “Although generically described as “school reform” most of these practices and polices are targeted primarily at poor children of color.” Isn’t that what I am arguing for in this blog? Yes/No, yes I am arguing for a targeted approach however, not an approach that is “valued chiefly as responses to perceived catastrophe in deeply segregated and unequal schools.” (Kozol, 64) In other words, “Americans” cannot tell people of colour what the problem is when they are the creators of the problems then in turn mandate a solution. At the bare minimum, there is a conflict of interest.

The “Conflict of Interest” reform polices of Bush/Spellings and Obama/Duncan are prevalent in NCLB and RTTP. The policies ask for the creation of choice in public schooling so parents can choose a “better school” for their child. There has never been a mention of historically disinvestment in public schools that has been documented in many narratives including Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. The policies punish schools (teachers in RTTP) for failing students. However, there is no mention of the lack of resources for schools/teachers that has been a consistent problem and complaint since for decades in urban/rural school districts. The policies call for the creation of high stakes tests so that the government knows whether or not the students are succeeding. However, no one discusses that fact that these test typically measure the bare minimum in standards and do assess for other aspects of the students including “soft” skill increasingly seen as important in a service-based job market. Theoretically speaking I could go on and on, but I am going to choose to stop. Not because I feel that I’ve driven in the point, because all of this misses the ball.

My experience working with students of colour has presented me with a set of challenges that I have not seen addressed by the policies of Spellings/Bush and Duncan/Obama. I have had students who are homeless and the only meal of the day is the lunch at school. I have had students who have vision problems, but cannot afford glasses. Even if they get public assisted glasses, they have to wait for weeks and fall behind in school. I have had students whose older siblings are molesting them everyday, but afraid to say anything under the fear of being “stuck in the system.” I have had students who have no one to go home to at the end of the day, and therefore no one to keep them accountable for their homework assignments. I have had students who wanted to complete my research paper, but don’t have a computer at home to type it on and complain that the library doesn’t have word processing. While, these problems are not unique to students of colour in urban/rural school districts they have chronically been seen as prevalent problems. However, there is very little discussion of these problems. This is a reflection of not only a failed education policy, but also the fact that a post-racial America doesn’t exist. It is only when are ready to have a REAL discussion. We need a real discussion of the SPECIFIC historical and contemporary disadvantages of students of colour in urban/rural school district. We need a discussion that will make “Americans” feel uncomfortable. As long as we continue to believe that is not happening, we allow “Americans” to hide behind the notion of a post-racial America.