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Much Ado

Our current education policy debates have me depressed.

“But there’s so much going on! Look at all the intersecting issues we’re juggling in New York: school closings, small and charter schools opening or expanding, our Race to the Top application, the Regents proposal expand preparation options, eliminating the charter school cap, another DOE restructuring, teacher merit pay and tenure based on student performance! Isn’t this a great time for addressing the BIG ISSUES in education?!”


Arguably, I feel this way because of deep flaws in most of the above proposals. But it’s not mere opposition that drives my ennui. I like an energized debate over real issues as much as — probably a lot more than — the next person. I was supercharged in my disagreements with the Gates-led small schools movement, cell phone prohibition, and repression of parent and community input under mayoral control. So it’s not that I am unhappy being contrary.

The problem is that current initiatives have almost nothing to do with kids. Today’s politically-driven agenda is concerned more with money and power than education. It bores the hell out of me.

Take the federal Race to the Top competition. Billions of dollars in one-shot stimulus funds are at stake. But the administration’s policy agenda tied to the money — bribes, really — is a litany of warmed-over, unproven or disproven Bush-era buzz words. Accountability, merit pay, data systems, higher teacher quality, charter schools. All sound fine, yet all have been widely tried and have failed to significantly improve student achievement, especially among our low-income, minority, ELL, and special needs students. This isn’t an educational prescription but, rather, an economic and political strategy to jump-start spending and to shore up Obama’s right flank while he fights for health care reform on the left. The “top” that politico-policymakers are racing toward is just too distant from the classroom.

State initiatives are similarly off-target. While talking the talk of higher standards, the Commissioner and Regents have signaled approval of a credit recovery system that is an open door to academic abuse. Not one step has been taken to actually tighten test standards or grading policies, let alone the primary State function of assuring a broad and rigorous curriculum. Lacking legislative elimination of the charter cap, the centerpiece of New York’s RttT application appears to be an entirely speculative plan to permit organizations outside of higher education to prepare teachers and principals. Such training will no doubt be cheaper, faster, and narrower but will it improve teaching? Who knows? But it gives a politically attractive appearance of doing something and satisfies myriad non-college constituencies, from unions to business to philanthropy.

The City is no better. Every school that Bloomberg closes is his failure, since he has presided over the system for almost eight years. Did converting Robeson High School to small learning communities several years ago improve it? Apparently not, since it is now on the chopping block. Again and again, the Mayor’s strategy of churn and burn has proven of little help to kids yet the political noise it makes masks its substantive silence. Similarly, the shock and awe of his charter school advocacy, proposals for merit pay, and testing monomania cloud the reality that the guy has no idea how to run a school system; every restructuring exposes the vacuity of its predecessor. By his own measures of success, at least four in 10 ninth graders still fail to graduate on time and, if Regents diplomas are set as a low standard, even the grads are often ill-prepared for college and careers. These children are Bloomberg’s educational progeny; they were in elementary school when he took office. Yet, for all the hoopla, achievement is — at best — only marginally better, following a trend line established before he took office and reflected in other districts besides our own.

There is so much BS in the current debate that I can hardly stand it. I long for the new semester so I can get back to preparing new leaders for real schools. The teacher-student relationship is where the important work takes place. But, as usual, the politicians’ focus is on the sizzle, not the steak.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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