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One Way (Part Two)

In part one of this series, I described several teaching methods I’ve been encouraged to follow — and then encouraged to discard. All had good qualities, but none was as perfect as promised, and in time, all tended to be rejected, recycled, or forgotten. Yet presenters continue to approach us with new methods and don’t hesitate to introduce them as though they are the Ten Commandments, specifically designed to replace last year’s Ten Commandments.

The possibility that we teachers might be building on something, improving on something, or engaged in a gradual process is never acknowledged. It’s not as sexy as a cure-all, and certainly not likely to make people jump up and down and shout, “Eureka!” But when you’re trying to persuade the public, there’s a need to evoke that reaction, even if it results in a wild goose chase. After all, after this one fails, there are always other wild geese to make us chase around.

For politicians, the latest quick-fix is closing schools. According to them, it’s what we need to do right now to fix everything. Apparently, if we shuffle enough kids around from here to there to who-knows-where, eventually they’ll somehow find themselves in a better place. If their neighborhoods are left without schools, too bad for them

Of course, the messy part of closing schools is replacing them. We can replace large schools with small schools, because they are better than large schools. Except, of course, when they aren’t, and need to be closed to make room for different schools. Or maybe it’s charter schools that need to replace closing schools. Charter supporters point to studies showing they’re better than public schools so they must be right. Detractors point to contradictory interpretations, so they must be right too.  As long as we keep closing schools, why should politicians worry?

However they are replaced, closing schools grab headlines and focus attention on leaders, who at least appear to be doing something. And for leaders, that’s an important concept. Early in Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, I was sent to listen to Department of Education representatives speak of one or another of their absolutely vital reorganizations that would transform and improve everything forever. At the time, I asked one of the reps why they were doing these things, as it didn’t appear to me the changes would have any significant effect. “Well, we had to do something,” he replied. To my mind, unless you’re going to do something worthwhile, you may as well do nothing.

Unfortunately, that concept has utterly eluded our leaders. Locally, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, and Barack Obama and Arne Duncan nationally, appear convinced, with no evidence whatsoever, that closing schools is the magic bullet that will transform everyone and everything. Bloomberg and Klein are so eager to close these schools they use false statistics and break laws to do so. That it failed to improve things much in Chicago does not deter them one iota.

Obama and Duncan follow the grand tradition of George W. Bush and his Secretary of Education Rod Paige. As you may recall, No Child Left Behind, the last cure-all for education, was based on Paige’s “Texas Miracle.”  Less discussed was the fact the “Texas Miracle” was an utter fraud, concocted largely by cooking the books. The primary problem with “miracles,” however appealing or heavily promoted, is they tend not to exist.

I’m reminded of the Keep it Going NYC campaign. We heard testimonials about the great improvements in a reopened school. The test scores had turned around completely. No reference was made to the fact that this was one of several academies within the building, that it represented only a portion of the redesigned building, or that the kids being compared were completely different from those who’d attended the closed schools. Nor did they mention that at first the new small schools were not required to take the special education or English-as-a-second-language students who’d kept the scores down in the first place.  To my mind, changing all the kids and getting a different result is hardly miraculous. But who, viewing the commercial, would have known that?

One consistent characteristic of closing schools is replacement of teachers. After all, according to our leaders, the only variable in education is the teacher. This fiction appeals to parents, students, and society as a whole, all completely off the hook for everything. Were there any truth to this concept, there’d be no need to issue kids report cards. According to the “reformers,” nothing kids do is of any consequence anyway.

That narrow and highly unimaginative vision — that there’s one way to magically cure our ills — is precisely what hinders real progress. Of course there’s room for improvement, but we all need to work toward it — parents, teachers, kids, and even politicians. While I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, real long-term and deliberate plans will not bear immediate results for the New York Post op-ed page. In fact, recent NAEP scores suggest our last decade of chasing miracles has been a complete waste of time, money, and effort.

We need to be wary of those who promise Houdini-style education fixes. Thus far, none has delivered, and there’s no reason to believe any ever will.

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.