Monday, October 26, 2015

Hillary and Bernie: No Hope for K-12 Public Education

          I did not watch the first Democratic debate on October 13, 2015.  However, I did read and listen to some of the analyses that followed.  Among the topics analyzed were income inequality, health care, the Iran nuclear deal, gun control, Black Lives Matter, foreign policy, Benghazi, health care, bank bailouts, the economy, and more. 
         But one thing I did not learn from the analyses was the candidates’ thoughts and proposals regarding K-12 education.  Why?  Because the topic was never addressed.  And why was it not addressed?  Because, incredibly, ever since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed in 2001 with overwhelming bipartisan support, there has been virtual unanimity among both Democratic and Republican politicians on governmental and corporate education policy and “reforms.” Debate topics on which everyone already agrees tend not to contribute to an interesting and fruitful debate. 
         Nonetheless, I remained curious as to how the Democratic candidates stood on K-12 education, especially since millions of students, parents, and educators across the country have been extremely disappointed with the direction of K-12 education policy during the Obama years.  In the interest of time, space, and sensibility, I looked into the education proposals of only the Democratic frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.  Specifically, I wanted to know if the election of either of them would hold any promise for a change of direction in national education policy over the last seven years.  The short answer is “no.”  
         Here is what I found.

Hillary Clinton

         Clinton’s website (www.hillaryclinton.com) lists three main objectives concerning K-12 public education.  I have read and re-read these objectives.  If anything stands out with her policies, it is her embrace of the corporate “reform” agenda and her ability to speak in codes coated with liberal rhetoric so as to cast that agenda as something any good and obedient liberal would support.  Here in a nutshell is the Good and mostly Bad Hillary on K-12 public education.

         Clinton “believes in making high quality education a priority for every child in America.”  Hillary supports continued annual high stakes tests.   She rationalizes this support as a civil rights issue.  As the “liberal” logic goes, high stakes tests are the only guaranteed way to bring to light and address the achievement gap between our most privileged students and our most non privileged students.  At the same time, however, she says there is too much testing, test prep, and narrowing of the curriculum due to the fact that only math and language arts are consistently tested.  Madame Secretary, you can’t have it both ways.  You cannot simultaneously support and assail high stakes tests and expect to be taken seriously by enlightened public school students, parents, and teachers.
        Clinton also supports “high academic standards for all children.”  This is code for the Common Core.  The Common Core are elite, inflexible, universal, whitewashed standards that address only math and language arts, and in a very narrow and prescriptive manner.  What’s more, the Common Core are tailored to the cultures and academic needs and interests of white, English speaking, middle class Americans and are therefore far removed from the academic needs and interests of bilingual children and children of color, many of whom are the very children Hillary purports to want to help with continued high stakes tests that are now linked directly to the Common Core standards.  Hillary’s support of the Common Core, therefore, demonstrates a lack of support for the 51% of children of color who now populate our public schools.

         Clinton “wants to support educators.”  Hillary believes we need more high quality educators.  This rhetoric plays directly into the unsubstantiated myth of the Super Teacher promoted by Bill Gates and other corporate reformers.  Those who believe that Super Teachers are the solution to the education “crisis” and the growing teacher shortage assume that it is bad teaching that led us to this perceived education crisis and this very real teacher shortage in the first place, and bad teaching that has kept us there. 
         Where will these Super Teachers come from?  Apparently, Clinton is convinced they are not currently teaching in our public schools.  She believes in recruiting the “best and the brightest” into the profession.  This is code for Teach For America and other teacher preparation programs designed more to enhance the resum├ęs of their graduates than the scholastic achievement of the “at risk” students they attempt to teach for an average of two years before leaving the profession permanently for law school, medical school, or Wall Street. 
         According to teacher workforce expert Richard Ingersoll, recruiting new teachers from the best and the brightest college graduates—or from the worst and dimmest graduates, for that matter—misses the mark when it comes to addressing the chronic teacher shortages now sweeping the country.  Ingersoll has stated emphatically to anyone who will listen that it is far more effective to find ways to retain knowledgeable and experienced teachers than it is to recruit new teachers who, by definition, are far less experienced and knowledgeable and who have historically left the profession at rates of 50% before their first five years.  But the myriad school reforms begun under Presidents Reagan and Bush I with a Nation at Risk, continued under Hillary’s husband with Goals 2000, and under Presidents Bush II and Obama with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, have done more than anything else to drive the best, brightest, the most expert, and the most experienced veteran teachers from the profession.  If Hillary continues the education “reforms” of the past five presidents, there will be few knowledgeable and experienced veteran teachers to retain. 
         Hillary also supports more teacher “training.”  This is code for reformist brainwashing.  As any public school teacher can tell you, what used to be called professional development or collaboration is now called training.  Unlike professional development and collaboration of the past, which was controlled almost entirely by teachers, today’s “trainings” consist of school administrators and representatives from the corporate world taking over the agendas of teacher meetings and indoctrinating teachers with the latest corporate “reforms.”  Some really smart person once said:  Training is for animals; education is for people. 

         Clinton “wants to improve student outcomes.”   Yes, this is code for “outcomes based education,” the corporate reformers’ model for education.  Think widgets on an assembly line where all widgets are identical, proceed along the assembly line at the same speed, and all end up on the same shelves of Target or Wal-Mart.  Outcomes based education means curriculum is narrowed to include only subjects and lessons that produce finite and discreet quantitative answers that can be measured using standardized methods, such as high stakes tests.  What’s more, the outcomes are directly linked to teacher effectiveness, the assumption being, the greater the student achievement on standardized tests, the more effective the teacher, and vice versa.  No other factors are considered when it comes to determining student outcomes and teacher effectiveness; not poverty, language, immigration status, domestic violence, parents’ levels of education, the quality or existence of a school library, environmental dangers, school nutrition, length of daily recesses, etc.  It is all about teacher effectiveness as determined by standardized measures of student achievement.

Bernie Sanders

         Bernie Sanders’ main web page (www.berniesanders.com) lists the following as major campaign topics.  As you can see, K-12 pubic education is nowhere to be found.

Income and wealth inequality
College tuition debt
Big money and politics
Decent paying jobs
A living wage
Climate change and the environment
Racial and social justice
Fair and humane immigration policy
LGBT equality
Fighting for our veterans
Reforming Wall Street
Real family values
The Iran nuclear weapons deal

         After posting this list online, I received a tip from an educator and Sanders supporter who directed me to www.feelthebern.org.  Who knew?!  On that site, I found a rather in-depth discussion of K-12 public education that contained positions I, as an educator for over 30 years, both support and oppose.  I have therefore decided to discuss Sanders’ education proposals in terms of the Good Bernie I would support as opposed to the Bad Bernie I would oppose.

         Good Bernie.  Among the positions I support is Sanders’ opposition to the excessive testing and punitive practices of NCLB.  In his own words:
“I voted against [NCLB] in 2001, and continue to oppose the bill’s reliance on high-stakes standardized testing to direct draconian interventions. In my view, [NCLB] ignores several important factors in a student’s academic performance, specifically the impact of poverty, access to adequate health care, mental health, nutrition, and a wide variety of supports that children in poverty should have access to. By placing so much emphasis on standardized testing, [NCLB] ignores many of the skills and qualities that are vitally important in our 21st century economy, like problem solving, critical thinking, and teamwork, in favor of test preparation that provides no benefit to students after they leave school.”
Sanders’ website goes on to say “Instead of NCLB, Bernie has called for a more holistic method of education that gives teachers more flexibility and students more support systems.”
         Sanders also supports teachers’ unions, collective bargaining, and increased teacher pay.  He opposes all right-to-work legislation. 
         He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers which, as he correctly points out, redirect public funds to the private sector.  Furthermore, Sanders opposes income disparities between rich and poor districts and will work to reduce or eliminate those disparities, though he doesn’t say how the federal government might do this. 
         Sanders opposes the Student Success Act (SSA) which can be construed as a warmed over version of NCLB that includes many of the worst elements of RTTT and other Obama era “reforms,” including annual high stakes testing and the redirection of public funds to the private sector. 
         However,  like all complex bills in which political compromise is operative, the SSA contains many provisions my like minded colleagues and I would consider positive, such as alternative assessments for students with severe disabilities, relabeling “limited English proficient students” as “English language learners,” and a prohibition on federal government coercion as a means to force states to adopt national standards and curricula.  In opposing the SSA, Sanders is also opposing provisions within it that address elements of NCLB he finds the most objectionable. 
         Finally, Sanders supports the expansion of after school programs.

         Bad Bernie.  One area in Sanders’ education policy where I have some concerns is his support of privately run “public” charter schools, although he tempers his support of them with admonishments regarding accountability and transparency, two areas where many charter schools are woefully inadequate.  
         Another area of concern is Sanders’ continued support of annual high stakes standardized testing.  While he does say that testing has become excessive, he does not question the validity of the tests for measuring student achievement.  Nor does he question their usefulness to classroom teachers.  Educators across the country see no good at all in privately funded, off-the-shelf, standardized measures of achievement and would prefer they be abolished altogether.  There is no indication on Sanders’ website that he would support the abolition of high stakes standardized tests.
         The Bad Bernie becomes more evident in a recent vote on the Senate floor.  In July of this year Sanders and most of his Democratic colleagues voted in favor of the Murphy Amendment to the Every Child Achieves Act.  According to education expert and blogger Mercedes Schneider, this amendment would have revived or worsened the worst and most punitive elements of NCLB.  Needless to say, this does not square with Sanders’ vociferous opposition to the legacy of NCLB.  At the very least is represents political ignorance; at worse, hypocrisy.
         But perhaps my greatest concern about Sanders’ education policy is his support of the Common Core.  His own website states,
While Bernie has neither outright endorsed nor opposed the Common Core, he voted in early 2015 against an anti-Common Core amendment that would “prohibit the federal government from ‘mandating, incentivizing, or coercing’ states into adopting Common Core or any other standards.”
Without going into a discussion about the Common Core, let me just say that his opposition to the anti-Common Core amendment is indeed an endorsement of the Common Core.  What’s more, his support of the Common Core stands to undermine many of his other positions on education, including his support of children living in poverty, an expanded curriculum, reduction in standardized testing, and so on.  Like the opt-out movement, opposition to the Common Core cuts across partisan lines:  it appeals as much to Tea Party conservatives as it does to those on the liberal left, albeit for very different reasons.  If Sanders’ were to oppose the Common Core, he could win votes from across the political spectrum.  The Common Core is a rapidly sinking vessel.   Sanders would do well to jump ship now.

Conclusion


          My liberal, Democratic colleagues and I have been very, very disappointed with President Obama’s education policies and have spent most of his presidency fighting them.  Neither Clinton’s nor Sanders’ education proposals differ much from those of Obama (or from those of most of the Republican candidates, for that matter). We are equally disappointed with the myriad issues neither candidate addresses or on which neither takes a stand:  the growing parent-student opt out movement, punitive teacher evaluations, school grading, teacher "merit" pay, the needs and rights of English language learners and bilingual education, culturally responsive curricula, and so on.  These are the issues teachers, parents, and students are most concerned about.  These are the very issues that the candidates seem to be ignoring even in their inchoate attempts to address K-12 education.
          Consequently, if either of Clinton or Sanders is elected president, we cannot expect much change from Obama's education agenda.  Instead, we will very likely have to prepare ourselves for at least four more years of the same punitive, corporate education “reforms” their predecessor has so shamelessly promoted over the last eight years.  And while it is true that Sanders’ proposals hold more hope for public education that do those of Clinton, we should know by now what to expect of promises of Hope.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

New Mexico Public Education Department: INEFECTIVO

The image below is a flyer sent by New Mexico Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera to Spanish speaking families across the state.  This was her attempt to explain the high stakes PARCC test results to families just weeks prior to the publication of the results of last spring's tests.  The majority of New Mexico's public school students are expected to fail.  We give the New Mexico Public Education Department and its secretary a score of "ineffective" in Spanish language arts and in communicating effectively with New Mexico's families.