By Bill Boyarsky
With all the evil people in the world, why are public schoolteachers being villainized? And how did they attract such powerful enemies?
Some of the country’s best-known mainstream powers are blaming the teachers for the troubles of the public school system. Bill Gates is a leader in this, as is President Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan. So are some operators of multibillion-dollar hedge funds.
By putting the blame on teachers and their relatively modest salaries and benefits—compared with those of, say, a hedge fund entrepreneur—so-called reformers are evading the real cause of troubled schools: Business and political leaders, aided and abetted by the mass media, are unwilling to spend enough money to support public schools. Tax increases aren’t good for Microsoft, hedge funds or Obama’s re-election chances.
Espousing the slogan of education reform, these people want to sweep through schools like a CEO on a rampage after a hostile takeover—they want to fire teachers in much the same way that corporate leaders lavishly hand out dismissal notices in companies whose stock prices need a boost. They are, wrote UCLA education scholar Mike Rose, looking for “single-shot, magic-bullet solutions, solutions that are marketable and have rhetorical panache but are simplified responses to complex problems.”
Last week I visited a place in Los Angeles where teachers are valued, the UCLA Community School. It’s one of the six Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, a complex on the site of the old Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was fatally shot in 1968. Each of the schools teaches the idea of social justice enunciated by the senator in his campaign for the presidency.
Karen Hunter Quartz, director of research at the UCLA education grad school, showed me around. Spare but inviting buildings house the schools, which are separated by courtyards and walkways. The campus has a feeling of openness and space. Small children were playing in one of the courtyards.
The students are from the Pico-Union and Koreatown neighborhoods, in a once-fashionable central Los Angeles area called Mid-Wilshire. They live in the most densely populated area in California. Eighty-four percent of the students are Latino, and 89 percent are low-income. Half are learning English. Any student from the neighborhood is welcome on the Kennedy campus,
We finished our tour and sat down to talk. In a departure from most traditional public schools, faculty members have considerable leeway to plan what goes on in the classroom, as well as to control their budgets, Quartz said. The teachers are union members. After long negotiations, the union agreed to a contract for the RFK schools with conditions more flexible than in other schools.
Teacher performance is assessed by a group of peers and by the principal, Georgia Lazo, who use classroom observations and interviews. The quality of assignments, and of the students’ work, is judged by an outside organization. Teachers have a one-year contract, which isn’t renewed if they flunk the evaluation process.
The process is different from what is advocated by the Bill Gates-Arne Duncan school of reformers.
Take, for example, the method of teacher evaluation favored by Gates and Duncan: the value-added system. A student who is average one year normally would be expected to be average the next. If that student’s test scores improve, the teacher is given credit for adding value to the student. If the score falls, the teacher is blamed. There is a substantial margin of error in the system, caused by factors such as students shifting classes or trouble at home or other outside influences.
The by-the-numbers advocates of value-added downgrade experience. “More experienced or better educated teachers are no more effective in the classroom than inexperienced teachers with only undergraduate degrees,” wrote Richard Buddin of RAND Corp., who did research for the Los Angeles Times series that published the value-added scores of L.A. teachers by name. The Times series was influential in hurting the image of classroom teachers.
The reformers also favor privatization of the public schools through establishment of charter schools, which are private schools supported by public funds and money they raise from foundations and corporations. They were highly praised in last year’s documentary “Waiting for Superman,” a film beloved by the media. But a 2009 study of charters around the country by Stanford University scholars found that just 17 percent provided educational opportunities superior to the public schools. Half provided the same-quality education and 37 percent were worse than the public schools.
In addition, businesses get a big federal tax break for investing in those schools. Juan Gonzalez reported last year in the New York Daily News and on “Democracy Now!” on something called a “New Markets tax credit.” This gives an “enormous federal tax credit to banks and equity funds that invest in community projects in underserved communities and it’s been used heavily now for the last several years for charter schools,” Gonzalez reported.
While boosting the privatized charter schools—and often profiting from them—reform advocates promote public education on the cheap. Education Secretary Duncan favors “modest but smartly targeted increases in class size.” As a parent, Duncan said, he’d much rather have his kids in a class of 26 with a really excellent teacher than in a class with 22 kids led by a mediocre teacher. Of course Duncan thinks the flawed value-added system should be used to measure the difference between excellent and mediocre.
Big media, big business and the Obama administration are a powerful combination. They have succeeded in making public school teachers the villains and scapegoats for schools that can be improved only with additional financial support and fairer taxes.
White House / Pete Souza
President Barack Obama looks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan during a speech this month to students and teachers at a middle school in Arlington, Va.