The Assault on Public Education and Teachers

I’m sure you’ve read quite a bit about “Common Core,” the charter school take-over, teacher assessment measures and the “Opt-Out” movement.  Please allow me to explain the resistance to a revolution designed to privatize, politicize and homogenize American education.

Certainly there can be no dispute over the idea of improving public education.  But like with any profession, betterment in the field of education needs to be driven by educators.  Educators, however, have instead been treated with disrespect, scapegoating and bullying.  What may have begun as an education movement saw independent experts in teaching more and more marginalized in favor of private foundations and political think tanks that saw children as “human capital” and went into the business of creating standards and practices to prepare them for the international economic competitiveness of American corporations and even “the national defense.”  A new industry began to grow, with political donors, textbook publishers and private businesses seeing education as the next frontier to exploit for profit.

A rationale for any form of “common core” is debatable.  On the one hand, for those teachers, localities and states whose curricular quality may be substandard, it is arguable that certain general benchmarks and guidelines as to “best practices” be offered.  On the other hand, the idea that every teacher should be teaching and every child should be learning the same things at the same times, let alone in the same ways, is anathema to appropriate, individualized and creative teaching.  The Federal government should set standards, for safety, nutrition, inclusion, non-discrimination, etc., but, despite the beliefs of too many politicians, it takes training in education to understand and be qualified to touch curriculum.  Common Core is based on minimal, faulty, disjointed and unproven research, designed to allegedly prepare students for college and careers.

But it has been changed along the way.  Whereas originally there was meant to be emphasis on the twenty first century need for creative and critical thinking, once a “business model” began to set in and standardized testing was attached to the standards, the focus became on “knowledge acquisition,” as in old-fashioned memorization and regurgitation.  Whereas originally Common Core was intended to merely be recommended guidelines, to be adopted by educators voluntarily and used with discretion based on the needs of their particular children and the circumstances in which they teach, now discretion was replaced by imposition.  Money from the Federal “Race to the Top” program, which the Obama Administration claimed would improve “No Child Left Behind” but instead doubled down on its worst features, was used essentially to threaten states, already strapped for public school funding, into compliance.  Whereas under “No Child Left Behind,” scores on standardized tests were not to be used for teacher assessment, retention or promotion, now the wall had come down, and teachers were pretty much forced to teach to the test, and even worse, shy away from working with the children who most need them, children from poverty or with special needs, for fear they would bring down the almighty test scores on which they were being judged.  And by now it’s fairly common knowledge to everyone but the ones making policy how flawed, biased, unreliable and anxiety-inducing standardized tests are.

In New York, Governor Cuomo has made every effort to micromanage public education, trying to shove a formula for assessments based on test scores down the throats of public schools, while working to reward political contributors with the “rights” to private, profitable charter schools to compete with those public schools.  In other states, Governors have been even more blatant, trying to bust teachers’ unions and stifle teachers’ voices entirely.  It should also be noted that these politicians, from the President to Governors, have appointed and relied on education “czars” who with few exceptions have little to no experience with public education, coming instead out of the worlds of private educational entities or simply private business.  Another form of imposition emerged as well.  Whereas Common Core was designed to be a set of standards, not a methodology, more and more teachers were being taught, or, rather, forced to teach in “the Common Core way.”  Autonomy, creativity, individualization, personal knowledge and a sense of professionalism have been sucked from teachers, and, by extension, their students.

And now we get to the conspiratorial portion of our adventure.  Let’s take a look at Pearson Education.  At the very same time, they have been publishing textbooks aligned to Common Core, creating the test-preparation materials, developing the tests themselves, writing the teacher training curricula and producing the remedial materials for those who did poorly on the tests.  In other words, it is in their material interest to have students fail.  If one who happens to have a background in education looks objectively at Common Core, one sees that the pre-kindergarten standards are fairly consistent with those of the recognized experts, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, but each subsequent year the standards rise not developmentally but exponentially, so by grade school they have already started to exceed the reasonable capabilities of many students, and teachers.  And there is no objective evidence that they improve students’ education or potential.  And this article would be remiss were it not to mention that it might not be just the greedy publishers and the fattened CEO’s of charter schools who have their own material interest in “education reform,” the private drivers of Common Core may have their own hidden agendas. Hence the charges, for example, that the Gates Foundation, probably the chief engine in this entire movement, is using “reform” for many profitable purposes: money-making teacher training, pipelines to positions in the education industry and back from invested-in charter schools, major political leverage for future endeavors, and reinforcing a “market-based” approach in education that instills skills and mindsets that can be of ultimate benefit to Microsoft.

Parents have driven the “Opt-Out” movement primarily in reaction to the stress caused by the battery of tests and the piles of homework that teachers are made to feel is necessary to prepare the children for them.  With all of the talk about “research,” it might be interesting for the overlords of our current educational system to look at that relating to homework, most notably by Alfie Kohn.  Most studies have concluded that homework provides no academic benefits for students whatsoever, except in the sole case of late Elementary to Middle School math, wherein students benefit as to efficiency of speed by memorizing the times table and other formulas.  Schools that have experimented in doing away with homework have seen no drop in student achievement.  In fact, speaking as a trained educator, virtually every practice currently in use in public schools stands in total contradiction with what we know about child development and legitimate pedagogy.  And it’s getting worse and worse.  The only responsible response is to “Opt Out” and to fight back.  We have to fight for smaller classes, more equitable funding, quality and independent teacher training, the survival of public schooling, the rights of teachers (along with enforcement of their responsibilities), and keeping politicians’ hands and corporate greed away from our… our educational system.