Saturday, June 5, 2010

Brooks Celebrates a Race to Nowhere

David Brooks' recent Op-Ed Race to Sanity underscores again his enthusiastic support of using the models of big business to reform our public schools.
As a former Wall Street Journal opinion writer, it isn't surprising to find him aligning himself with the only paradigm he can wrap his head around: Competition Makes Everything Better.

But competition really only makes things better for those who are already starting out well ahead, and therein lies the problem with treating Education to a heavy helping of free-market group-think.
The ones who will benefit from this program are sure to get more, better, best--while those without resources are being promised nothing but punishment (again).

What is wrong with competition in schools? After all, it already exists to some degree. Don't we celebrate our Valedictorians? Our top athletes?
Brooks' argument appeals to the practical nature of many. He celebrates the Duncan plan which dangles RttT Funds in front of states competing to meet qualifying "scores" on a scorecard devised by the DOE. Clear "winners" and "losers" will be identified and then the top states win bucket-o-money to enact the reforms.
It appears to be working.
States are lining up to lap at the trough of education reform dollars.
So what is the problem?

The problem is the scorecard devised by the DOE. It includes ideas that are unproven and even dangerous for the children in our classrooms.
Take Pay for Performance for instance. Brooks justifies this process with the hollow statement: "In every other job in this country, people are measured by whether they produce results." In light of the recent banking failures which were followed by bonuses, and the huge national disaster in the Gulf brought on by BP executives entrenched in their own mindless Race to the Top in Profits, this is the most ridiculous claim I have ever read in print.
Give me a break!
But regardless, paying teachers based on their students' performance in a given year, besides being statistically difficult to prove, would bring a climate of competition into the classroom which would be decidedly unhealthy and counter-productive to the central role of teachers - supporting and extending the learning of every child, no matter where they begin their own particular race for a better life.
Imagine the world from a child's point of view if the adults in their lives begin looking at them as possible bonus checks versus a spot in the unemployment line.
Imagine teachers fighting over resources, access to materials, students who perform better than others. Imagine those who might consider cheating, brow-beating, spending inordinate amounts of time teaching to the final test so that scores go up, regardless of whether it is what is best for the children in the room.
In short, imagine the cut-throat world of business --which created the motivation to take short cuts in order to realize deep-water drilling designed to amass big profits, for instance -- transferred into the lives of our youngest citizens.

What should we do instead?

Teaching needs to be a collaborative effort. Rather than competing for ideas, we need to be sharing what works. Our charge is to educate all children. We need to work together on this goal.
Rather than pitting one state against another, one district against another, we need to ensure that all students have equal access to all the methods and supports of good teaching and learning. In other words, the federal government should be helping to level the playing field in terms of access to quality teachers and materials.
Rather than filling teaching slots with short-term "volunteers" or concentrating on developing assessments, we need to spend resources on building a professional, well-educated and mentored teaching profession. When the quality of teaching is assured the rest will follow.

My dream school would be year-round, with short breaks throughout the year. (If we want real reform, why haven't we started with throwing out the antiquated agrarian calendar that suggests learning is a part-time occupation and that results in documented learning-loss year after year for the least able?) Students who come from limited resource homes could spend some of those short breaks in enrichment activities (museum trips, book clubs, video production courses, art programs, civic outreach and volunteer programs, internships, intensive sporting programs etc. etc.) while still gaining access to important nutrition programs. And why have a break at all? Children, and adults too for that matter, gain from periods of play. Structuring some of this time for students who lack resources would overcome some of those learning losses now well documented.

In addition, teachers could engage in the professional development needed to keep classroom practice fresh and in line with the latest research. Rather than sending the "13th Grade" home for months at a time, teachers would be considered part of the leadership of every school, helping to shape policy and curriculum for the school. Usually, teachers are dismissed along with the students and have no part in recommended changes for the next school year. A waste of energy and talent in most schools.

And speaking of research, most of the initiatives in RttT are unproven, untested, or failed practices. Do we really want to race into uncharted waters and risk the development of another generation of children?
Why aren't we spending federal dollars on Research and Development?

If you want to read some real common-sense on education, look at the comments posted after Brooks' editorial.

And don't buy into this quick fix. It could spell more years of damaging practices enacted on our children.
Join Teachers' Letters to Obama to join other teachers nationwide in creating a NewPrint to counter the DOE Blueprint for Reform.