Education Reform - or "The Kudzu That Is Eating Congress"

Kudzu, noun: a plant with a weak stem that derives support from climbing over trees or shrubs and grows so rapidly that it kills them by heavy shading.

Two years ago StudentsFirst didn't exist. I chose to start my conversation with that event because, in my mind, it is the watershed moment that marks the roll out of the newest phase in a long running plan for the hostile corporate takeover and privatization of public schools. In those two short years, the framers of the "reform movement," like the kudzu infestations, have accomplished much.

For example, reformers have effectively enraged the public sensibilities to the point of a near riot about the need for reform. In the process reformers have shaded and blocked out the voice of opposition from most all venues of public forum. Reformers have been most effective in vilifying their imaginary but enormously huge fantasy cabal of "bad teachers" as being the sole cause for every problem in education (really?). And no sooner did the reformers have their mob chanting "Bad Teachers, Bad Teachers" loud enough and were satisfied that phase one of the takeover was complete (teachers were now accepted in the court of public opinion as being "the problem,") it was time to begin phase two.

In phase two, the "reformers" were quick at the ready to offer their best (and only) solution. Their argument went something like this: "To insure every precious, innocent, defenseless child in America won't be 'left behind,' to wallow under the horrific and daemonic influence of the huge cabal of "bad teachers," we need the power to combat their overseer evil unions and remove the accounting practice of 'Last In - First Out' (LIFO) and, while we are at it, let's also eliminate teachers protections from arbitrary or capricious dismissal by eliminating the due process protections afforded by tenure (really?).

Naturally, a lot of folks looked at these proposals and thought they were a little bit wonky. How would removing LIFO and tenure help any child read better or understand mathematics more proficiently? From the reform camp, the counter to that question was this; “in removing all the legally negotiated and mutually accepted protections of LIFO and tenure, we can fire as much as the bottom 15% of teachers we want to every year and replace them with "great" teachers.” Oh, I see it now (kind of…).

OK. But how do we know who are good teachers and who are bad teachers? Always at the ready, reformers were quick to point out that “because the high stakes standardized test scores measure student learning, the high stakes standardized test scores must also measure teacher effectiveness.” “But,” folks countered, “research repeatedly demonstrates how high stakes standardized test scores vary wildly, are fraught with statistical anomalies and are widely understood to be unreliable metrics of teacher effectiveness.” "OK," said the reformers, "then we will look at individual student growth over time to discern teacher effectiveness." And so was born the reformers’ reliance on the model known as Value Added Measures, or VAM.

It must be pointed out at this point that the algorithm for VAM was developed by a geneticist to predict the percent outcome of a desired trait based on the influence of multiple factors such as environment or genetics. In other words, to reformers, learning is like the desired trait; kind of like plant height, and kids are like Soy Beans.

Hence, the crusade was on. Reformers trumpeted the value of VAM as being sound and, as many proclaimed, “Better than nothing” and the idea was soon attached to the reformers agenda as a rock-solid tool of wisdom. But, it must be said that nobody, especially politicians who LOVE VAM, can explain any of the factors that make up the equation or what it measures. Try it yourself by looking at the equation found in Michael Winerp's article in the New York Times. Personally I wonder which factor accounts for the influence of the ever growing student’s free will point decision of “I don’t give a rat’s ass about you or your flippin’ test.” I personally didn’t see any compensation for that in the equation.

But today’s modern reform movement is proving itself not to be about understanding what works and what doesn't work when educating kids. Modern education reform is not about looking at and championing all the influences that merge to create a successful learning experience for every child in every classroom every day. Modern education reform is about propagating an agenda whose end result is to grow over and dominate the educational landscape; to create an environment shaded from light and creativity where every teacher is at risk of being fired from every school every day; to become the dominant authority thereby choking out the very fertile and positive effective domain needed by teachers to imagine the best and create a safe and encouraging crucible so needed by kids to discover the very real joy of learning. Modern education reform is about legislating this agenda into law.

Don't believe me? Take a moment to follow the link and look at the latest piece of Federal Legislation to emerge from our Washington politicians. Read the following synopsis of the bill very carefully to see how much of the reformers agenda is reflected in the proposed legislation:

•… the “Highly Qualified Teacher” requirements have placed too much emphasis on a teacher’s credentials and tenure.

This is code for the facet of the reformers agenda that is striving to put veteran teachers at risk for arbitrary and capricious dismissal. In placing too much emphasis on a teacher’s credentials, this reform agenda item opens the door to staff schools with under-trained temporary teachers through "alternative credential programs" like Teach for America, or The Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL).

•… these “Highly Qualified Teacher” provisions can do more harm than good.

This passage cast doubts on the efficacy of placing content experts in front of kids. In essence, the United States House of Representatives has bought the reformer’s ridiculous idea that a person with a degree in political science will be as knowledgeable and capable of teaching algebra as a person with a degree in math. This makes no logical sense whatsoever.(PS I’m not crumming on Poly-Sci majors, I’m just making a contrasting point)

•…teachers are considered qualified simply by participating in an approved program or completing an academic major. This means that being qualified does not depend on demonstrating that you can teach.

What this passage fails to address is that individuals who have 1) participated in an approved program or completing an academic major AND 2) completed the traditional 2 years of post graduate studies needed to get the professional educator's licensure that most states require has undergone extensive training in pedagogies, leaning theory, and has a requisite number of hours of practical classroom experience as a student teacher under the guidance of an approved master teacher prior to becoming a licensed teacher of record. Comparability, Teach for America offers a fast paced 5 week intensive training summer boot camp for its recruits while AUSL puts people in front of children after 1) a summer where half of the graduate course work is for a Master's degree and 2) without receiving any practical prior training in front of kids in an active classroom. It appears to me that before becoming the teacher of record, of the three options mentioned only a traditionally trained new teacher has ever gotten any practical experiences navigating daily the realities of a classroom of children. Is it really wise to put new inexperienced teachers with zero child interaction in front of what often are the neediest students in a district? Acting under the advice of reformers, our Federal Legislators think putting an untrained Political Science majors in front of low performing kids to teach them algebra is a good idea (with apologies to Poly-Sci).

•… the best teachers are the ones who keep students motivated and challenged in the classroom.

This seems reasonable idea and one worth pursuing. Any veteran teacher will tell you that the children of today are motivated and challenged differently than they were just a few years ago. Motivating and challenging students is a slippery dynamic that changes quickly as new technologies, new realities, and new mores continually and rapidly reshape the abilities, desires and expectations of children. Yet this bill fails dismally to address this critical component of effective teaching. Instead of considering the value of funding meaningful professional development that would give insight and skill in motivating kids, this bill simply offers a variety of ways to identify and remove teachers who don’t have the current set of skills. This isn't effective leadership or good governance. This is pure unadulterated Draconian punishment. Shame on you, legislators!

•Instead of relying on teacher credential or tenure requirements, which provide little information about teachers’ ability to help students excel in the classroom, the Student Success Act and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act will ensure states and school districts have the tools necessary to effectively measure an educator’s influence on student achievement.

Poppycock! The Student Success Act and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act reflect the inability of these lawmakers to act on education issues outside the influence of the modern reform movement. This is not a group of lawmakers being proactive to a problem. This is not a group of lawmakers being supportive to teachers. This is not a group of lawmakers making the profession stronger or more adept to the needs of kids. This House bill reflects a group of lawmakers being reactive (and naively so at that). This group of lawmakers avoids being supportive of teachers and students. This is a group of lawmakers hell-bent on stifling the profession's ability to meet the needs of kids, and they are doing so in the most damaging way possible. The framers of this bill are a group of sellout lawmakers.

Read more from the bill to see additional examples of how these lawmakers are selling out American education and the mind of our youth:


--Repeal federal "Highly Qualified Teacher" requirements.

In other words, open teaching up to poorly trained alternatively credentialed temporary teachers.

--Support the development and implementation of teacher evaluation systems to ensure parents have the information they need to make decisions about their child’s education.

This bill offers no insight to what an effective evaluation system would look like. Many States have taken this idea to mean they should count High Stakes Test Scores and/or Value Added Measures for as much as 50% of a teacher's performance evaluation. Sadly, many States have already swallowed this cup of hemlock.

--Set broad parameters – including linkages to student achievement data – that must be included in any teacher evaluation system, but allows states and school districts to design their own systems.

I don't understand this at all - Federal Legislation sets the parameters, but the Fed's "allow" States to design their own system...using the parameters the Federal Legislature mandate. Isn't this how the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) came about - the Fed's held out a huge bucket of cash to States to compel the States to create the CCSS’s. And now the cash strapped States took the bait and "initiative" making any existing or future problems no longer the domain of the Feds because, after all, it was the States that created them. The sniff test on this smacks of "bait and switch."

--Require states and school districts to seek input from parents, teachers, school leaders, and other staff as they develop the evaluation system.

The sniff test on this also smacks at worst of "bait and switch" and at least as another unfunded Federally mandated unfunded reform.

--Encourage states and school districts to make personnel decisions based on the evaluations, as determined by the school district.

In the arena of Federal law and Arne Duncan, "encourage" is code word for extort. "Personnel decisions" is code word for the elimination of LIFO and tenure. And "as determined by the school district" is code for transferring the illusion of responsibility for inception and implementation from the Feds to the districts. This is the same Federal double speak written by Arne Duncan into the Race to the Top initiative. But when it came time for the Fed's to pony up and distribute the $4.35 billion dollars, only those states that jumped as high as the Federal rules of extortion demanded got any of the gold. So let's speak truth here. Unpacking the Federal gobbledygook, this passage reads "Using much needed funds for leverage, extort from states and school districts a guarantee they will eliminate LIFO and tenure while simultaneously the law will shield the Federal reformers from culpability and divert all responsibility and unintended consequences to the State and school district level." All in all, this is a pretty tidy scam, if you ask me.

--Consolidate teacher quality programs into a new Teacher and School Leader Flexible Grant, which supports creative approaches to recruit and retain effective educators.

There it is - the end of traditional teacher programs and the green light for profit centric temporary staffing models such as Teach for America to swoop in and get any and all job openings. It is already happening folks. Districts contracted with TFA are letting teachers without LIFO or tenure protection go and by contract have to hire TFA before hiring the “laid off” teachers back. This scam is slicker then a fast game of three-card-Monty.

Two years ago StudentsFirst didn't exist and neither did many of these destructive ideas. In fact, when StudentsFirst first burst onto the scene, many progressive educator's quickly connected the dots and drew the prophetic conclusion that the reformer's agenda would result in the systemic ability to remove veteran teachers and replace them with temporary contract teachers. These progressive educators also prophetically predict the unregulated rise of charter schools and their ability to operate under a different set of rules from public schools and effectively keep the most favorable students. These progressive educator's also predicted that, in time, the only children left in public schools will be those who by virtue of ability or behavior are unwanted by charters and dumped back into public. When this abhorrent dumping practice becomes the norm of this land, the reformers will officially ring the death knoll for American Public Education as a miserably failed institution that is best served by the Neoliberal privatization of schools.

The truth is, my friends, that in two short years the tendrils of education reform, like the tendrils of Kudzu, have grown up and over education in previously unimaginable ways and at an increasingly alarming rate. Reform is choking the life out of the American Public Education system. This Republican driven document is the antithesis of all that is good and all that education can potentially be. The framers of this document are simply wrong and are guided by incorrect principles to achieve a goal that, like kudzu on a shrub, is slowly choking the life and imagination and confidence to learn out of the hearts and minds of kids all across America.

If you believe the Federal Government is following misguided principles that will do nothing to improve a child's desire or ability to grow, learn and comprehend essential knowledge and skill, then get up out of your chair, find ten members of this House Committee from this list, contact them, and tell them they are wrong and to scale back their misguided laws.

Children are human beings filled with an insatiable curiosity and an unlimited ability to imagine and learn new things - if we have the freedom to allow that to happen unfettered. Successful education is having the compassion and empathy to create those moments of discovery and wonder - teachers know this. Successful education is guiding the mind of a child to grow and develop in a safe environment where meaning and understanding is cultivated with care and encouragement. These are the experiences that will keep kids engaged. These are the experiences that will keep kids in school. These are the experiences that will give kids the most powerful lesson they can possibly learn – that they are worthy, intelligent, thinking human beings with a positive ability to be a productive member of society by finding their inner passions and carving out a place for that to flourish in the world around them. That is what education one was. That is the education we need to restore. Our kids are counting on us to not let this evil prevail.

Update: Edited for clarity and linkification

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