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If It Were About The Children....

Reforming School Reform 

by Matthew L. Mandel, NBCT

It’s not about the children.

The education reform movement, at least here in Pennsylvania, may be about a lot of things, but it certainly isn’t about our children.

If it were, efforts to bridge the achievement gap and advance opportunities for all children would look a hell of a lot different.

If it were about children, each and every public school would be awash in resources and technology. A licensed school nurse would be in each and every building so that the health and safety of kids were not compromised. All schools would have these necessities, not just “experimental” and privately-managed schools who are flooded these and then labeled a success.

If it were about children, students in the poorest neighborhoods—those most at-risk—would step into vibrant learning environments each morning—schools that met their intellectual, artistic, and athletic needs and inclinations. Schools would not be turned into grim test-prep facilities, with a curriculum narrowed to core, state-tested subjects. Children would be given a reason to be excited about coming to school, aside from making AYP.

It’s not about the children.

If it were about children, we wouldn’t value differentiated instruction, then test children all the same way.

If it were about children, schools would be as safe as the offices of those politicians in Harrisburg who cut funding to public schools, and then hand out EMO contracts to campaign contributors and others once a school has been labeled a “failure.”

If it were about children, those who cut funding for vital family services would realize the inextricable link between childhood poverty and educational outcomes. These same politicians would be as incensed by children in their state having inadequate nourishment, dental, vision, and medical care as they are about whether same-sex partners have a right to be married.

If it were about children, in Philadelphia, a state takeover charged with both improving financial management and educational outcomes would be put to rest as a failed experiment. A district’s management team wouldn’t be able to run a district into insolvency, say they are sorry, and then move on to lucrative consultant positions. Reformists like Michelle Rhee and Arlene Ackerman—who help to cultivate a culture of testing “irregularities”—wouldn’t be allowed to exit with a golden parachute before being held accountable for the results under their leadership.

If it were about children, boisterous, spotlight-seeking politicians who wax poetic about school vouchers as an elixir for what ills public schools would be required to do their own homework and examine research that compellingly indicates that vouchers don’t work. These same politicians would also be too embarrassed to call the fight for vouchers in Pennsylvania “the Civil Rights battle of our generation.” Our nation’s true Civil Rights leaders died trying to create greater opportunities for those without. Proponents of Senate Bill 1 are crusaders for someone’s interests, just not for our children’s.

If it were about children, legislators who stump for vouchers would have to guarantee a source of funding to bridge the gap between the value of the voucher and the cost of tuition at elite public and private schools. They wouldn’t be allowed to get away with deceiving families with the notion of “choice” when such choice belongs solely to the schools, not to the students and their families.

If it were about children, no Federal mandates could exist unless they were adequately funded.

If it were about children, big money philanthropy wouldn’t be the driving force in education reform; it would be research instead . As in the field of Medicine, what works in the field of Education would be replicated in schools and districts throughout the country. Theories and strategies that do not work would be discarded. Academic historians like Diane Ravitch wouldn’t be labeled “traitors” because they no longer support business-model reforms. An intellectual, not a politician, Ravitch lets research and outcomes influence her conclusions. What a novel idea.

If it were about children, teachers would be held in the highest regard. Those politicians who were bullies with a microphone when I debated them at Bright Hope Baptist Church wouldn’t be allowed to posture that they are the ones “fighting for children.” They are not in classrooms, every day—knee to knee, often amid poor conditions and with inadequate resources—advocating for our youngest and most at-risk. 

If it were about children, those who judge me would be able to do my job—today—not just be able to read a book in front of the cameras. My competency and teaching acumen would not be reduced to elements—such as the quality of my bulletin boards or organization of my students’ constructed response folders—that do not adequately convey my skill and my passion.

And if it were about children, teachers would be respected partners in any dialogue on necessary reforms. In what other profession are practitioners in the field given so little respect for their knowledge, insights, and contributions?

And if it were about children, 
teachers would be respected partners 
in any dialogue on necessary reforms.

None of the above is an apology for what improvements are necessary. No self-respecting professional believes he or she can’t do better and that things don’t need to improve. 

But I choose to believe that a state that can build billion-dollar stadiums, raise millions to save works of art from being relocated, and create impenetrable bubbles of security around visiting dignitaries (in a country that can allocate trillions of dollars in resources to fight with such gallantry and precision in foreign lands) can surely have the ability to effect change that works for all children.

Education reform, here and elsewhere, is about a lot of things. It’s about access to billions of public dollars. It’s about politics and kickbacks for friends and donors. It’s about retaliation and retribution. It’s about religion, right-wing values, and anti-unionism. It’s about creating more, but for fewer, and to hell with the rest. It is, in effect, a form of child abuse in a digestible political wrapper.

But it certainly isn’t about children.

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