Thursday, September 13, 2012

Schools Failing, Debate About Schools a Pompous Mess

A large urban school district, in the full swing of a major rebuilding effort, suffers a tremendous setback just prior to triple-digit layoffs of teachers.

In a year of disappointing results on state math and reading tests, most schools in Pittsburgh Public Schools saw their scores drop in reading, math or both, with six experiencing double-digit dips in the percentage of students proficient or advanced on both tests. (P-G, Eleanor Chute)

Whether something particularly awful was going on in our District alone, or in many urban districts, or more generally statewide will not be known until statewide reports are released.

Days later, elsewhere in the P-G, a rant appears chock full of outrageous-sounding anecdotes and character attacks, casting all who believe something real must be done to instill a culture of urgency and efficiency in America's public schools as enemy saboteurs trying to destroy public education and workers' rights.

It's back-to-school time! Time for the editorialists and the Tea Party, the GOP and Barack Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan to rip into the people who dare teach in public schools. And in Arne's old stomping grounds, Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is stomping on the teachers, pushing them into the street.

Let's stop kidding ourselves. This is what Mitt Romney and Barack Obama and Arne Duncan and Paul Ryan have in mind when they promote charter schools and the right to fire teachers with tenure: Slash teachers' salaries and bust their unions. (P-G, Greg Palast)

Teachers unions are about to solidarity public education out of existence.

The crux of the last-ditch argument to save public education from itself, when political rhetoric eases up and allows anybody to think dispassionately, tends to return back to the legitimacy of using standardized test scores -- which are already used to determine school funding, student advancement, and in some cases teacher merit pay -- to evaluate and identify teachers that are doing great and teachers that are being less productive than others for their students.

A Harvard / Columbia study seems to demonstrate that if you have enough data and control for enough variables (this is very important) the evidence is clear and striking -- that great teachers can not only be identified regardless of who it is they teach, but their influence can be relied upon to make their students wealthier and more successful for years and years.

But wait, not so fast, say critiques of that study and the others which are starting to circulate. And the truth is, no study or counter-study says exactly or only what the person waving it in your face insists it says.

The result is what Tunch Ilkin calls "paralysis by analysis," and then a reversion to comfortable political talking points.

In the end, although urban public schools were doing poorly already and apparently on the way toward doing even worse before payrolls were slashed, the solutions to the problem offered by the public labor sector has been to restore cuts and increase budgets.

Of course that also invites counter-arguments:

The money missing from the education budget was federal stimulus money. Over a two year period the prior administration actually cut the state's share of funds in Basic Ed and backfilled and then topped it off with the stimulus money. School districts ended up paying salaries and benefits with this money as if it would be there the next year. Instead, we had a $4.2 billion deficit to fill. Corbett restored the state share to Basic Ed to pre-stimulus levels and this year he added more. (Dennis Roddey, Special Asssitant to Gov. Corbett, timely correspondence on a related matter)

Now, the way to increase education spending regardless of where it truly started would be as simple as raising taxes on corporations, capital gains and high wage earners so that everybody is paying their "fair share". Politically and practically speaking however, taxes may go up and taxes may go down, but only a little. We may in fact be on the low side of that pendulum presently, but one can not rationally expect that in a few years, American public opinion is on the brink of undergoing a drastic sea-change, leading to gouging millionaires and profitable companies like perhaps we should.

Meanwhile, students will suffer, attaining an education abysmally out-of-step with those in most other developed nations. And we shall all get to proudly wave our banners stating who is truly to blame. My hunch is that the subset of people who actually desire to eliminate public education through indiscriminate use of vouchers, charters and budget cuts eventually will be successful -- with the help of a general public frustrated by the failure any public school reform efforts to gain any traction. But Labor will still get to blame conservative saboteurs for tricking a hapless public ignorantly fascinated with "teacher accountability", so who really loses?

Aside from students, teachers, parents, the poor, the Country, and everybody whose first concern is not the ideological Cold War.


  1. The loss goes to public school kids.


  2. Mark, it's amazing the City isn't lousy with water polo facilities already.