Friday, December 28, 2012

Make No Mistake, Corporate Ed Reform is Hurting Kids

Corporate Education Reform hurts children.  This truth needs to be said a million times over.  No longer can we allow reformers to hide behind the rhetoric of reform and ignore the realities.  Words like "poverty is not destiny" "high expectations" "quality school options" and "choice" all mask the very real impact of these reforms. There are consequences to the disruption of school closings, to purposeful disinvestment in neighborhood schools, to layoffs of experienced educators, to the haphazard expansion of largely low-quality charters. 

As most who read this blog know, I work in a psychiatric hospital in Chicago. Unlike many teachers out there who see only their small window of the reform world, I get to see the cross-section.  Students cycle through my program so quickly (too quickly, thanks to massive cuts in mental health services) that I hear dozens of stories a week from all over the city and surrounding suburbs.  And what's happening out there is beyond heart-breaking, it is wrong.  Kids have come in to the hospital with massive anxiety, depression, and aggression related, in part, to school policies.  I have students who report fear of “getting jumped” on the way to schools across town after their neighborhood school was shut down.  I've had kids with school refusal due to the very real fear of a dangerous bus route through rival neighborhoods. Young people are afraid of the increases in violence and gang activity as kids from all parts of the city are thrust together in schools whose only response to the rage is zero tolerance lockdown.  There is no healing, just ignoring and punishing the problem, pushing the fights off of school grounds.  Almost every child I work with from the neighborhoods targeted for the brunt of school reform has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  They have difficulty sitting still, are quick to react to any perceived threat with violence or aggression, cannot concentrate on school work, and have come to hate the experience of school.  And yet all they get from school leadership is school closures, fired teachers, and false choices.

Kids feel abandoned as they lose the ties to trusted teachers and school staff, many drifting off into truancy and drop-out.   My kids have complained about teachers who “don’t get it” speaking about the unfair practice of putting poorly-trained teachers with no education experience and no understanding of their communities’ issues in their classrooms.  As reform sweeps through my city with its massive layoffs, it disproportionally affects teachers of color, the teachers who are most likely to connect with these children.  As a special education teacher, it is especially shocking how many uncertified and inexperienced teachers serve our students with special needs. Why this isn't a national scandal, I will never understand...

My kids with IEPs get shuffled around schools as neighborhood schools shut, charters push them out, and receiving schools must take time to get to know the child anew, delaying services.  I have kids who have been to four different schools in as many years, and must keep changing schools as schools are shut down down or turned-around.  How many children have we lost who slip through the cracks as they bounce around school options?  Is anyone keeping track?

I've met kids who complain "I was in a class of 39 kids with no textbooks.  Why should I stay? They don't care about us."  Kids understand on a deep level that they are being treated like disposable people as their neighborhood schools are being grossly under-resourced and under-staffed in order to justify further school closures. Purposefully starving a school, underutilized or not, to serve your political agenda is criminal.   There are children suffering in those schools. 

And my kids hate school.  When I hear the stories of what they are being asked to do all day I don't blame them.  Any joy and excitement that teachers used to bring to the classroom is being destroyed by pressures from high-stakes standarized tests.  The class project bulletin board is replaced by a data wall.  The music, gym, art, and after-school activities are being exchanged for longer days full of test prep, rote memorization, and disembodied facts, formulas, and vocabulary practice.  Kids in low-income schools no longer read novels, they now do reading comprehension worksheets focused on discreet skills like "compare/contrast" or "main idea".  They don't fall in love with characters or ideas, they answer comprehension questions and write out short essays.  They don't do projects and experiments, go on field trips, or paint, draw, imagine, or question. They take tests.  I know I hate teaching that way just as much as the kids hate to learn that way.  It is boring as hell and you have to choose to either crack down on restrictive discipline or you live in chaos as kids rebel.    

My charter kids are lovely, smart, capable young men and women.  But I worry about all my sicker, poorer kids being left behind.  Negative behaviors are being concentrated in certain schools.  Peer effects matter greatly.  What a joy it is to have the higher-performing kids in my class at the hospital.  They change the whole atmosphere of the room.  They can support the struggling students and raise thoughtful questions.  This is why socioeconomic integration matters.  My charter kids are almost without exception at the higher end of the free/reduced lunch bracket with families better able to support them while the kids who struggle the most are those coming from the deepest, most debilitating poverty.  Racial integration matters, too, for my students of color in the magnet and selective enrollment schools are having better experiences than charters or neighborhood schools thanks to having access to the funding that follows white students. 

[As an aside, google "school integration" and look at "images".  They are ALL in black and white because we stopped talking about this issue decades ago.]

Meanwhile, all this focus on the corporate reforms of school closures, charter expansion, and teacher/school accountability means we are not investing in other types of reform, most notably anti-poverty programs.  The number of kids I have met who are suffereing from trauma, abuse, PTSD, depression, anxiety, anger issues which could have been prevented by working towards eradicating poverty is staggering.  School leaders' "choice" to focus solely on corporate reforms at the expense of all other types of change means more kids must suffer.  I am tired of the tragic stories I hear. 

And I'm thinking ahead to the unknown, but likely large numbers (60? 100? 120?) of schools heading for closure at the end of the year here in Chicago.  I am bracing myself for the repercussions of chaos in the coming months.  Imagine potentially hundreds, maybe thousands of kids with IEPs needing to find new appropriate placements.  How will receiving schools follow children's IEPs in a timely manner?  How will they ensure they have the right amount of staff?  What will happen to my kids with no parents, in the child welfare system, if their school closes?  DCFS tries to meet their needs, but they are not staffed anywhere near the level necessary to manage a mass number of displaced children.  The charters, even if they somehow enroll these kids, will not and do not keep them.  They will bounce back to yet another school, having to start over yet again.

And those proponents of choice brag about closing down "under-performing charters" the same as neighborhood schools as if this were a good thing!  The number one thing my students require is stability and connection.  And those are the very things which are being lost as CPS follows the corporate education reform path. Edreform's goal is a neverending cycle of chaos, with schools being opened and shut down again like shoe stores.  And this model goes against everything we know to be good for children.

Education Reform does not work.  It shuffles kids around, concentrating a few high-achievers in the choosen "miracle schools" in order to be able to market "choice", but does not actually do anything remotely innovative or even new.  And to condemn so many of those bright young charter kids to "no excuses" discipline codes makes me ill.  Why can't they get creative, progressive teaching and learning like the children of the suburbs get?   Edreform is all smoke and mirrors.  And while reformers try to spin their made-up successes, the children being left behind are being hurt, neglected, and abused like never before.

There can be no middle ground or compromise when kids are being hurt.

No more.  All that reform has taught us is that funding matters, peer groups matter, and segregation matters.  So let's tackle the real problems in schools.  What if reform was built around helping our neediest kids first: those in extreme poverty, those with special needs, those with emotional/behavioral problems?  What if education philanthropists were bragging about giving every school a library, instead of donating to a new "no excuses" charter?   What if the Gates Foundation committed to giving every school a full-time social worker instead of their odd fixation with teacher evaluations?  What if the words "integration" and "equitable funding" were as quick to roll off the tongues of the elite and powerful as the words "choice" and "charters"? 

The current education policies hurt kids.  No more discussion.  Even if EdReformers had most beautiful intentions in the world, if the uninteneded consequences cause children pain, then they must be stopped immediately.  FIRST DO NO HARM.  Only a monster would continue a course of action knowing it hurts kids...


  1. The opportunity for "teachable moments" is disappearing. Along with it is the opportunity for true collaboration-the fluid team-building between adults and children where team members feel out their strengths, their roles, and lend them to create the best final product. Standardization is robbing the public school "choice" of that dynamic, human learning. The "top shelf" choice for the elite pushing reform will preserve tat style learning for the children being groomed to lead. The rest will be left with the "choice" to get into line, to fill in the bubbles, and be taught in a setting where everyone is trained to be standard or be afraid. They cannot sell tests no one will buy. They can't hide behind politicians if the politicians are made to realize they will be held accountable. Our number one obligation is to maximize potential, not standardize it for maximum testing industry profit.

  2. Perhaps the biggest problem in this whole reform movement is that those who design, legislate, and promulgate the policies are NOT educators. . . . 95% of them are politicians, business owners, lawyers, lobbyists, etc., all of whom have never taught and don't backgrounds in education. Until we pass laws that alter the proportion of who is and who is not an educator at the law making round table, we wil never put a real dent into pushing back against corporate reforms in education.

    Robert Rendo

  3. Neither Michelle Rhee nor Arne Duncan have the qualifications to be hired as even a substitute teacher where I live and work. Why the hell they're in charge of promulgating bull[poop] policies and "reforms" and why people are taking them seriously is beyond me. :-(

    After my kids finally got old enough to go to school and allow me to get back into the classroom, I busted my backside to renew my certification in my state.... and promptly discovered that nobody here is hiring music teachers. *sigh* So I've been substituting instead, mostly in my kids' school (which has a low average SES despite a magnet program designed to balance that out) but also as a music teacher part-time in another (MUCH MUCH wealthier!) school in the same district, and the stuff I see even in our relatively progressive and highly-regarded system, the unrealistic and outright developmentally-inappropriate expectations of the very youngest children, is deeply disappointing. I've decided that I"m not in a hurry to go into a system that now requires me as an elementary music teacher to teach X concepts on Week [number] of Marking Period [number] without even allowances for days off (staff development/in-service, Election Day, parent conferences, bad weather). Sorry, that's just nuts.

    Here at least in our suburban school system we haven't had school closings or takeovers as a result of these policies (one small town school was closed and combined with another small-town school, but that had been in the works for years), but our system works differently here. Not far away in DC, though - that's another story, too much like yours. :-(

  4. Katie and Friends,
    I am loving your article Katie, it is right on in every way.

    No more! No MORE!!! NO MORE!!!!

    I have contacted Ed Schultz, Diane Ravitch, a production company in California, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow who teaches at Ohio State, state senator and superintendents in Michigan, I have a panel ready to go with the media when we get someone to pick up the ball and run with it.

    I have been in touch with Parents Across America in Chicago about a project for Preserving Public Education based on “Hands Across America in 1986,” where, state by state, we join together, simultaneously, on the same weekend afternoon, and celebrate public education and present the cold, hard facts of privatization to the public, connecting our cause across America… remember “This land is your land, this land is our land?”

    I have been relentless since running for state rep in Ohio as former Ohio Teacher of the Year and being kept out of the Statehouse by a malicious 1.5 million dollar ad campaign the last 2 weeks of the election of which Michelle Rhee was a player. I am determined to join others and take action from the Outside/ In where ever, whenever and however we can.

    As a 29-year veteran educator and supporter/supervisor/facilitator for over 250 IEP/IAT meetings in my elementary school each year, you have got it right!!!

    These are perilous times for our kids who are fragile, vulnerable and at risk. Taking the experts out of the equation and ping-ponging children across town in the name of for-profit avarice and greed is destroying our children and their crucial connection to community. Fast forward to the next horrific tragedy involving our "lost children," disconnected from the professional expertise, guidance and care they so desperately need.

    We ALL have the momentum and the power to get moving on CIVIL / HUMAN rights issue of our time, namely, protecting our children and preserving public education.

    It is time to take action from the Outside/ In.
    Keep contacting people in a position to bring Katie’s facts to light, keep going with reaching your contacts, newspaper columnists, talk show hosts, etc.

    Keep moving with your words, your expertise, your stories, your ACTIONS.

    Keep doing what you can to save our children and public education.

    Thank you Katie, thank you Diane Ravitch, thank you to all friends/ education professionals who are fighting for public education and our precious children, the real victims of corporate reform.

    Maureen Reedy
    Parent/ 29 year public school teacher
    Columbus, Ohio

  5. Make no mistake... Ms. Katie's blog here is not just ramblings. It is a very coherent and articulate statement about the state of our educational system right now and it's potential fate from a very unique and valuable point of view.

    In my own view, a public that is eager to shut down under-performing public schools rather than find out why they are under-performing and fix and keep them is a very cynical public. It causes me to wonder what causes people to become so impatient with the process of school improvement that they would allow public education to be jeopardized like this. Who is telling them that the correct thing to do when a part of a system is having trouble is to lose your patience, scrap the whole thing, give up, and try some pie-in-the-sky idea that goes against what decades or even centuries of experience has told us works? Do we do that with our kids when they are working on a project? No. We tell them to keep all the hard work they've done so far, focus on the specific problem area, and put some creative energy into solving that problem. Don't give up! Well, we all know who is telling our public to scrap the whole public education system. Our "businessman-politicians" and governer. And gee... why would they do that? It wouldn't have anything to do with profits now would it? A business/corporate type? Looking out for his own bottom line at the expense of the public good? Why never! (Sarcasm.)

    As a parent, I've always felt emotional about the subject of making sure my children have positive educational experiences. In fact, as an educator I am even more driven when it comes to other peoples' kids having positive educational experiences, because I know my children already have the advantage of being raised by educators at home. But even as emotional as I can feel at the thought of a horrible teacher (and I have met them) scarring a child or cheating them out of a year's worth of quality education, I've always been able to keep those thoughts in perspective based on a few things.

    One is, I realize that, just as not every doctor in a given hospital will be good, just the same, not every teacher in a given district will be good. And realistically speaking, the best we can really do is to keep working on measures to ensure quality, but we cannot realistically expect any educational system or institution to be perfect.

    And another is, I realize that when I do things or take an attitude that hurts the entirety of public education just because of a handful of problem areas within public education that could really be fixed if we invested time, money, and creative energy into them... what I'm really doing is hurting the very children who depend on public education to be there for them.

    Finally, and this is the most important point... if people trash the public education system in an attempt to "reinvent the education wheel," without having figured out and solved the problems we had with the first educational system, the same mistakes will continue to be repeated. In fact, the same mistakes and worse as well, because we're not even taking care to take and keep the things that WERE working well and bring those into the new model.

    Kind of makes you wonder about the real intentions of these lawmakers who are pushing "education reform." Well... it doesn't make me wonder. I already know. But to those who aren't sure... Yes. It's about them making the most profit they can off of our childrens' education, and trying to put an end to our efforts to provide educational equality for all children. It's about their myopic worldview that "the more the commoners have, the less we have," (just like the attitude behind Romney's 47% statement.) And no. It doesn't feel right... because it is not right.

  6. Katie,

    Thanks for this article and thanks to you (and all of educator readers) for your service.

    Some of the points about political agendas, are especially interesting in the after glow of the fiscal cliff debacle. This, of course follows the insipid, melodramatic, deceitful, sinfully-expensive, election cycle.

    It seems especially ironic that Congress has long insisted on dictating how teachers should run their classrooms, or superintendents should run their districts when they continually exhibit such prodigious levels of dysfunction, in their postitions.

    Since the prevailing reflex in Washington and in many state capitols is to privatize everything, and get rid of the bad (teachers, principals, state employee), perhaps we should extend that logic and privatize our legislative process. I'm sure there are numerous companies that would step up to provide us with senators and representatives that we could hire on monthly contracts.

    Scott Smith (a parent)
    Grand Rapids, Michigan

    1. Scott,
      I'm afraid we're already there, with our elections privatized, our legislation written by the likes of ALEC, and Governors like Scott Walker already in the employ of the Kochs.

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  9. Wow, this is a superb article - education is the most important factor in success (not just financial success either!) and it isn't fair that education has been corporatized. How do standardized tests help teach children anything other than how to memorize and/or be around the average? I'll bet a lot of the lobbyists have corporate media training that help them maneuver the focus on the issues. I don't understand why they don't focus on poverty in their public speaking - by their standards, wouldn't helping more people make more money be good because they could contribute more money to the economy? I mean, I want poverty to be eradicated because nobody should have to fear that they can't feed their child, but it makes sense however you look at it... great post, thanks again!

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