By John A. Ostenburg
The Outpost Observer
Why is it that the last people listened to regarding problems in public education are the ones who deal with it on the front line day after day?
Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 education plan came onto the charts back in 2004. Immediately, classroom teachers pointed out its many flaws. Were they listened to? Of course not. Instead, Mayor Richard M. Daley and now U.S. Secretary of Education — then Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer — Arne Duncan pushed ahead with a program that had come not from the educational community, but rather from the business community.
Lest anyone forget, that’s the same business community that has demonstrated questionable wisdom in the world of finance, ultimately leading the United States into its current economic crisis.
When teachers voiced their outrage over some of the proposals contained in the Ren 2010 plan, they were accused by both politicians and the media of being concerned only with selfish interests. Newspaper editorials declared that teachers only were protecting their jobs, only were complaining because they wanted to duck accountability. CPS administrators said "bad" teachers were the problem in Chicago, and so they used Ren 2010 as a way to get rid of seasoned teachers, claiming that the complete "turn-around" of some schools was needed in order to give the students at those sites a quality education.
Of course, the Chicago Teachers Union argued to the contrary. "Teachers don’t make the decisions that are causing failure in the Chicago Public Schools," then CTU President Marilyn Stewart said in an open letter to Arne Duncan in February 2006. "Rather, those decisions are made by the high-priced, non-educator, bureaucrats who work for you."
She could have ended that sentence with "such as you" instead of "for you," as Mr. Duncan himself is a non-educator bureaucrat, given that he’s never been a classroom teacher or school-based administrator but rather moved right to the front of the line by being anointed first by Mayor Daley to become the CPS CEO, and then by President Barack Obama to be the nation’s education secretary. In developing the Ren 2010 plan, he took direction from a study by the Commercial Club of Chicago, hardly a group of educators.
Operating from his Washington base, Mr. Duncan has continued to spread his erroneous gospel that schools will improve when (1) they are completely dismantled and then "turned-around," or (2) replaced by privately operated charter schools. The decision on schools to be turned-around or replaced is based on test scores. But the results of the Duncan experiment in Chicago seem to be showing some flaws in his gospel message.
Now along comes a couple of major news items that seem to indicate that the classroom teachers weren’t so far off base as it seemed back when they were warning that Ren 2010 really wasn’t addressing the true problems within public education, especially big-city public education. A recent analysis of Renaissance 2010 by Catalyst magazine makes clear that one of the cornerstones of Ren 2010 — charter schools — is showing no educational improvement over traditional schools. And now, on the heels of that study, CPS itself has issued a report card on its schools, asserting that 48 percent of its elementary schools and 68 percent of its high schools deserve a grade of "D" at best. This after six years of the Renaissance 2010 "reform."
The national trend that began in Chicago and has been replicated in other major U.S. cities — most notably in Washington, D.C., under that city’s school chief, Michelle Rhee — is destined for dire consequences, according to one leading national education figure.
Dr. Diane Ravitch, author of the highly acclaimed The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education published earlier this year, makes the following observation about the future of American schools, given the current direction.
"The search for higher scores is likely to promote a significant narrowing of the curriculum, cheating, teaching to the test, and other negative outcomes," she recently wrote on an education blog. "To the extent that our students learn less history, science, civics, geography, foreign languages, and the arts, their education will be far worse than it is today."
Dr. Ravitch, it should be noted, is neither wild-eyed liberal philosopher who thrives on attacking the establishment, nor an entrenched corporate decision-maker such as those who designed Renaissance 2010. Instead, she’s a highly regarded professor of education at New York University and served as an assistant secretary of education under former President George H. W. Bush.
The underlying premise of Ren 2010 and similar programs is that low test scores are caused by a deficient teaching staff. To prove the point, public school critics find one or two examples of poor teaching and then portray them in the media as the rule rather than the exception. A new documentary movie on public education, Waiting for Superman, illustrates this point in its use of a couple of examples of bad teaching — one 12 years old — without any mention of the quality teaching that’s much more prevalent.
But here are some reality-check points.
(1) Where are so-called "bad" schools most often found? Clue: not in wealthy upper-class and middle-class neighborhoods. So what’s the common denominator? Can you say "poverty"?
(2) Kids in poorer-performing schools often are the ones whose parents have the lowest levels of education themselves, who often have parents who barely have reached adulthood themselves, who often come to school hungry, who often do not have in-home educational enhancements such as computers, home libraries, etc. Is it any wonder they do less well in the classroom?
(3) Teachers of kids in poorer-performing schools often are exerting far more energy to achieve lesser results than are the teachers of kids in better-performing schools. The kids in the better-performing schools many times achieve on their own as much as they do under the tutelage of their instructors.
(4) Teachers of kids in poorer-performing schools often are the only stabilizing element in the lives of those children. Firing those teachers, and replacing them with someone brand new to the neighborhood, cannot be beneficial to the educational process.
(5) Effective community programs that help children escape the woes of poverty will prove a thousand times more successful at improving education than will the "turn-around" of their schools.
No one denies that problems exist within many of America’s public schools today. Nor does anyone deny that improvements must be made if children in America are to learn at a level consistent with the demands of society for a well-educated workforce. The point of the argument is who decides what is the best approach to educating our young. Haven’t we been leaving that decision to bureaucrats and politicians long enough? Don’t we see sufficient evidence that their decisions have not proved effective?
Let’s let teachers teach. And let’s let them decide the best methods for achieving success in our schools. In every other profession, it’s the professional who makes those kinds of decisions. Why are things so different in public education?
John A. Ostenburg is mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He recently retired as the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union. E-mail him at [email protected].