Making Educators Scapegoats in the Argument for School Choice

Compare the state report cards of charter and public schools in the same city, Youngstown for example, and the numbers don’t lie.  Charter schools, by and large, do not educate students any more effectively than public schools in the same district.  OEA research bulletin, October 2009, Dayton Daily News, 8/21/09 and 2008-2009 Ohio Department of Education Report Cards verify that only 11% of students attending charter schools are in “excellent” or “effective” schools compared to 77% of public school students, and only 25% of students attending charter schools graduate.

Articles like “Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers” (Newsweek, March 6, 2010) garner support for charter school advocates. Perhaps President Obama supports charters because the only programs brought to his attention are the exceptional successful ones—such as KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), highlighted in the Newsweek article, that do improve student achievement, have relatively high graduation rates and outperform the urban public school counterparts in several cities across the country.  However, the first premise of these programs are that the students and parents must sign contracts in order to be accepted, and accountability is not just expected, it is demanded of them. How many students are required to sign contracts to attend traditional public schools?  How many lawsuits would be filed if they were?  So from the very inception of these programs, taking money for students from the budgets of districts very likely to be in deficit already, are completely unfair and playing by a different set of rules.  As for accountability, well, who knows, there are several charter schools in Youngstown and every time one of them is supposedly closing according to the local media, a new sign is erected and the exact same children are attending the exact same school with the exact same teachers the next year.  Yet the Ohio department of Education requires “failing” public schools to either close, convert to a charter school, fire the administration and over half the teaching staff, or undergo a rigorous array of professional development and programming that will add to the school day and effectively put every teacher through the proverbial wringer.  But somehow that’s considered equitable accountability.

Why do so many in the media assume because the schools underperform that the teachers are bad? Social problems, crime and inner city violence, neglect, and a general lack of parenting skills are the reasons children aren’t coming to school prepared to learn.  When they aren’t prepared to learn, they will not achieve, simple as that. Going round and round with the overall problems of evaluation and accountability, it is easy to see why teachers are the targets; the politicians know they cannot solve the social problems set in motion in the inner cities so therefore, they need to find scapegoats.  Perhaps constituents need to continue to raise these difficult questions to the legislators.  Why is there so much more funding for Job & Family Services in Ohio than in education?  Why isn’t House Bill 1 funded fully?  Why is it that when money is placed in inner city schools through grant program after grant program, performance still hasn’t improved significantly?  The teachers can attest that they have changed how they plan for instruction, they’ve adjusted and learned how to use new technologies, they’ve utilized new strategies learned in professional development, and they’ve even accepted pay cuts!  But what hasn’t changed, is by and large, how districts are run and how the children are coming to school.  If there is any change in the children over the last ten years, it’s for the worse, not the better.

So what about open enrollment and voucher programs? Certainly those programs can’t be as bad for the urban areas as the charter schools?  Well, that’s a yes and no answer.   The movement of higher performing children out of the inner city to a higher performing school devastates the performance scores of the school losing the children from its enrollment.  Do the math:  if fifty children leave a building and they all traditionally score proficient or higher, and those children are replaced by fifty children who have yet to pass all of their assessments, and teachers in this school are expected to reduce failure percentage by 12%, how exactly is that going to work?  Perhaps by having the students and parents sign contracts of accountability?  It works for KIPP, doesn’t it?  When schools are turned upside down by redistricting, relocation due to reconstruction, biannual changes in the grade level make-ups of the schools, and on top of that losing at least half of the district’s higher performing students to other school systems, how in heaven’s name are they going to improve performance?  Throw on that the fact that the majority of the children left in the district are at or below the poverty level and a high percentage of parents who haven’t graduated school themselves, crime and violence in the neighborhoods, and for many of whom, hysterical drama is a way of life.  Now is there any question why some inner city schools perform poorly?  Is there ever going to be a politician brave enough to look for a cause other than “bad teachers”?

If teachers in low performing districts are so bad, does anyone ever bother to follow the performance statistics of a teacher who has left the inner city to teach in a suburban district?  Does that teacher suddenly become outstanding after having been hired in an “excellent” district, when he or she had less than half the class at proficiency in the previous school? There must be data out there somewhere – people who have moved and knew their scores, perhaps some of those statistics can be brought to light in the legislature, it’s the only pure experiment with a single independent variable.  Throwing the legislature’s mistakes back on them does provide a temporary and plausible solution to the problems many teachers are now facing.  By holding politicians who write the laws that choke the teaching profession responsible for their own actions, and showing them purposeful and blatant examples of situations that defy the spirit of the laws enacted in the name of reform, perhaps then teachers can breathe a little easier and all students may have a better chance at a brighter future.  Perhaps when the powers that be acknowledge their systems of accountability are faulty and instead of focusing on accountability of all students, they try to rethink how we “do” education and research models that are working and allow those models to become the test cases for law.  Wouldn’t all teachers be relieved to work in a school where accountability by the students and the parents is demanded as well as from the teachers?  It could happen first in Ohio, and then maybe the rest of the country.  Spoken like a true (and hopefully not delusional) idealist.

By Jennifer Cross


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