Friday, July 11, 2014

Obama Needs Better Advice on Education

Four well respected teachers who teach in high poverty schools got to have lunch with President Obama recently and give him their suggestions about how to get some of our best teachers to teach disadvantaged students. One of the teachers who has a blog wrote a post describing the meeting and made several valid points about the challenges facing teachers in such schools.

But he forgot to mention the most important point that should have been made in this discussion with the president. The biggest obstacle to getting excellent experienced teachers to teach in high poverty schools are the policies promoted by his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan,  that drive the best teachers out of those schools. Using No Child Left Behind rules and Race to the Top incentives, Duncan has bashed and stigmatized all educators who work in the most challenging schools. Why would any self respecting professional educator want to teach in a school that is always referred to as a failing school or is in constant danger of being closed or reorganized (forced into turnaround mode) requiring the firing at least half the teachers and all administrators?

The problem starts with semantics. When a school serves a high percentage of at risk students who happen to score lower on the almighty standardized tests, the system classifies the school as a failing school. You see it is not politically correct to ever place responsibility on the students, the parents or even crime ridden communities where children have to spend most of their energy just surviving from day to day. No, the system of evaluating schools Duncan has encouraged stigmatizes all educators and administrators in such a school even if they are doing a relatively good job for the students they serve.  For example, in Louisiana recently, all alternative schools (schools that specialize in serving low performers, students at risk of dropping out and major discipline problems) were all rated as "F" schools. But by definition, these schools were serving low performers. The real purpose of such schools is to try in every way possible to keep at risk kids from dropping out and providing them with salable skills so that they can have a decent life. Such schools should not be rated F just because the serve at risk students. But that's exactly what Duncan's "blame and shame" system does.

In Chicago where Duncan once served as the Superintendent of Education, they tried closing so called "failing schools" serving poor neighborhoods and transferring the students to schools that were rated as more successful. But studies found that on average, students who were provided with this supposedly great opportunity ended up doing even worse than they had done in their "failing" school. Not only that, many parents complained that their children were being put in danger by being forced to go to schools where rival gangs would welcome them with threats and physical harm.

Arne Duncan once said that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that happened to New Orleans schools because it allowed reformers to get rid of the corrupt system that was holding kids back. The reformers of the Recovery District fired all the experienced teachers and replaced most of them with Teach for America Corps members who have a teaching commitment of only 2 years. Well its been 9 years now and the students and parents are still struggling. The RSD schools are performing at the 17th percentile in one of the lowest rated states, and only a very small percentage of the students from the Recovery District have a chance of ever completing college. The District has an average ACT score of 16.3. Yet there are plenty of examples of corruption and administrators of so the called non-profits who draw big salaries for minimal duties. Just this week, parents were required to stand in line for hours just to try to register their children in school.

Now Duncan has decided that experienced teachers are desirable after all. He was quoted as follows:

"When a school or a school district or a set of schools in a disadvantaged community has disproportionate numbers of inexperienced teachers, that is not a good thing," Duncan said. "You want a balance on any team. And what we are looking for is to increase effectiveness in disadvantaged communities."

It would be a good idea if someone finally told the president the truth. It is his Secretary of Education's policies that are driving good teachers out of the schools serving the most at risk students.

The solution? First Obama needs to fire Duncan. He keeps pushing the same ineffective blame and shame policies that are driving good teachers away from the high poverty schools. Then stop falsely labeling schools as bad based primarily on the poverty of the students they serve. Stop blaming teachers and administrators for problems over which they have no control. Then education authorities could look at reasonable incentives to get strong educators and the good role models into those schools.

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