January 11, 2008

Commentary:

Schwarzenegger’s Year of Education: Taking It Out on Teachers

By Robert Cruickshank

As a teacher myself, from a family of teachers, I have never quite understood why so many people think the problem with education is bad teachers. Sure, I’ve had one or two along the way, but they were far outweighed by the good teachers. Teachers are the key to education. If they are happy and supported, and allowed to do their jobs, wonderful things can and often do happen. But if they are demoralized and attacked, well, teachers are human beings, and nobody does well in that kind of environment.

Arnold’s plan is all about punishment and attacks. It’s the idea that if we merely crack down and hurt people - hurt teachers in their wallet, hurt schools in their budgets - then suddenly they’ll improve. It’s a kind of shock doctrine approach to education. Although it defies logic that the solution to a school with low test scores is to close the school, that’s exactly what Arnold’s business allies are whispering in his ear - impose NCLB on California.

Never mind that parents, teachers, and students all despise NCLB. One of Bush’s most damaging policies, it forces schools to teach to the test or face crippling cuts in funding. Even if there is improvement, schools might lose funding. Jonathan Kozol, one of America’s leading experts on education policy, was quoted by Julia Rosen this summer about the pernicious impact of the law:

“The justification for this law was the presumptuous and ignorant determination by the White House that our urban schools are, for the most part, staffed by mediocre drones who will suddenly become terrific teachers if we place a sword of terror just above their heads and threaten them with penalties if they do not pump their students’ scores by using proto-military methods of instruction -- scripted texts and hand-held timers — that will rescue them from doing any thinking of their own. There are some mediocre teachers in our schools (there are mediocre lawyers, mediocre senators, and mediocre presidents as well), but hopelessly dull and unimaginative teachers do not suddenly turn into classroom wizards under a regimen that transforms their classrooms into test-prep factories.”

Kozol goes on to explain how the actual effect of test standards and business-imposed teaching methods on schools is to make the situation WORSE, not better:

“When I ask them why they’ve grown demoralized, they routinely tell me it’s the feeling of continual anxiety, the sense of being in a kind of “state of siege,” as well as the pressure to conform to teaching methods that drain every bit of joy out of the hours that their children spend with them in school.”

Here is where Arnold’s core attack on teachers is at its most pernicious. He relies on merit pay - the idea that we have bad teachers because they aren’t forced to compete with each other:

“Linking compensation to performance that would directly reward teachers for, among other factors, gains in student academic achievement ... “ is a key recommendation in the draft report of the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence obtained by The Chronicle....

“Merit pay is an idea that teachers unions have battled for years, saying it pits teachers against one another.

“It’s so tiring to hear about failed schemes coming around again and again,” said Fred Glass, spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers, representing 120,000 education employees.”

Many who support merit pay look to Michael Bloomberg as a model. Thing is, as Sunday’s New York Times showed, Bloomberg did it by massively increasing spending AND teacher pay:

“In city schools, for example, he has pursued greater centralization, stringent performance accountability measures and merit pay - the last of which has few adherents among Democratic candidates - while sharply increasing teacher salaries....Mr. Bloomberg has also presided over one of the largest expansions in the city budget in decades, increasing spending 23 percent, adjusted for inflation, since 2002. Early on, he also raised income taxes on upper brackets to help preserve government services during the post-9/11 recession, though the increase has since lapsed.”

Meanwhile Arnold is planning to hit education with a massive set of cuts, suspending Prop 98 and making schools do more with less.

And how will merit pay be determined? Likely by the same way NCLB compliance is - tests. Lots and lots of tests.

There are not many parents who want their kids to go to school to learn how to take tests. Parents want their kids to go to school to learn to read. To write. To be able to do math. To learn about science. To learn skills and knowledge that will enable them to succeed and thrive in life. Not to take tests.

But when you look at education as a way to balance a budget, as a way to score points with white suburbanites, with your business allies, then you’re going to turn to these pedagogically offensive “reforms.”

Whenever teachers themselves discuss education reform, the refrain is always the same: why don’t they just let us teach? Teachers are already experts at bringing parents and students together in and out of the classroom to achieve great things. Why is Arnold trying to make teachers the villains and scapegoats of his own failure to properly fund public education? Why must teachers, and by extension their students, have to indirectly subsidize low taxes for the wealthy?

Of course, the answers to that question are all about Funding, and that’s the subject for another article.

Robert Cruickshank is currently completing a Ph.D. in US history through the University of Washington. He is a Californian born and raised in Orange County and educated at UC Berkeley. This commentary originally appeared in Calitics (http://www.calitics.com/frontPage.do).

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