Saturday, March 16, 2013

How Many Reformers Does it Take to Really Fix a School?

IF YOU’RE AN AMERICAN TEACHER it’s likely you’ve noticed a depressing trend. Deep into a second decade of all-out school reform, or third, depending on who's counting, we’re still going nowhere fast.

“Backward” doesn’t count.

School reformers seem baffled; but baffled school reformers don’t stay baffled long. When one reform plan doesn’t work they conjure up another plan. They’re school reformers for god sakes. That’s just what they do. 

Perhaps we need to look at schools like automobiles to grasp why it is we’re not speeding down the intellectual Interstate like the reformers say we must. Imagine that there are three autos, all broken down alongside I-10, in the Arizona desert. The drivers are three real teachers. Each has been carrying five passengers, five students. One car is a new Lexus LX 570. The second is a 2006 Honda Civic. The third is a battered 1972 Chevrolet Impala.

None of them will run. 

A bus load of school reformers heading for a convention in Las Vegas sees them stranded by the side of the road and screeches to a halt. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan climbs out to survey the dire situation. Other famous passengers include Michael R. Bloomberg, mayor of New York, and Joel I. Klein, his one-time school chancellor. (Klein got worn out after trying for eight years to fix the city schools. Now he’s back in the cozy corporate world, earning millions, giving Rupert Murdoch legal and education-related advice.) Michelle Rhee is a passenger, too, and there are all kinds of politicians and lobbyists and sales persons for big testing companies filling the seats. Sadly, none of them knows a pile of shit from a spark plug when it comes to car repairs. 

Duncan is first to suggest a solution to the problem of the three stalled-out cars. “We are going to paint the Impala red to make it run.”

“We will call this plan ‘Race to the Garage.’ We will offer states $4.35 billion in federal aid if they agree to paint all their cars red.” A call is made, and at great expense, apparatus is brought out to the desert, and the car is painted red. It still won’t run.

Arne scratches his head.

Michelle Rhee pipes up next. Even the other reformers roll their eyes. After hours spent together on the bus they realize this lady’s favorite topic is herself and her second favorite is Michelle Rhee.

“I say we make these drivers apply for new licenses.” she sneers. “If you had better drivers the cars would surely run. I once taught for three years. So I know everything there could possibly be to know about saving children. These drivers must be terrible. Every child deserves an excellent driver. I am thinking... someone pretty much like me.”

“Yeah,” Mr. Galt agrees. He was behind the wheel of the Civic until it died and he has thirty-three years of experience in the classroom. “Paved roads don’t matter…or guard rails…or laws against drunk driving…or bridges.”

Rhee misses the veteran’s sarcasm. Galt continues: “Or turn signals…or windshields. Hell...not even wheels.”

Suddenly, Rhee suspects she’s being mocked and shoots Galt a look.

No matter, because Mayor Bloomberg is quick to agree with Rhee. “The problem in U. S. education is that we hire drivers from the bottom 20% of their graduating college classes—and not of the best schools.”

 The Harvard-educated billionaire informs everyone that the driver of the Honda will have to go. Another call goes out and a graduate of Teach for America is brought to the desert. The young professional gets behind the wheel and tries twice to start the engine. When it won’t turn over, the Teach for American kid exclaims, “Well, I only signed up for two tries. My work is done, my resume is padded.” The car she arrived in is still idling by the side of the Interstate and she jumps back in, saying to the driver, “Take me to the nearest law school, and step on it. I never planned to make a career in education anyway.”

Joel I. Klein, who never taught a single solitary minute in his life, offers up another plan. Of course he does. “I have a plan! And my plan is sure to fix the problem.We grade the cars. Then parents can choose the best cars for their children and all mechanical problems will go away. He gives the Impala an ‘F’ and the Honda gets a ‘D+.’ The Lexus gets a ‘B’ because it went a hundred yards farther down the highway before its engine coughed and died. Klein slaps bumper stickers with grades on all three cars.

They still don’t run.

A Tea Party governor speaks up. It’s John Kasich. (Kasich knows all about schools because he used to be an investment banker.) “We are going to require drivers in failing cars to take tests,” he explains to his reforming buddies, “and prove they know their subject matter. We are also going to give that third grader in the back of the Lexus a reading test. If they fail—we will fire the driver of the Impala and hold the kid back. In Ohio this will be known as the ‘Third Grade Reading Guarantee.’ I will be the hero who saved the Ohio schools and maybe get some fat campaign contributions from lobbyists!”

The three drivers mutter darkly and the third grader stares at the governor in disbelief. Kasich hands the driver of the Impala and the kid the requisite tests and tells them to sit in the shade, if they can find any, maybe behind the stalled-out vehicles.

Kasich decides it’s too warm outside for him and jumps back on the air-conditioned bus. It’s hot and heading for 100° as the sun climbs high in the noon sky. The teacher and the student wipe their sweating brows and finish up their tests.

Sadly, when they’re done, the cars still don’t run.

Charles and David Koch are next to have a say. They’re not school reformers at all; but they love to lobby politicians. They want states to pay for vouchers, allowing more kids to go to private schools, and want corporations to take over whatever public schools manage to stay alive. The brothers hand out five-figure checks to lawmakers and governors seated on the bus. Naturally, Kasich and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin get their share. The brothers can afford to spread around a little extra cash. Each has a personal fortune of $31 billion and now—money dispensed—they expect some action.

Walker agrees to take union protection away from all the drivers in his state. Calls are made to lawmakers back home and the necessary law (already written by a shadowy “non-partisan group” called the American Legislative Exchange Council, which the Koch brothers just so happen to fund) is enacted quickly. The drivers are ordered to get back behind the wheel and crank the engines or they’ll be terminated. 

Regardless, none of the cars comes close to starting.

The Koch brothers don’t really care about education, generally, or the children stranded in the desert, specifically. They hate unions—because unions usually back Democrats for political office—and what the Koch brothers really care about is political power. And taxes. Those boys loathe paying taxes on their personal fortunes. 

Taxes make them mad. 
A representative of Pearson Education offers up yet another plan. “What we need are more standardized tests, which my company will be happy to provide for a small fee, just a few million dollars, every year, from every state. We test students in all subjects and grades and maybe charge for scoliosis testing.” She opens a large briefcase filled with tests and all fifteen kids are ordered to get to work again. They complete this new set of tests and turn them in and the Pearson representative hails the next passing auto and climbs inside. She’s taking the tests to the nearest testing center for grading. “I’ll send you the bill,” she calls out cheerfully to Mr. Duncan. Then she’s gone. 

Tired of all the delays—not to mention the failures—the various reformers fall to arguing. One insists that if they added new technology to the Impala it would run. Technology, he insists, will save us. A second says the problem with the cars comes down to owners’ manuals. What is needed is a Common Core StandardsOwners’ Manual, the same for every car in our great land. A third expert says, no, we need charter garages. If we park a car that doesn’t run in a charter garage it’s sure to start right up—or something. 

It’s now a donnybrook and bold plans are flying in all directions.

Suddenly, Rhee exclaims: “I’m late for a speech I’m supposed to give about the future of American education, during which I will hint that I am the savior everyone must follow. I can’t miss out on this. I’m being paid a $50,000 fee.” She jumps back on the bus.  

“I’m a brilliant billionaire,” Bloomberg reminds the others. “Surely no one can expect a man as important as me to stand here in the desert and cook my mega-brain.” He climbs aboard the bus. All the politicians and lobbyists and testing company execs follow and off they go.  

“Good luck, kids,” a former Texas governor named George W. Bush shouts from an open rear window. “No Child Left Behind!”

THE THREE TEACHERS AND THEIR FIFTEEN STUDENTS watch as the bus disappears into a glorious red and orange and yellow Arizona sunset. They’re on their own again. Ms. Beasley, the driver of the Lexus, turns to face the others. “The key to moving forward in any car or any school,” she says, “comes down to just one word. 

“That is: ‘motive.’”

“Like ‘motivation?’” asks Wanda, one of Beasley’s better students. 

“Yes,” Ms. Beasley agrees. “If we expect to get out of this desert it doesn’t make an ounce of difference what color the cars might be or what kind of garage we’re going to park in once we arrive. We’re going to have to put our backs into it and shove.”  

Rick, a high school senior who had been riding in the Civic, immediately grasps her point. “The key part of ‘automotive,’ is not ‘auto,’ but ‘motive.’ The car can’t move without some source of motive power.”  

“Looks like we’re going to have to do some sweating if we expect to move these cars along,” says Shaquille, who was riding in the Impala. “If we expect to get anywhere in education we, as students, are going to have to push.”

“Teachers must push, too,” Ms. Beasley notes. 

They all look off down the highway. Only twelve miles to go to Tucson and it isn’t going to be getting any easier. Still, even Carlos, a first grader, has the proper attitude. “Well, I guess we better start,” he says and prepares to put his fifty pounds of muscle to work. 

He thinks a moment, though, and adds:  “It would have been nice if all those people on that bus had stuck around to help.”

The three drivers give each other knowing looks. Then all the teachers and all the students lean in together and do their part.

P. S. Answer to the title question: NONE.

ADDENDUM:  Several of my administrator friends have read this post; to be fair, I should include a principal who comes looking for the missing teachers and students and gives one of the cars a tow.

In the real world, we should also keep in mind that not ALL teachers and not ALL students are really anxious to push. Again, motivation becomes the key.

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