Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Was the Nation Really At Risk?


... Twenty Five Years Later

Richard Rothstein has done some work on "A Nation At Risk" report which started the current ed "reform" movement. Standards and one-way accountability (for schools and teachers only) followed. Many of us in the anti-standardista movement (see Ohanian) have suspected all along this was a business/political plot to begin the private take over of the public school system. And they seem to be doing pretty well. Unfortunately, our own union, the AFT/UFT have played an integral role in their success.

Richard Kahlenberg's "Tough Liberal" bio of Shanker states:
Diane Ravitch called it the most important education reform document of the twentiet
h century. And Al Shanker's role in the report's reception was pivotal."
Shanker stated his support for the report in a major speech at the NY State United Teachers convention on April 30, 1983. Teachers should not dismiss reforms they had long resisted, so long as reforms are tied to higher teacher salaries and infusion of new funds in education. (Kahlenberg, p. 276). Of course, Kahlenberg, funded by Eli Broad, the Century Foundation, etc. thinks Shanker's support was an even better thing than white bread.

Shanker's embrace... represented an enormous departure from past AFT policy. Here was a major labor-union leader endorsing a report that said public education was in trouble, proposed merit pay, had the strong backing of business, deemphasized the inportance of labor's equality agenda, and put emphasiss on all kids rather than the poor." (p. 278.)

Voila- No Child Left behind.

The whole idea was explained by Shanker as a way to forestall vouchers. As was his charter school idea. But we'll go into that another time.

The problem was that Shanker spent the rest of his life pushing the reforms without the funding (again, class size reduction is nowhere in the equation.) Not that we believe the reforms being pushed would ever work, even with more funding.

Note that teacher salaries have risen, but in exchange for contract givebacks and longer days and school years, not a raise in most books. To Shanker (and Weingarten) being able to claim teachers make more was OK. In their world, the professionalization of teachers (an idea which separates them from other unions - like, horrors, the idea of a general strike with other workers is oh, so left) means making teaching more of a full-time job in exchange for money. Many teachers do not agree.

When Al Shanker signed onto the results in 1983, he created the alliance with the business community and doomed the teacher movement to follow along. Call it "reform without funding." It cemented what many of us teaching in NYC since the late 60's saw happening - the UFT had already given up the ghost of fighting for the serious level of funding needed for reforms that would work - especially lowering class size, an issue we in the opposition were constantly raising.

We heard all sorts of arguments why this couldn't happen. The "no space" case was laid to rest when the UFT sat by without a whimper as schools were closed and sold off after the 1975 fiscal crisis. At least three in my district (14) were handed to the Hasidic community and they're still in use.

You know the drill. It's all about low expectations and lack of standards and lack of quality teachers. Fix those and "voila" the so-called achievement gap will be closed. (We agree there's a gap, but this expression has been misused.)

The nation-wide mania for ed reform has turned public schools into a forced factory model with federal mandates forcing states local school districts, schools, school leaders, and teachers into a rigid test-driven agenda where they will be rewarded and punished according to how they carry out these mandates.

This model includes high stakes testing, frequent and heavy-handed monitoring, forcing specific educational programs on schools, closing down public schools, hiring and firing teachers and supervisors based on student achievement, forcing school systems to adopt longer school days and years, punishing senior teachers, shifting students to private schools and hiring private contractors to take over functions that were formerly done through the public systems.

The stated rationale is that our education system is failing too many children and only a top-down overhaul will change this. A corollary to this is that only disinterested researchers (rather than experienced educators) can determine how to make the system work. Teachers are the enemies of reform because instead of caring about children or education, they put their own self-interest first: protecting their jobs, high salaries, and work rules that make life easier for them.

Ultimately, the focus is on teacher unions - that they are a major obstacle to reform: Work rules limiting class size and time in the classroom, protection of incompetent teachers, inflexibility in regard to teaching methods.

Eduwonette asked: Has "A Nation at Risk" Done More Harm Than Good?

Why? First, Rothstein argues, the report wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. The report mistook the changing composition of SAT test takers for a half a standard deviation decline in SAT scores since the 1960s. Second, Risk placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. While education surely plays a part in economic growth, he shows that our economic vicissitudes are driven by factors much larger and more complex. Third, he writes, Risk ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.


Rothstein concludes:

A Nation at Risk was well-intentioned, but based on flawed analyses, at least some of which should have been known to the Commission that authored it. The report burned into Americans’ consciousness a conviction that, evidence notwithstanding, our schools are failures, and a warped view of the relationship between schools and economic well-being. It distracted education policymakers from insisting that our political, economic, and social institutions also have a responsibility to prepare children to be ready to learn when they attend school.
The full Rothstein report from the Cato Institute is here.

That Shanker bought into it was significant and ultimately sold out teachers. The Democratic party joined in, with the Clintons and Shanker forming an alliance. What's needed today is a counter attack by progressive reformers, who have been termed "status quo defenders" by the regressive ed reformers, who have misused the language of the civil rights movement, with Mayor Bloomberg actually comparing some of his work in NYC ed reform to Martin Luther King.

See Leonie Haimson here and Dan Brown's commentary here and Elizabeth Green's report in the NY Sun, where whe quoted Bloomberg: "We are doing the things, I think, that if Dr. Martin Luther King was running the New York City school system, he would have done. And I think that if you were running the New York City school system, you would have done."

Unfortunately, many in the black community have bought into this argument. Our job is to reacapture the language and policies of true reform. Come to our Teachers Unite forums on April 15 and May 8 to join the debate.

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