The Reality of Reform in Public Education

Steve Urso, Interim Executive Director-This past week, I read an article written by a second grade teacher who spoke out about what she thought was the overemphasis on testing in public schools. She explained that, in her district, she has her two children enrolled and worries that the emphasis on testing is resulting in less student learning, because less real instruction is taking place. She claimed the teacher’s time is more consumed with preparing for tests than with “teaching” in the classroom.  She claimed that she once participated in many school leadership committees, attended more professional development workshops and had more prep time to work on curriculum than she now does.

This teacher believed her mission was to prepare students to be lifelong learners and to help them acquire the skills necessary to become contributors to the diverse communities which make up a global network. Now, she sees her mission to be a test administrator, moving students through the process toward being either college or work ready. Worse, she sees all the testing as nothing more than a means used by politicians to rate schools.

Thinking about the way in which all the testing came about, one may recall it was originally part of a reform movement to make certain America’s students were college or career ready. It was also meant to be a wake-up call to America’s parents, informing them of how far behind their children were falling in comparison to other children in the developed countries.

Somehow, the leadership of the movement has changed. Previously, it included professional educators interested in developing and encouraging teachers. Supposedly, however, because of all of the “really bad” teachers, that changed. The focus of reform minded neo-liberals, such as Joel Klein, former superintendent in New York; Mark Zuckerberg, who underwrote reform in Newark; and Arne Duncan, and Bill and Melinda Gates, who advocated nationally for reform, has turned to measuring student performance and teacher accountability. One has to wonder whether they have read any of the studies and data on the importance of paying and retaining the best teachers possible for every classroom, and having every classroom equipped and ready for learning. Aren’t dealing with those issues, the real performance and accountability issues, what we need to talk about?

In Wisconsin today, with an anti-public education dominated legislature, it is very hard to imagine how any school can meet the reasonable expectations of parents for their children’s education. Somehow, in all the business rhetoric, the needs of “customers” — students and parents – have been forgotten and, instead, the focus is on which schools are not meeting standards. Politicians’ cheap talk about holding down property taxes has displaced honest assurances to parents (who also pay taxes) that politicians are committed to children receiving a quality education. Left out of their speeches is any commitment to making sure that every child, regardless of circumstances, receives a good education. Left holding the bag and receiving all the scrutiny is the classroom teacher who, based on state mandates, must focus on teaching to the test.

Where are the reformers on the issue of making certain every child receives a good education?  What are their positions relative to testing? The reality is that, today, reformers are more interested in rating schools than in talking about student achievement and how that is measured in a fair and equitable manner.

I have to agree with the second grade teacher on one important point she made at the end of her article: the joy of teaching and learning has been diluted, and until adults can sit together