On School Reform, Call Off the Bushes!

Reprinted from the John Young’s blog.

Oh, lord, deliver our school children from the Bush brothers.

Their dad was famously described by Ann Richards as “born on third base, and thinks he’s a triple.” That was a might harsh.

But let’s face it. For George W. to have stepped forward as the answer to public schools’ every question — that stretched a double out of a dribbler.

Unfortunately, tragically, his answers for the nation’s schools remain the end of every argument.

Americans were led to believe that school achievement in Bush’s Texas was equidistant between the towns of Hunky and Dory. I know differently.

My sons were educated in Texas. Whatever they achieved, and it was considerable, was in spite of, not because of “school accountability.” What Bush touted on the campaign trail as benefiting my children — raising standards, you know — was the worst thing that happened to their schooling, with no second, third or fourth place to award in that contest.

Now Bush has retired to dust his trophies and hawk his memoirs. Who is here — never you fear — to offer his advice for our schools but brother Jeb.

The Washington Post reports that the former Florida governor has become a favored adviser on what to do next, supping with conservative policymakers and President Obama alike.

His big ideas: Based on test scores, give every school a grade from A to F. Give vouchers to students in low-performing schools. Implement merit teacher pay based largely on test scores, and phase out teacher tenure.

Yes, let’s take standardized tests, overemphasized already, and overemphasize them some more. America’s parents clamor for that. Do you hear them?

Let’s stigmatize as many schools as possible, not because we want to improve them but because their failure drives demand for free-market panaceas like for-profit charter schools and vouchers that fund church schools.

It’s amazing how assorted school reformers say that quality teachers are the essence of their quest. And then they set out in every way to make it impossible for great teachers to succeed.

And we aren’t just talking about pensions and pay. These same policymakers push for larger class sizes. They  write love sonnets to the tough love of punitive “accountability” policies like the one Jeb Bush touts.

Rest assured, the very best way to drive good teachers to another campus is to pronounce their campus a failing one. Go ahead. Try it.

Also built into this template of failure are the testing system and standards that consider “raising the bar” to be the ultimate virtue. But rather than benefiting children, this assures only that more schools will “fail” and therefore make private schools (through vouchers) and for-profit charters more alluring.

Here’s the irony, and a sick one indeed: The biggest selling feature for private schools and charters is that they don’t labor under the same stifling dead weights of corporate-style, top-down, one-size-fits-all mandates dished out by governors like the Bushes. Indeed, flexibility and creativity in instruction are why charter schools seem like “the answer.” If that is so, if that works, you would think policymakers would want to free public schools to do the same.

The saddest thing of all is that most Americans are clueless about how “accountability” — read:  enforced standardization — has sapped education of its vitality. Every American should see the film, “Race to Nowhere,” about how standardized testing and varied forms of pressure have left many students basket cases, while condensing, pressure-cooker-style, from tomato to paste, the entirety of education to one five-word question: “Is it on the test?”

I promise you, the Bushes would not wish this for their children. They would want a real education, one in Technicolor, with a high fascination quotient and a low standardization quotient. But for the rest of America’s school children? It’s the answer. End of argument.

Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:jyoungcolumn@gmail.com

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