Dissents from the status quo Council on Foreign Relations report

The report released yesterday was written by a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations,  co-chaired by Joel Klein, former head of the NYC Department of Education and now working for Murdoch’s News Corp, and directed by Julia Levy, former PR flack for DOE.  The task force was stacked with privateers, including Wendy Kopp of TFA, her husband Richard Barth, CEO of KIPP, Jonah Edelman, head of Stand for Children, and Benno Schmidt, formerly CEO of the failed Edison chain of charter schools and now board chair of Chris Whittle’s for-profit private school Avenues.

In the introduction, Levy thanks “several people who met with and briefed the Task Force group, including “U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan, Mary Cullinane formerly of Microsoft, Sir Michael Barber of Pearson, and David Coleman of Student Achievement Partners.”  A really well-rounded bunch of education experts these.

As Jack Jennings, former director of Center on Education Policy pointed out, everything the report recommends is already being done already, from the Common Core standards to expanding charters and privatization: “It’s Joel Klein beating the same old drums in a different forum.”  Klein’s rejoinder: “But it’s not happening at the level we’re needing to happen…We’ve made some progress, but we need to do it in a much more accelerated way.”

In other words, more of the same old, status quo corporate reform, just at an increased rate.  There were several outliers on the panel, however, people with an education background who truly believe in the importance of strengthening public education, rather than letting their conclusions be driven by the free-market ideology now dominating education policy at the national and state levels.  Here are excerpts from their notable dissents:

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Certainly schools must play a critical role in assuring that these needs of national security can be met. Yet, while some of the data are disturbing, nothing in this report convinces me that that our public schools “constitute a very grave national security threat facing this country.” Indeed, claims of alarm can only set the stage for dramatic actions unsupported by evidence: in this case, market-based approaches to school reform, that, overall, have not demonstrated their effectiveness. Indeed, charter schools and vouchers are diverting funds and energy away from neighborhood schools, and the more successful ones rely on additional support from private sources (“voluntary taxation”), a situation that is neither sustainable nor scalable. Moreover, the drive toward “competition” can diminish individual commitment to the common good, thus undermining the very nature and purpose of public education….

–Carole Artigiani [Founder and president emerita of Global Kids, Inc.] joined by Linda Darling-Hammond, Stephen M. Walt, and Randi Weingarten

One shortcoming is that this report accepts, uncritically and despite significant evidence to the contrary, that competition and privatization are essential—indeed perhaps the most important—strategies for improving public educational systems. It ignores the fact that the nations that have steeply improved achievement and equity and now rank at the top on the PISA tests (i.e., Finland, Singapore, and South Korea) have invested in strong public education systems that serve virtually all students, while nations that have aggressively pursued privatization, such as Chile, have a huge and growing divide between rich and poor that has led to dangerous levels of social unrest….

While touting the privatization of schools in New Orleans, the report fails to note that many high-need students have been rejected from charters there, that school exclusion rates are extraordinarily high, and that the Southern Poverty Law Center had to sue on behalf of special education students who were unable to gain admission to public schools. Meanwhile, New Orleans remains the lowest-ranked district in the low-performing state of Louisiana. Similarly, the report neglects to mention the many studies that have failed to find positive outcomes of voucher systems when similar students are compared. Finally, the report ignores the fact that our highest-achieving states have all built high-quality systems without charters, vouchers, educational management companies, or other forms of privatization….

–Linda Darling-Hammond [Professor of education at Stanford University] joined by Carole Artigiani, Stephen M. Walt, and Randi Weingarten

First, the report exaggerates the national security rationale for reforming U.S. K-12 education. It says a troubled public education system is a “very grave national security threat facing the country,” but it offers only anecdotal evidence to support this unconvincing claim. … There are good reasons to improve K-12 education, but an imminent threat to our national security is not high among them.

Second, there is a mismatch between the report’s alarmist tone and its core recommendations. In particular, if the current state of K-12 education were really a “very grave threat to national security,” the Task Force should emphatically support allocating greater resources to meet the challenge. Yet even though key recommendations, such as raising teacher quality, cannot be realized without additional public investment, the report offers only a bland statement that “increased spending may well be justifiable.” It then declares that “money alone is not the answer,” creating the unfortunate impression that the Task Force is trying to solve an alleged national security threat on the cheap…. Fourth, there is no consensus among professional educators, academic scholars, or engaged citizens about the net impact of charter schools, vouchers, or other forms of privatization, because empirical evidence is mixed. The report leans heavily toward one side in this contested set of issues, however, thereby encouraging a policy course that could do more harm than good…

–Stephen M. Walt [Professor of international affairs at Harvard University] joined by Carole Artigiani, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Randi Weingarten

The report rightly emphasizes the need for all students to have access to great schools and the opportunity to develop higher-order knowledge and skills. Yet by promoting policies like the current topdown, standardized test-driven accountability that has narrowed the curriculum and reinforced the teaching of lower-level skills, which President Obama correctly criticized in his 2012 State of the Union address, it does the opposite. The report goes to great lengths to blame a current generation of educators for their assumed institutional resistance to innovation when, in fact, the problem is less about an opposition to change than it is about too much churn and change. This adds to disrespect and the sharp demoralization of our current teaching force—something that is never seen in the countries that outcompete us….

Recent polling on communities of color and public school reform (conducted for the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, and others) showed that parents favor improving, not closing, struggling schools. Moreover, the countries that have enacted voucher systems, such as Chile, have not seen the improvements in achievement predicted by advocates. Chile, in fact, is the most socioeconomically segregated country regarding education opportunities, according to the OECD….

–Randi Weingarten [President of the American Federation of Teachers] joined by Carole Artigiani, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Stephen M. Walt

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