by Julianne Hing, AlterNet, 5/30/11
…For decades, at least since Brown vs. Board of Education, advocates inside and outside of government have fiercely debated ways to get everyone a fair shot at learning. They’ve fought over integration, busing, funding, parental choices in schools and, of course, teachers’ unions. Meanwhile, inequities have persisted. Almost 40 percent of black and Latino students don’t graduate high school on time, according to White House figures, compared to a quarter of students overall. According to the latest numbers from the National Assessment for Educational Purposes, only 12 percent of black eighth graders are proficient in reading, where 44 percent of white males are considered proficient.
So now a new perspective has risen above the din, pushed by the Obama administration and heavily influenced by celebrity do-gooders, often from the private sector. In a word, it is simplicity. The existing school systems are rotten from decades of political and bureaucratic warring, these reformers assert, and the solutions are clear. We needn’t concern ourselves with overwhelming, unwieldy discussions about race and poverty. Only one thing need matter: Results. And to get them, we need to hold someone accountable: Educators.
…It turns out that there are enormous structural factors at work in kids’ lives that supersede teacher accountability. Whether it’s protracted parental unemployment, sudden homelessness or expensive family illness, many students are facing daunting barriers to learning that the current education debate has ignored, and that the heroics of even city’s best teachers cannot overcome.
Learning to Get By
Across the country, families that were just holding on before the recession are struggling in brand new ways today. The number of those who are out of work or underemployed refuses to budge, and that has in turn created a separate set of housing woes. As much as parents try to shield their children from these stresses, they show up in the classroom, say educators and economists.
In 2009 economists at the University of California, Davis, found that a parent’s unplanned unemployment increased the likelihood that their child would have to repeat a grade by 17 percent. And long before that, a 1998 study published by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that just one unplanned move for students between the eighth and twelfth grades can cause so much upheaval that it increases the likelihood they’ll drop out of high school by 50 percent….
Meanwhile, school reform has hit primetime in America. Last September, the film* “Waiting for Superman” helped usher the movement into American living rooms, cementing the celebrity status of crusading reformers like former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee. In September 2010, during a two-day education-themed extravaganza, Oprah Winfrey introduced Rhee and the film to America by posing a grave question to her audience: “So who’s most at fault for failing schools and for failing our children?” After a heavy pause, Winfrey explained, “Michelle Rhee says that she knows, and she has taken a very controversial stand.”
Namely, fire the teachers. As Rhee has repeated often, if we could fire the “bottom five to ten percent” of the nation’s educators, inequities would disappear and achievement would soar.
Rhee’s not alone in promoting that idea, and Jose’s hometown has become a hot spot for the battles that have ensued. In April, the Los Angeles Unified School District stepped into the fray by adopting a measurement called Academic Growth Over Time, or “value added” scoring, that links teachers’ job security with their students’ test scores. The move was spurred in part by the Los Angeles Times, which shocked the education world last year when it published a list of 6,000 third, fourth and fifth grade teachers’ names alongside the paper’s own calculations of their individual value-added scores. Since then other cities, and newspapers, have attempted to do similar things.
The Obama administration has both embraced and fueled these trends. Education Secretary Arne Duncan endorsed the Los Angeles Times’ decision to publicize teachers’ scores, saying, “What’s there to hide?”
In 2009, President Obama created Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competitive state grants program that doles out money to states that adopt the president’s reform agenda. Under the program, struggling schools that do not post adequate progress face one of four overhaul options. In one of the most drastic, a school’s entire staff must be fired and asked to reapply. No more than half may be rehired. Thirty-nine states have responded to Race to the Top by overhauling their education laws. Eleven of them adopted laws that will make standardized test scores part of teacher evaluations.
President Obama called this all part of his plan for “winning the future” in his State of the Union address. He called on parents to do their part at home and for a greater focus on teacher performance, because “after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom.”…
read the full article at AlterNet