This has been a disappointing year for many educators. Let me explain why.
Race To The Top
The year in education began with the push for the first round of Race To The Top (RTTT), applications due January 19. As I wrote here, earlier this year, to qualify for the RTTT money, states had to commit to closing historic achievement gaps and to getting more students into college. Sounds good, right? But they had to do it in more than 30 specific ways dictated by President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan.
For example, they had to support more charter schools, use merit pay in determining teacher and principal salaries, revamp data systems so that schools became data-driven, and improve standardized test scores.
While education experts applauded the idea of lending support to the quest for excellent schools, not everyone agreed with the methods that the Department of Education endorsed. Many believed that states desperate for money pushed ahead quickly and changed their rules without much conviction, just to give themselves a better chance.
Others feared that the Race to the Top was trying to design a one-size-fits-all solution to education reform, exacerbating the problems that began with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.
There were eventually 12 winners, and a whole lot of disgruntled losers. Is that any way to run education?
The Year Of The Billionaire
Rather than asking teachers about what works best for them, our policymakers turned to the wealthy. The Gates Foundation is one example among many.
“It is not unfair to say that the Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education,” said Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, summing up the opinion of many educators. This agenda is one that uses competition and economic incentives as the driving force to move us ahead as a nation. (See the previous section on RTTT.)
But teachers are not car-salespeople, and so we are not motivated to produce better results by being offered more pay for higher test scores. It doesn’t work like that for teachers.
Other billionaire funding has come from Eli Broad, of the Broad Foundation, and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, to name just two, and they too have their agendas: mostly to seek to control our educational system. This is bad news for educators.
Last fall, The Los Angeles Times chose to publish their database of “value-added” ratings for about 6,000 Los Angeles elementary school teachers and 470 elementary schools.
Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers who taught at least 60 students from the 2002-03 through 2008-09 academic years were evaluated in the Times analysis.
A teacher’s value-added rating is based on his or her students’ progress on the California Standards Tests for English and math. The difference between a student’s expected growth and actual performance is the “value” a teacher added or subtracted during the year.
Obviously, value-added ratings do not capture everything that goes into making a good teacher or school. Evaluators should use multiple measures when evaluating both teachers and students. There is also some question about this exact model, since there are various ways of interpreting test scores.
Nevertheless, The Times decided to make the ratings available because “they bear on the performance of public employees who provide an important service, and in the belief that parents and the public have a right to the information.” Teachers in Los Angeles, and across the country, were outraged.
Thus, some teachers were publicly labeled “less effective teachers.” This undoubtedly contributed to the death of fifth-grade teacher Rigoberto Ruelas, who committed suicide after he was unfairly named in this way.
Waiting For Superman
Earlier this year, there was a lot of excitement about this movie. It stirred a national conversation on education, prompted NBC to discover education for a week, and turned director David Guggenheim into a school reform icon.
That’s all over. For one thing, Guggenheim made some questionable factual assertions, and for another there’s a scene in which he inserted a manufactured shot for emotional impact (a la Broadcast News).
Good – because, as I wrote here, this film is an abomination, and does a terrible disservice to the cause of education. Let me explain. I have been involved in education for most of my professional life. I consider myself an excellent teacher, with plenty of appreciative notes from my students to attest to that. There are tens of thousands of others like me. Yet we do not exist in this film; we are dismissed.
At the same time, the film is not only unrealistic, but also defiantly pro-charter schools, and anti-union. It was, quite simply, propaganda, in spite of the best efforts of Geoffrey Canada, who is a personal hero of mine.
America’s Enormous College Debt
Finally, as CNBC discussed in their powerful documentary, “Price of Admission: America’s College Debt Crisis,” student loans are the next big financial crisis that no one wants to talk about: college student debt in the U.S. is nearing one trillion dollars, with no end in sight. The debt is growing at the rate of $2,853 per second.
This means that the cost of higher education is currently rising at two to three times the rate of inflation, so it’s no wonder that many students are leaving college with more than just a degree. They are weighed down by staggering student loans.
As a result of this increasing student loan debt come rising student defaults. Student loan defaults have doubled since 2005, with seven percent being the official default rate, but in fact this number may be much higher.
But here’s the really shocking revelation: for-profit colleges take an astounding $24 billion in government money every year.
At these institutions, an estimated 96 percent of students borrow money to attend. And we are talking big business. According to CNBC, the University of Phoenix, the largest university in the country, with 470,000 students, made a staggering $3.8 billion in revenue in 2009.
As Tom Harkin, Senate Education Committe Chairman, puts it, “Schools get the money, students get the debt, and taxpayers lose out.”
I’m sure there were many positive events in education this year, but they are outweighed for me by the negative ones.
What do you think?
Photo credit: iStock