As I wrote yesterday, the central narrative supporting calls for increased school choice from people like new Secretary of Education nominee Bet$y DeVo$ is that public education is failing our kids. They further contend that school leaders and teachers are not sufficiently motivated to do anything about it.
DeVo$ and other corporate reformers understand this is an argument they are winning.
For the past two decades, starting with NCLB and continuing with ESSA, school reformers have been busy installing the very accountability system that virtually guarantees an endless stream of evidence to support their claim of failing schools.
As a result, through control of this narrative by sheer repetition in the media, they have been able to successfully co-opt the definitions of words like failing, under-performing, and ineffective.
And this has been done with the passive or tacit consent of the majority of our citizens, to include many in education.
Just last month, our state A-F school grading system labeled 213 Oklahoma public schools as failures, a 16% increase from 2015. At the same time there were nine percent fewer schools earning an A or B on their report cards.
Other than isolated comments from school leaders or a few random blog posts, do you remember many people making a strong argument that these schools are actually NOT failing?
At the same time, those pushing school choice in our state used this headline to claim our schools are getting worse. Their evidence? More schools are failing and fewer are succeeding. Educators obviously don’t care or they would do something to fix it, right?
The narrative of failing schools continues unabated despite years of chasing test scores, writing school improvement plans, enacting school turnaround models, and replacing staff like widgets on an assembly line.
This is exactly what the corporate reformers have designed the system to do.
As educators, we find ourselves trapped in a scenario where it is very difficult to advocate for ourselves without appearing ignorant, defensive, or self-serving. We can offer all the research studies we want showing the A-F system to be inaccurate and highly flawed, but to most in the public, it just sounds like excuses.
The setting is then ripe for the picking by reformers like Bet$y DeVo$, who claim that accountability through competition and free choice is the solution for the millions of suffering children held hostage by our terrible schools and lazy, uncaring teachers.
Somehow, we have to figure out a way to redefine the words in this narrative or we will remain forever stuck in a perfect circular definition that will eventually destroy public education.
As currently defined, a failing or low performing school is one which has a large number of students who score poorly on standardized tests. Moreover, the reformers have been successful in adding the presumption that students only score low on tests if they are being taught by ineffective teachers with ineffective school leaders.
Since we have allowed school success and teacher effectiveness to be narrowly defined as “getting kids to score well on standardized tests,” to find ineffective teachers, we just have to go a low-performing or failing school and we’ll find one in almost every classroom.
As long as you don’t consider the possibility that low-income students do poorly on standardized tests because they go to schools with chaotic administrations, high staff turnover, crumbling facilities, and lack of resources, OR they’re from communities with inadequate housing, lack of jobs, broken homes, and crime-filled streets, OR they are just hungry or traumatized, in poor health or otherwise neglected, OR they just couldn’t care less about how they do on a culturally biased standardized tests with no relevance to their life — as long as you don’t consider any of that, one thing remains certain— Low-income students will always be taught by ineffective low-performing teachers.
It is like concluding that poor coaching is the only reason children running barefooted uphill on gravel roads are slower runners than children with shoes running downhill on a paved road.
The comparison will never be accurate because context matters … and it matters a lot.
However, so long as we use performance on standardized tests as our primary metric, low-income children will always be taught by less effective teachers.
Thus poor schools are set up for failure because of their poverty, and all of public education is blamed and this blame is then used as justification for disinvesting in public education, while increasing the opportunity for profit through privatization.
It’s almost as if they actually want public schools to fail.
Many private and charter schools have figured out the solution. With the current definitions in place, the key to having a successful school with great teachers is to fill your classrooms with students who perform better on standardized tests.
Or, as with many private schools, just don’t give any standardized tests to begin with.
So am I saying the poverty and chaos and struggling communities and all the rest is an excuse?
I am not. In fact, once we realize it’s not an excuse, we can start to see that for these schools, the situation is actually worse than what I’ve described.
The truth is that the allegedly ineffective teacher and failing school, by connecting with their students and with hard work, love, and commitment, may be accomplishing great things in the face of tremendous odds — just not wonderful standardized test scores.
Here’s one quick example out of many.
Did you hear what the teachers and staff of Kerr Elementary in Tulsa Public Schools did this past week?
They opened the school on Thanksgiving Day to provide a meal which was bought and prepared for by the staff for their students and parents. The principal, Mollie Miller, even went to several of the homes of her students to provide them with a ride to school to enjoy the special meal.
Why would they do such a thing?
This action will do absolutely nothing to improve their school grade of a D+ (67%). It’s not like the state will give you extra credit for doing incredibly nice things to make the holiday brighter for children and families.
Apparently, the staff at Kerr Elementary simply love their kids enough to sacrifice their own holiday to do something amazing.
How does one measure that?
A better question might be, “Why would we try?”
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with labeling schools as failing or under-performing based primarily on how their students do on annual tests.
The real narrative is that teachers and schools are accomplishing amazing things in spite of the poverty and chaos and negative labeling and under-funding and lack of support and resources. Just imagine what they could accomplish if we, as a society, genuinely tried to address even one of those issues.
But, to the reformers, those are just excuses.
To promote their vision, they will cherry pick results from successful charter schools to create an inaccurate narrative that all charters are superior to public schools.
They will try to fool the public into believing that our private schools are clamoring to enroll more students from broken homes, with poor attendance, or with academic or behavior or specific learning challenges. Uh, spoiler alert – they are not.
They will ask the public to just give vouchers a chance and trust parents and corporations to do what’s right for their children.
And, so long as we allow them to define the terms and label schools and teachers based on their narrow criteria, we will lose.
So, the next time you hear someone outside of school talk about your failing schools, take the time to educate them.
Tell them, “No, our schools are NOT failing. We have many students from poverty and difficult homes who struggle with academics. But, we have committed and caring educators in our community who do everything they can to help our kids.”
Tell them that students who are loved generally come to school to learn. Those who are not come to school to be loved first.
If you’re a parent, tell them how your kids love their teachers and feel safe in school.
Tell them you’re not “Waiting for Superman,” because they already work at your school.
Tell them how your school sends home backpacks full of food every Friday so that kids won’t go the hungry over the weekend.
Tell them that your school is working to instill a love a learning rather than just chasing test scores.
Tell them how your child has grown academically and enjoys learning.
Tell them how your school’s athletic or art and music programs have helped your child build self-confidence and positive character.
Tell them how your school’s counselors work compassionately with kids to help them navigate the challenges in their lives.
Tell them how you see your teacher’s car in the parking lot on Sundays and during holiday breaks.
Tell them how your teacher gave up their lunch to help comfort your child or help them get caught up on their work.
Tell them how the principal knows students by name and greets every one of them at the door each day.
Tell them that your teachers gave up a part of their Thanksgiving to create a special event for your child.
Tell them about the holiday baskets the school sends home so that kids have presents to open on Christmas morning.
Tell them you will continue to fight for public schools because public schools fight for you and for ALL students in their community, not only the advantaged ones.
Tell them that your public schools have areas in which they can improve. But, no, no, no … they are not failing our children.
Tell them it is the reformer’s definitions and labels that are harming our children and our schools.
Relative to teachers and schools, it’s time to redefine the definitions.