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On Point

Real Reform Happens in the Community

By Stan Karp

Serving schools with high numbers of students in poverty is no excuse for bad teaching, poor curriculum, massive dropout rates or year after year of lousy school outcomes. We do need accountability systems that put pressure on schools to respond effectively to the communities they serve. And in my experience, parents are the key to creating that pressure and teachers are the key to implementing the changes needed to address it. Finding ways to promote a kind of collaborative tension and partnership between these groups is one of the keys to school improvement.

But the idea that schools alone can make up for the inequality and poverty that exist all around them has increasingly become part of the “no excuses” drumbeat used to impose reforms that have no record of success as school improvement strategies. These reforms are, in fact, are not educational strategies at all, but political strategies designed to bring market reform to public education.

In the past, we used to hear that the “single most important school-based factor” in student achievement was the quality of the teacher. Now even the “school-based” qualification is being left out. Instead, we’re hearing absurd claims about how super-teachers can eliminate achievement gaps in two or three years with scripted curricula handed down from above, and how the real problem in schools is not the country’s shameful 23 percent child poverty rate or underfunded schools, but bad teachers.

Now it’s absolutely true that effective teachers and good schools can make an enormous difference in the life chances of children. And it’s also true that struggling teachers who don’t or won’t improve even after they’ve been given the support and opportunities to do so, need to go manage hedge funds or enter some other less important line of work.

But when it comes to student achievement—and especially the narrow kind of culturally-slanted, pseudo-achievement captured by standardized test scores—there is no evidence that the test score gaps you read about constantly in the papers can be traced to bad teaching, and there is overwhelming evidence that they closely reflect the inequalities of race, class and opportunity that follow students to school.

Scholar Stephen Krashen had it exactly right when he said, “If we spend as much on protecting children from poverty as we are willing to spend on testing children and evaluating teachers, we can reduce the problem considerably.”

Teachers count a lot. But reality counts too, and reformers who discount facts like the high percentages of students who qualify for free- or reduced-lunch programs are actually the ones making excuses; excuses for their failure to make poverty reduction and adequate and equitable school funding a central part of school improvement efforts.

Instead, at a time when corporate profits and economic inequality are at their highest levels in the history of the country, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, says that schools must get used to the “new normal” and do more with less.

But for Secretary Duncan and billionaire Bill Gates, cutting education budgets is not a problem, it’s an opportunity. They are proposing that schools save money by increasing class sizes, ending the practice of paying teachers for advanced degrees, closing and consolidating schools, and replacing live teachers with online computer programs.

At the same time they want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create more tests based on the new common core standards and use those tests to implement merit pay plans.

Now at this point spending more money on standardized tests to track academic achievement gaps is like passing out thermometers in a malaria epidemic. People need better health care, more hospitals, and better trained doctors—they don’t need more thermometers.

Those who believe that business models and market reforms hold the key to solving educational problems have made strides in attaching their agenda to the urgent need of communities who have been poorly served by the current system. But their agenda does not represent the real needs or the real desires of these communities:

• It does not include all children and all families;
• It does not include adequate, equitable and sustainable funding;
• It does not include transparent public accountability;
• It does not include the supports and reforms that educators need to do their jobs well; and
• It does not address the current realities of race and class inequality that surround our schools every day.

Karp taught high school English and journalism in New Jersey for 30 years, and is currently director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey's Education Law Center. This article is taken from a speech he made in Portland, Oregon and is used with permission.


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