Countering the Attacks on Public Education

CPS President Ruth Rodriguez Fay

CPS President Ruth Rodriguez Fay welcomed CPS Fall Issues Conference goers on Saturday, Oct. 16 with a stirring address. Here’s what she said:

Good morning friends and defenders of public education.  We welcome everyone to the second annual conference of Citizens for Public Schools, “Taking Back our Public Schools: Excellence and Equity in Public Education.”  We come together today with the determination to continue the work of protecting public education and to ensure that every school district provides all families with the opportunity to choose the best quality schools for their children. We do this in the midst of one of the biggest challenges facing our nation’s public education system.  Across our country, hardworking, dedicated teachers are the front line of our children’s education.  Families place their trust in a system that they hope will prepare their children for future success.  We must be the force that diligently protects our public schools.

We know what good schools look like. In suburban communities, where adequate resources are made available to schools, their teachers, parents and students, the results are always among the best, as their community economies truly support student learning.  These are communities that trust educators to educate their children and would not turn them over to corporate entities. When it comes to corporate takeovers, Diane Ravitch says it best: “Corporate spokesmen supported by billionaire boys clubs, people who have never been inside a public school classroom, claim their business model of education is what our children need, a business model that almost brought our economy to its knees.”  Not so with our urban schools, where communities are starved of the resources they need in order to educate all children, and which are without exception responsible for educating the most needy among our young people.

In the film “Waiting for Superman” we are faced with a difficult challenge.  This challenge is not because we are resistant to school reforms, do not subscribe to a system of accountability or that we wish to protect incompetency among teachers, as we are frequently accused, but rather because this “melodrama fails the test of accuracy, and its purported solutions will not produce real improvement in education,” as a CPS/FairTest produced flyer puts it.  At its core, the issue many of us have with the film is with its unprecedented hype leading us dangerously astray from real solutions to real problems by making a number of misleading or factually incorrect claims in a number of important areas. (It is even more challenging given that Oprah has given the film her raving support, and we all know that when Oprah speaks, everybody listens. We must become the voice that everyone listens to when it comes to preserving excellent public education.)

We agree that there are schools that are not meeting academic standards, and some are really struggling. But to suggest that all schools are failing across the board, as the film suggests, is simply a distraction from what actually goes on and what the causes for these failures are. While it mentions the negative effect of poverty on learning, on the one hand, it fails to tell the real story: that this well-financed Harlem Children’s Zone can and does provide services to needy children and their families that most of our resource-deprived public schools cannot. This wrap-around system of delivering health, nutrition, counseling  and educational services is what public schools across the country wish for and ought to have.

To pretend, as the film does, that “Superman” Geoffrey Canada alone can magically produce a quality education system is naïve and overlooks the reality of his schools’ system of cooperation and rich financial backing. We have an educational system that is badly broken. The blaming of teachers and their unions for what’s wrong is a dangerous distraction that strips responsibility from administrators and local school boards, whose role is to ensure that schools have the resources they need as well as systems of evaluating teachers and staff. It is not the role of unions to evaluate teachers.

The film’s producers failed to show that states with the most unionized teachers do better than states with weaker or fewer unions, and countries with strong educational systems mostly have strong teacher unions. Further, its demonizing of teachers and their unions ignores what the tenure system is intended to do: it protects teachers from being fired without due process and for good reason, and not just to make room to hire friends and families of administrators. The film may be the best propaganda for supporters of charter schools and for those that have longed to privatize public education to profit from public funds.

Charter schools get public money, but are run by private groups with less public oversight.  The film admits in passing that only 1 out of 5 charter schools is successful. The most extensive national study found that 46% of charters did about the same as regular public schools, 37% did worse and only 17% did better.  In Boston alone, for every high-performing charter school, one can find at least five higher-performing public schools.

The process of using standardized tests to evaluate teachers and to determine the success of schools has been proven to be inaccurate and unfair. When schools focus on boosting test scores through test prepping, which occurs in Massachusetts for the MCAS, they ignore important subject areas, squelch creativity and teach to the test, leaving children less prepared for the future in important areas of study. In some cases, it has led to increased cheating by school administrators who fear that if they fail to meet proficiency standards, their school could be closed by the state. In some districts, charter schools send back to district schools those students they deem unprepared to do well on the tests.

In the end this film fails to show any examples of what excellent teaching looks like, and ignores the well-known fact that children’s learning is best when it’s an interactive process, and not when facts are poured into children’s brains, as shown in a cartoon within the film. As we proceed with this important event today, we ask that you join us in working on developing an action plan to address the serious issues surrounding the debate within our public school system.  We thank you for your support and please join our efforts to help improve the education for all the children of the commonwealth and the country.

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