It’s Not the Schools; It’s the Society!

By Jane Weinkrantz

President Obama’s night-before-school speech demonstrated his commitment to education and his support for American students.  The message of personal responsibility and working to meet one’s goals without excuses resounded positively with parents, teachers and children everywhere. Yet, that speech and others President Obama has given do not seem to reflect the education agenda Arne Duncan is outlining for America ’s media.

What a shame that a president who so passionately believes in and embodies education as a vehicle for change in America trusts Arne Duncan to reshape American education!  When Libby Quaid, AP Education Writer, asked Duncan what he liked about working with President Obama, he replied, “What’s so fun (sic) about working for the president is this is so personal for him. He did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father wasn’t around much. There were times when his family was on welfare…He’s challenging all of us, but he is absolutely going to challenge students and parents to take their education seriously, to really have personal responsibility.”

Let’s see if Secretary Duncan can step up to that challenge to take education seriously. The former “CEO” of the Chicago School System (Why CEO? Is it somehow more important sounding than Chancellor or Superintendent?) has been interviewed many times and always throws the same glib, non-specific responses around. He is generous with terms like “best practices,” “pocket of excellence,” “raising the bar” and “incent.” Duncan frequently seems to have taken a page from the Sarah Palin Guide to Public Speaking; he told Quaid, that his favorite thing about going back to school was, “ a smell of new school---new pencils, new erasers, new magic markers.” This is the guy who wants to set the standards bar higher and higher?

Duncan articulates his plan for American education simply and vaguely. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he explained that it was to “do what works for children.” Yet, the advocate of high standards and accountability did not mention one program or idea that has been demonstrably documented to work for children in his hour long interview with Rose. Indeed, Charlie Rose often looked like the educator in that discussion. Specifically, he looked like an English teacher trying to get an exact response from a kid who has not done all the reading. Duncan talked about making teachers accountable for their work through standardized tests and “real time” assessments. He wants teachers to be responsible for students making a year or more of progress every school year.  A teacher whose students make only a half year’s gains in a year would not be acceptable.  Never mind that such a teacher could have a class with one chronically depressed child, one who is coming to school high every day, another with an undiagnosed learning disability, one who doesn’t speak English and another who is school phobic.  A year or more of progress for a year’s seat time could lead to merit pay, part of Duncan ’s idea of treating teachers as professionals.

Of course, merit pay is an objectionable idea for multiple reasons. Does it mean that those teachers whose students don’t excel on their assessments lack merit?  Do they pay a ”worthlessness penalty?” Merit pay is just a disguised term for bonuses. I know plenty of business professionals who receive bonus pay. The practice is flawed for several reasons: some things beyond one’s control can affect year end results, some professionals find ways to account or, in the case of education, assess creatively, if not always honestly, and, the minute there is a financial crunch, merit pay like bonus pay, can dry up. Finally, it opens the door to a salary structure with a lower base, but the potential for bonus pay, sort of like Willy Loman and his ever elusive commission. A former colleague of mine used to brush off professional compliments with the words, “Put in my paycheck.” I would agree, but I would add that it shouldn’t be a merit- based paycheck, but a union-negotiated, salaried paycheck. 

            Duncan supports charter schools and believes states should not cap the number of charter schools.  In an interview with Wolf Blitzer, Duncan said, “It’s good. Charters schools are public schools. They’re our schools. They’re accountable to us. They’re our tax dollars. They serve our children.” What makes them so charter-y is harder to pinpoint since Duncan ’s language pretty much describes the public school to which a charter is supposed to be a superior alternative.  Yet, throughout the interview, Duncan failed to mention one successful charter school or its “best practices,” instead circling around the topic by mentioning “target populations,” “specialized rules” and “longer days.” ( Duncan also supported making Social Justice Solidarity High School in Chicago a “gay friendly” high school, a move that was promoted as the “first ever.” Not so much. New York ’s Harvey Milk High School has that distinction. It was founded in 1985.)

            With the mission of the charter school so very murky, it is no surprise that Duncan is even less exacting when discussing the role of a school. In fact, he made waves this summer when he said schools should be open six or seven days a week.  However, he didn’t mean that there should be six or seven instructional days in a week. Instead, Arne told Charlie Rose, he imagines the school as doing the business of education from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. However, after 3 p.m. schools should be “maximized.” Classrooms, gyms, and computer labs “belong to the community.” After instruction is over, schools can be used for citizens to take GED classes, receive health care, have potluck suppers, and after school activities provided by the Y or Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of America. Heck, why not a methadone clinic while we’re at it?

            Without even getting into the practical reasons why it is a bad idea to let members of the community use computers meant for students or pointing out that wear and tear on a school’s physical plant by kids is plenty without making it into a 21st century Hull House, I have to say that I think Duncan’s intentions here are good. As CEO (cringe) of Chicago schools, he had the school system providing up to three meals a day and getting eyeglasses for children who didn’t have them. This might not be the purest interpretation of the role of a school district, but there’s no doubt that these policies benefited children. What I find disturbing is that our society has failed to provide for children in so many ways, on such a wholesale level, that Duncan feels compelled to address them via the Department of Education. He told Charlie Rose, “Children have to be fed. Children have to be safe. Children have to be able to see the blackboard.” Duncan addressed how a child used to come home to a stay-at-home mom and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich but now comes home to an empty house. It’s not even a given that someone will be at home when a child is sick. In a discussion about swine flu with Wolf Blitzer, Duncan asked parents whose children catch the disease to keep them at home, adding. “We’re asking employers to be, you know, compassionate about this.”

            Compassion is precisely what America has been lacking and it will take more than school reform to fix it. Why doesn’t the average American worker have enough sick and personal days to stay home with a swine flu infected child if he or she needs to? Why do Chicago schools need to provide kids with eyeglasses? Shouldn’t there be free vision screenings before every child starts school? Why would a community need to use a school’s library, unless it lacked a library of its own? And what kind of a place would leave parents so destitute that they counted on the Chicago public school system to provide three meals a day?

            Make no mistake: America needs strong schools, However, our country also needs strong communities. Our leaders should focus not only on education reform, but also on the strengthening of our communities with available health and dental care, child care, cultural centers and job opportunities. When families have access to all these things, their children are healthier, happier, more secure and, therefore, better students.  Charter schools, merit pay and widening the scope of education’s mission is a stop gap measure that will conceal but not mend the village it takes to raise our children. It is a shame that neither President Obama not Secretary Duncan can see this big picture.

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