Sunday, September 30, 2012

Blueprint for Reform and Race to the Top

President Obama introduces the Blueprint to Reform with a letter that recognizes that NCLB is “flawed” and in need of renovation. He makes several points that I really liked reading that seemed to improve on George W. Bush’s plan: for example, in the third paragraph he alludes to the need for an education system that contributes to democracy. In the fifth paragraph, the President advocates for teachers, saying that they deserve more freedom and respect in their profession. Both of these points make the President’s plan seem more user-friendly- in other words, placing a higher emphasis on respect for communities and teachers.

That being said, there were other aspects of the introduction letter that did not seem to be renovations at all, but rather, carry-overs of neoliberal ideas from NCLB. The concept of better education in order to increase our global economic standing , colorblindness, and business involvement are all mentioned. I was curious to begin reading and see how these ideas played out in the actual body of the document.

There is not enough space here to dissect every section in detail, but to summarize, its four targets are: 1) college and career preparation; 2) great teachers/leaders; 3) equal opportunities; 4) raising standards and rewarding excellence; and 5) continuing improvement. Overall, the Blueprint for Reform is based more on reward than on punishment, as NCLB was. The word “grant” and “grantee” are repeated time and again to emphasize these rewards. This sounds positive on the surface, but may end up being another method of control from a distance because in order to get funds, schools will have to conform to what a higher “power” wants of them. I also found myself wondering where the grant money comes from; if private businesses are the answer, then we have yet another reform involving privatization.

Race to the Top is a plan mentioned in the Blueprint that enables the government to distribute ~$4 billion dollars to schools in “states that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform” (DoEd website). Again, reward is the main theme here. Based on what we’ve learned thus far, the idea of competition between schools might be problematic because it defeats the purpose of public education, or the “we’re all in this together, guys” mentality. Schools should not be pit against each other, especially when some begin ten feet in front of the starting line while others start ten feet behind it. Social context does not seem to be taken into consideration, thus benefitting the schools that are already achieving.

My feelings on the Blueprint and RTTT are so mixed because I see some aspects that I disagree with, while others that I don’t. After working at the Department of Education for a summer, I know that many employees there really want what’s best for children and are not crazy “rah-rah capitalism” neoliberals. The ones that I worked with believe in the Blueprint’s reforms and its potential for change. However, after taking an outside-of-Washington perspective, it does seem as though Obama’s plans are not the total departure from NCLB that I once thought they were.

RTTT and Karp

The readings for today’s class centered on the Obama Administration’s “Race To The Top” program and two commentaries about how the Administration has handled the inherited NCLB and the flaws that persist in the “solutions” they have offered.
As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, President Obama announced the US Department of Education’s competitive grant program focused on K-12 schools: The Race to the Top (RTTT) Program. The program promotes “innovative strategies that are most likely to lead to improved results for students.” The applications for these grants centers around four core reform areas listed in order of point value from highest to lowest: Teacher and Leader Development (138 pts), Standards and Assessments (70 pts), Turning around the lowest achieving schools (50 pts), and Data Systems to Support Instruction (47pts). In addition to these categories, there are two additional sections: State Success Factors (125 pts) and General Selection Criteria (55 pts). 
In theory, RTTT does depart from NCLB in a few subtle ways. It redefines “effective teacher” to mean one that helps students improve by one grade level, which is a more realistic and less “back-loaded” approach. There is also emphasis on academic areas that lead to a well-rounded education, such as foreign languages, government, PE and service learning. 
At first glance, it seems that since participation is voluntary and reward-based that this less punitive policy would have more positive effects. However when examined more closely, one can see that it is riddled with implications that are favorable to corporations and are biased towards wealthy states, hereby increasing the achievement gap.  When the content of each category is specifically examined, RTTT is clearly not the panacea our public schools have been waiting for. There are multiple provisions that encourage free expansion of charter schools, open up opportunities for independent corporations and providers, and promote “alternative routes to teacher certification.” Furthermore, the point distribution indicates the order of the program’s priorities: the highest point value is focused on teacher development/redistribution while one of the lowest point values is awarded to turning around struggling schools.  

The two commentaries are authored by Stan Karp of rethinkingschoolsblog who scrutinizes how the Obama administration has incorporated NCLB into its education policy. In his first article, “NCLB Waivers Give Bad Policy New Lease on Life” (2/12), Karp addresses Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s waiver process. Although touted as a measure that permits “flexibility” for states, Karp argues that these waivers in fact “allow states to reproduce some of the worst aspects of NCLB’s ‘test-and-punish’ approach” while also ignoring problems like poverty and equitable funding. This policy also favors private education corporations and testing companies, while continuing to punish teachers and schools who are associated with low scores. He makes a point to show the correlation between policies that promote standardized testing and punishing high-need schools, and the widening of the achievement gap, which has grown by 40% since the 1960’s. He concludes his commentary with a harsh recommendation that Arne Duncan be fired for this deceiving policy. 

His next opinion piece, “School Reform We Can’t Believe In” (4/12) Karp immediately takes a stab at the Obama Administration promising to reform education in America while hypocritically only promoting change that wouldn’t be too “disruptive” to the current system. In this article he goes into more depth about the issue of education reform (or lack thereof). Again, he demonstrates how private interests are hidden beneath a fa├žade of “improvement” and “excellence.” However, he also highlights specifically how high-need students suffer the most under this type of high-stakes testing model of education. Karp states, “it’s stunning that the first African American president has increased federal education spending by $100 billion without directing a dime to promote integrated public education.” Although “College for All” is a popular catchphrase for Duncan, this is vastly different from the reality of his policy. Of 100 school districts (which serve 40% of all students of color in America) 67 districts only graduate 33% of their students. Clearly, his policy has excluded students who need help the most. He concludes his article by hypothesizing that in the past, progressive policies promoted by FDR and LBJ were possible because of popular mobilization and powerful left-wing and labor movements. Real change appears to be contingent not on charismatic and promising leaders, but on “pressure from below” by the people.

School Reform We Can’t Believe In

The reading through the weekend has made me see the flaws of our government. Our government has always advocated for education reform and every time something is passed, we seem to backtrack. NCLB has not been the exception because its flaws are clearly being seen through the nation. Reading through School Reform We Can’t Believe In, I noted that more than one third of our public schools are on the “Need improvement” list, which thus makes one question whether if it’s our kids or the system. Its definitely our systems fault because a system that had “$71 billion less that promise” represents a system of many flaws or not worthy of our taxpayers money. NCLB tries to impose punishments to provide an incentive for schools to improve, but in reality NCLB just makes public which schools are need improvement. NCLB does nothing to actually fix the schools but increases its probability of further punishment. The New system with Obama promised a new alternative to NCLB with many reform but up till now, we are getting the same program and maybe even worse. Even with its changed Slogan, Obama plans to keep test-driven sanctions and add some of the worst features of the new Race to the Top plans. This new administration is going to be a backward step, pumped with another slogan that never really gets fulfilled. Our nation has became a slogan itself, where we promise a lot, never get anything done and then are only remembered for the slogan instead of the reform.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Leistyna, Winfield and Kohn

In their critique of education reform Leistyna, Winfield and Kohn contextualize some of the social and historical motivations that have influenced the current educational model. Winfield’s chronicle was a striking revelation on how the undertones of eugenics have trickled down into the fields of psychology, and been encompassed into the social structure. The manipulation of rhetoric has created a paradigm in which poverty and disadvantage are subconsciously branded as a type of pathology.  It is particularly disconcerting how the philosophies of Social Darwinism very much permeate our society under the guise of science and psychology. The origins of educational psychology is demonstrative how racial prejudices are shrouded under scientific pretenses and then used to influence social constructs.
Although the more radical voices of the spectrum are more easily dismissed, the field of eugenics has nonetheless managed to leave its mark. In the present day, overtones and assumptions are often made regarding degeneracy of the poor, and their stagnancy within the social sphere. There is a tendency to attribute the shortcomings of this class to inefficiency and mediocrity. Racial discrimination has somehow been disassociated with ethics and morals through the use of empirical language and rhetoric that even further marginalizes those less privileged. The platonic idea that our society is a somehow a true meritocracy has been used to guide the new development of education reform and has created the means by which to stratify the student population based on performance.  Standardized testing is attractive because in theory it should provide means by which to “measure” intellectual caliber.  This type of assessment however, is inherently confounded because it highlights the problems of society while simultaneously dismissing the true roots of the problem.  
The conversation about education reform has been infused with empirical language and has created a situation in which taking a stand against policy puts one at odds with scientific evidence. Privateers have seen the advantage of this and have similarly co-opted the language of social justice to pressure the educational system so that it can be better adapted to fit their needs. Terms that are characteristically used in economic discourse such as efficiency, competition, standardization and percentages are now normal components of educational discourse. As stated by Kohn schools are being transformed into “test prep factories” and the use of standardized testing has created a way for students to be compared like goods in a market based on test scores. Through this type of reductionist perspective a student can be thought of as a product whose “value” is indicated by performance on a test.  Accountability has been exapted by the business sector to help further their goals to privatize the educational system. 

Kohn, Winfield, Leistyna

The readings for this week focused on the discourse of accountability and the commitment of our education system to the privatization of schools. Kohn highlights the issues with our current education system, and discusses how increased pressure for privatization has led to these issues. With the implementation of No Child Left Behind, standards were raised for schools. Testing and test scores became significantly more important, and holding schools accountable for those test scores became the most important part of education. The No Child Left Behind act also caused an increase in the number of schools that were labeled as failing. The new focus on testing has caused teachers to shift their focus towards teaching students how to test well. Kohn also discusses the fact that privatization of schools has not corrected any of the issues in our education
            Winfield’s chapter also discusses the discourse of accountability, and the new agenda to “devalue” people through the education system (143). Despite laws passed to desegregate schools, the majority of the schools that are being affected by new “reforms” to the education system are filled with poor, minority students. We have begun to punish schools that are failing and reward schools with good test scores. Yet the schools that are being punished are the schools that need the most help. No Child Left behind and other reforms that have been put in place have completely devalued public education and caused a shift towards the privatization of schools. Privatization protects those that are “worthy” of being protected, such as the wealthy, white population (147). Through privatizations, the education system has become a perpetuation of eugenics.
            According to Leistyna, the focus on accountability and testing in schools has led to the appearance that more schools are failing, thus contributing to the increase in privatization. The government has found a way to perpetuate inequality in our society through education policy and the large corporate powers are the only ones that are benefitting from it. Our education system is highly class based, protecting those in privatized schools (the wealthy) by not requiring them to participate in high stakes testing. Those that do have to pay for high stakes testing are usually the ones that cannot afford it, perpetuating this cycle of oppression and inequality (154). There is clearly something wrong with the system that we have in place, where the wealthy continue to be protected and the poor minorities continue to be oppressed through education policy.
            As Tara said, it is pretty obvious that privatization of schools is not the answer to issues in our education system. While certain education policies, such as No Child Left behind, were put in place to positively effect education, it seems that they have done just the opposite of that. Education has begun to benefit businesses and wealthy corporations rather than the students and teachers that it is supposed to. We need to find a way to turn the system around and take the focus off of testing and privatization. Education should be about the students and teachers rather than large wealthy corporations.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Leistyna, Winfield, and Kohn

Leistyna, Winfield and Kohn all focus on how the government is committed to privatizing education rather than improving the current public school system. Leistyna argues that the government is being influenced by corporate powers that strive to maximize profit in our capitalist system. The government has established exclusionary and discriminatory policies that perpetuate inequality in society. Due to the gross inequities and injustices, neoliberals turn to “a better system of education” as the answer (144). However, as Leistyna argues, “all this rhetoric about accountability, efficiency, effectiveness, and excellence in public education is really an ideological trap intended to ensure that public schools fail, thus paving their way for their complete privatization” (155). When looking at NCLB, it was an act put in place to line students and schools up to fail. Students, teachers, administrators, and parents have had no power in the decisions that have been made. Education reform has been placed in the hands of corporate executives and politicians. The goals laid out in NCLB are seen as impossible to achieve for many schools. Therefore, these schools will likely be closed down and put in the control of charter schools or private companies. As Leistyna discusses, the ones benefitting from NCLB are the large corporations, such as the four big publishing houses, that are making billions due to the high costs of standardized tests. Public education reform has become a way for corporations to maximize profit through privatizing schools.
            Winfield also focuses on the push for privatization of education, but examines the role of eugenics in shaping the structure of our society today. He argues that the “basic tenets of eugenic ideology have long supplied an explanation for the establishment, evolution and perpetuation of inequality” (147). Eugenic ideology is based on the assumption that poverty has to do with people’s bloodline rather than the environment in which they were raised and developed. As a result, people, specifically those who are white and wealthy, are seen to be worth more than others. Winfield believes eugenic ideology is ubiquitous in America today. The current push for privatization serves to protect the “worthy” elites and prevent social mobility for others.
            Kohn makes similar arguments to Leistyna and Winfield about the dangers of privatizing education. He recognizes the dissatisfaction with the current state of our public schools, but argues that privatization won’t fix the problems. He believes there is a greater danger in concentrating power in the education system in private hands (82). Corporations are not held accountable to anyone and are once again only concerned with maximizing profit. He also argues that NCLB is an act that works to shift public schools into the hands of the private sector. Due to NCLB, accountability is all that matters in education. Schools are under a lot of pressure to perform well and many students are being negatively impacted as a result. Because NCLB is not committed to improving schools, we need to resist it as Kohn says. However, he does not present any solutions to the failing education system. What should we do next?
            After reading these authors’ pieces, it is clear that the public education system isn’t working. However, privatizing schools does not seem to be the answer. While NCLB was created with the positive intentions of giving all people an equal, substantial education, it has not done so and will not by 2014. It is commonly believed in society that education is key to social mobility and all people deserve equal opportunities. Therefore, what steps should be taken to ensure that the public education system is serving the needs of children, rather than the desires of large, wealthy corporations? 

Friday, September 14, 2012

"Our Children's Burden" & Au Chapter 1

Throughout its history, the United States has overwhelmingly spent on education rather than social welfare programs. Wells explains that this trend has resulted in the federal government relying on the public education system to close the expansive gap between rich and poor students. At first this goal may seem reasonable; however, the reality is that the federal government has set up a system that is inherently flawed. Wells explains that schools are expected to create social equality (presumably through closing the “achievement gap”), yet they do not have a “strong social safety net to hold up children whose families lack money for food, shelter, or health care” (Wells, 28). Instead of investing heavily in social welfare programs and trying to transform society as a whole, like many European countries, the federal government relies on the public education to teach students to learn how to rise out of poverty and how to achieve equal statuses as their counterparts in society.
While our core national value of equality amongst all remains extremely important in society, it seems as if it has misguided our policy makers and has led them to ignore the needs of certain groups in society, all under the guise of “equality of opportunity” (14). Our policy-makers have avoided giving “handouts” to the poor through ample social welfare programs and have instead relied on the idea that “self-help” through things like education is the better route to take. What policy makers fail to realize is that people cannot simply “learn their way out of poverty,” because it impossible for schools to exist outside of the social context of the community in which they are located (17). As Au explains in his first chapter, most schools in America are not helping students rise out of poverty; instead, they are reproducing the inequality that exists in society.
One of the main themes that we have focused on thus far in class is privatization and its potentially negative impacts on public education. In her article, Wells describes the “child benefit theory,” an educational policy derived by Catholic educators in 1965 and which preached the idea that money should follow each child in the system, no matter where they attend school (26). Although Wells does not extensively discuss what ultimately came of the child benefit theory, she does explain that this idea allowed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to pass through both the Senate and the House of Representatives in the 60’s. Another important outcome of policies like the child benefit theory was federal spending on public education increased dramatically from about $1 billion to $3.5 billion (27). We can see a resurgence of these ideals in today’s educational policy conversation in proposed policies like school vouchers, and increased educational spending. Theoretically, when money follows children to their school of choice, the student gets a better education because schools compete for students’ voucher money. However, instead of an elevated level of education for all, with more privatization, we have increasingly seen that schools are not performing any better and are not closing the achievement gap.
Perhaps it’s time for our policy makers to take a completely new approach to solving educational issues and the achievement gap. Well’s argument that we need better social welfare programs seems to be a promising one. While improving education is not an easy task, it’s a necessary one and one that should be at the forefront of politicians’ minds. After all, aren’t the children of today the future of our country?