Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Chamber of Commerce's flawed 'Superman' school reform guide. By Valerie Strauss

In a shameless act of movie flacking, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce just published a guide for business leaders on school reform that is linked to and reinforces the skewed vision of public education portrayed in the movie “Waiting for Superman.”

Meddling in an area about which it obviously doesn’t know much, the chamber issued a guide called “The Superman Approach: A business leader’s guide to effective education reform.”

The guide mimics the movie in extolling charter schools and test-driven data while portraying teachers unions as evil. It does this in part by comparing what the mild-mannered Clark Kent would do with his more dynamic alter-ego, Superman (obviously forgetting that the two are actually one and the same and that the superhero uses both approaches).

It really does this, addressing the business leader who reads this as an 8-year-old; I’m not making it up:

“What would Clark Kent do?
• Support local bond drives to provide more dollars for schools without demanding reforms in exchange
• Hold a “principal for a day” event for area CEOs to learn about the inner workings of a school
Some of these aren’t bad ideas, but they aren’t game changers.

So, what would Superman do?
• Work to increase the caliber of leader "

This would be funny if the chamber wasn't powerful by virtue of being the world’s largest business federation.

The folks at the chamber obviously think they are serving the interests of their millions of members, helping to fix broken schools so that America will have the work force it needs for the 21st century, but the way it proposes to do this will actually hurt the public schools, and, therefore, the rest of the country.

Says the guide:

“Traditionally, we in the business community, like most other partners, have taken something of a “Clark Kent” approach to helping our students and schools. We’ve been supportive and encouraging by mentoring children, sponsoring special events and field trips, donating supplies, and funding scholarships. These are all worthwhile activities that should be continued—but they’re not enough.”

The guide argues that the public school system, the country’s most important civic institution, should be run like a business, a philosophy championed by some of the most high-profile school reformers today.

It would be a good idea if it could work, but it can’t, because teaching children of all varying abilities and backgrounds and isn’t like selling shoes. Business people can wish it were all they want, but education is a far more complicated process that can’t be reduced to spreadsheets and charts of data.

The effort to do so -- now being supported by the Chamber of Commerce, some of the country’s biggest philanthropists, and the Obama administration -- is weakening the public schools and, ultimately, will make it harder to build a dedicated cadre of effective teachers and improve the achievement rates of minorities.

It has been said many times on this blog, but the key elements of this sort of reform path have no grounding in research. You can see a point by point critique of the Superman movie here, and here, a thorough analysis of what Superman would have done (and why the film’s director Davis Guggenheim really should have called it Waiting for Batman).

The guide summarizes all of the initiatives that, together, are effectively taking the public system down the dangerous road to privatization. Some examples:

*The guide portrays charter schools as the answer to education’s troubles. It takes no account of the largest study on charter schools conducted so far, which showed that most charter schools are no better or worse than their neighborhood traditional public schools.

Do charter schools have more flexibility than traditional schools? Yes, they do, but, interestingly, most of them aren’t innovative at all.

There is no reason that the traditional schools, which educate some 95 percent or more of the nation’s children, can’t be reformed to serve all children. And in fact, some of the most innovative schools are within traditional systems. The picture of regular school districts as all hide-bound disasters is a myth, just as is the notion that charter schools are the answer.

The guide points to as a fine example of a school system the one in New Orleans that has been under reconstruction since Hurricane Katrina. That system, unlike any other in the country, consists primarily of charter schools.

*The guide calls for alternative routes to teacher certification and lauds programs such as Teach for America, which takes new college graduates, trains them to teach for about five or six weeks, and then sends them into the country’s toughest schools, apparently to perform wonders on a wave of enthusiasm and optimism.

Some of these young people do, in fact, accomplish extraordinary things under the toughest conditions, but the vast majority leave teaching after a few years. It takes at least a few years for a teacher to become truly effective, research shows. So where does that leave the kids?

The continued, unprecedented assault on the country’s teachers is driving out the very best ones, and, incidentally, is exactly the opposite approach of the very countries that school reformers like to hold up as models, such as Finland.

How many times have you heard that we should do what Finland did to improve our system? Well, if we did that, we’d stop blaming teachers and we’d elevate the profession, not tear it down. That’s what the Finns did.

There is much, much more that is wrong with the guide and the approach it takes to reform; for example, it calls for paying teachers according to student achievement, for example, even though there are many other factors that affect a student's progress beside the teacher.

But but read it for yourself, here. And then start to really worry, because the forces arrayed against traditional public schools are getting stronger every day.

And don't let anybody fool you. That's not a good thing.

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