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Monday, 6 February 2012

Business Model Promotes Failure

I cringe at some of the decisions being made by politicians concerning public education.  The educational morass the United States find themselves in has not seeped north of the border yet to any dangerous degree, but our provincial politicians, strapped as they are for cash and worried about the next election are being tempted by the glowing promises and fear tactics so popular south of the border. 
In the last ten or so years, the cry down south has been to let private enterprise and the free market rescue their woefully underachieving urban school systems.  Extremely low scores on standardized tests have motivated the Gateses and Waltons and other vastly wealthy tycoons to cough up billions and billions of dollars to fund projects that reflect their vision of school systems being run, not by educators, but business school graduates.  They have poured money into school systems in New York, Chicago, San Diego, New Orleans and many other urban areas on the condition that the school systems do things their way, the corporate way.  If you wonder why teachers in British Columbia are concerned about the use of standardized test scores, you need look no further than these districts where the ultimate solution forged by the corporate vision has resulted in hundreds of teachers and principals being fired and schools closed because they did not raise their scores enough to suit the imposed business success model.
All of this activity is spurred on by the infamous No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of 2002 with which the U.S. government mandated that every child must meet minimum standards in reading and mathematics by 2014. Since many schools started with only 25 or 30 per cent of their students meeting the set standards, the teachers in those schools knew the goal of 100% per cent mastery was going to be difficult to achieve.  Actually, any experienced teacher would have told you the goal was going to be impossible to achieve. That’s because teachers know only too well that the effects of poverty, poor family life, and weak English language skills are obstacles that are incredibly difficult to overcome.  Business tycoons don’t believe that of course.  They believe in what works for them, the carrot and the stick:  the carrot of cash and the stick of job loss.  Mandated by legislation, schools that meet improvement targets get big grants, schools that don’t get closed and the teachers get fired, to be replaced by new, charter schools run by private enterprise. Despite the fact that some schools spend as much as 60% of classroom time preparing for the two standardized tests, success has been minimal. A handful of charter schools, populated by students whose parents are motivated enough to apply for admission and then transport them every day to the school’s location, report increases in test scores.  Of course, the percentage of non-native English speakers and special needs students is smaller than in the urban public school population. Meanwhile all other subjects are deemed to be of little significance as teachers scramble to instruct their students in multiple choice test taking strategies.
We are lucky in British Columbia to have a school system that has a reasonably broad, varied and stimulating curriculum, and that has not yet succumbed to the U.S. view that public education is no different than a corporate enterprise.  Or that no knowledge of education is required to run schools.  We are heading that way however.  Principals are more and more being chosen for managerial skills than teaching skills or experience and have been for some time.  School boards spend almost all their time dealing with matters related to finances: trimming budgets, allocating resources, closing schools, or implementing programs that make up for a lack of parental guidance: anti-bullying
programs, drug and alcohol awareness programs, race/religion/sexual orientation understanding programs.  The only time they spend on matters related to academic achievement, the area that used to be thought of as the main purpose of public schools, is time spent considering the graphs and charts provided by superintendants showing  the progress or lack thereof of student achievement on standardized tests, often carefully disguised at the high school level in the blended marks that combine low test scores with elevated classroom scores.
Still, as long as school boards allow professional teachers to teach a well-rounded curriculum and politicians resist the temptation to dangle carrots and wield sticks, BC public schools should continue to be relatively successful.

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