Thursday, February 7, 2013

Michiana Viewpoint 2/11/2013

In a Tribune article covering the first South Bend Community School Corp. Board of Trustees meeting of the year (mostly about the election of officers) my jaw dropped when I got to the fourth and fifth paragraphs.
“After two years in the position, outgoing board President Roger Parent said last week he was ready to turn over the reins to some-one else.
“Parent said he wants time to focus on big-ticket is-sues, such as potentially hiring an outside provider to run low-performing schools in South Bend.” (emphasis mine)
I’d never heard of this idea being endorsed by the board – and after checking with the other trustees it is clear that the board had not discussed this as an option.
Since it appears that one of seven Trustees is setting time aside to pursue an initiative not sanctioned by the Board - namely, privatizing at least some of the public school system, I would expect The Tribune to look into it.
It's important to remember that tactics like hiring private management companies are a response to a defective assumption that standardized test scores are the end-all, be-all measurement of student proficiency. The trouble is, there is no such magic stick.
For the most part, tests were designed to evaluate progress in individual students so that teachers would know what needed more emphasis in that child's learning process.  Sure, there were always some high stakes tests: the SAT, ACT, LSAT, PSAT, etc., etc. - but these tests began late in a High School Career.

Someone, somehow got the idea that we should start using these throughout a student's career (there are pre-school admission tests now for crying out loud) - and the stakes are high not only for the student, but now even the teacher, the Principal, the district...  It's nuts.

We all agree (I think) that every child is entitled to a good education.  Our goal as a society is to provide that.  Some of us think that the goal lies even beyond that:  We think that a good education is a strategy towards the goal of every citizen having a satisfying life.

But those things are hard to measure, so some folks have come up with test scores to serve as a proxy.  As a result, we have become dedicated to working towards the proxy instead of the actual goal.  But there's the rub - in many ways the two things are mutually exclusive.

The good education/satisfying life approach is collaborative.  Creativity is critical.  Exposure to all sorts of diverse learning and participation increase the likelihood that even a challenged student can find something that lights her up.  Critical thinking and sound argumentation are important skills.

The high stakes testing approach is competitive.  Conformity is encouraged.  Subject matter which does not directly serve the Testing God is a luxury - either held out as a reward for test mastery, or discarded entirely.  To this end, at Jackson Intermediate Center students are pre-tested every three weeks for 90 minutes - time lost for real human growth and intellectual exploration.

It's bad enough that time is lost in service to only the once a year ISTEP , but on top of that either teachers have to grade these tests, or some company is paid to - a significant waste of precious South Bend Community School Corporation assets.

So you might think, OK.  Some outside innovating firm could come in and turn things around.  Well if firms like that ever existed, much like other industries, they have been subsumed by the giants.

Unsurprisingly, since the mission has been narrowed to the proxy of test scores, the giants need be neither flexible nor innovative.  In city after city they cleave to the “No Excuses” model where minor transgressions by students like disobeying the dress code, being too enthusiastic in class, etc. are cause for shaming – and often suspension. 

These companies create their own version of Charter Schools, which allows them to dismiss beloved teachers and administrators – replacing them with far less experienced, but cheaper folks.  While it’s not hard to train people to behave as minor dictators as teachers and administrators, statistics show these folks last three years on average before they move on to something better.

Children crave predictability, routines, and community connections.  These institutions churn programs and personnel.  They are laboratories and our children the guinea pigs.

Expulsion rates are high.  Special needs and English language learning students are not welcome.  The more challenging students are returned to the public system, whose funding will have been diminished due to the new for-profit schools.

All this has been experienced in communities all over the country.  So when a school board member throws out the possibility of privatizing public schools, it should command our attention.

What do you think it symbolizes?