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NCLB, RTT, and Hypocrisy: The Changing Face of Education (originally posted 12 November 2009 on DailyKos)

Before I commence with writing my diary, I have several caveats of which I wish to apprise readers:

1. I realize there is a problem with teachers’ unions protecting teachers that should no longer be allowed to teach due to any number of deficiencies.

2. I also realize that teachers’ unions are necessary to protect teachers who may have a legitimate grievance against their school district or administration.

3. I am not über-proficient at legalese; despite my ability to minutely analyze a Shakespearean play or other equally daunting literary text, legal language sometimes confounds and annoys me (this relates to my reading of the RTT legislation).

4. An apology – I’ve been way too busy to actually make this diary entry a timely one. I know that the article about Arne Duncan "fixing" our nation’s schools appeared in Time Magazine well over a month ago. However, I’ve spent the time in between the publication of the article and now planning (or re-planning, as my previous diary would indicate) lessons more than reading the article and the related legislation in order to write this diary.

In a previous diary, I stated that I am a teacher in a school district near Denver, CO. I made the clarification in that diary that I work, but do not necessarily teach, for the school district. Now, thanks to Arne Duncan and his proposed legislation, there will be no reason to distinguish between the two. Teach, according to Oxford, means to "show or explain to (someone) how to do something." However, those of us (read: all) have at one point or another been affected by a teacher or someone who functions in a teaching capacity. So, as we all know, there is that accepted connotation when we hear the word "teach" that lends itself to our common understanding that we don’t just learn facts from a teacher, but how to analyze, understand, and relate those facts to everyday lives – to think critically.

Now, though, in Arne Duncan’s new RTT legislation, which focuses heavily on data, definitions of data, and definitions of "effective teacher," "high-quality assessment" and "student achievement," there is no place for affect, one of the most fundamental ways in which teachers can lead students to think. By extension, that means that those of us who "teach" students would no longer do so in the connoted sense of the word, only in the explicit and denoted sense.

I’ll start with an analysis (courtesy of my high school English teacher - who had a significant affect on my life - and college English professors) of the article in which Gilbert Cruz created a fetching, almost sycophantic tableau that portrayed the "salt and pepper" haired Secretary mingling with the commoners, and interlace my analysis with the Race to the Top (RTT) legislation itself. I’ll lay easy on the summary, knowing that the readers of dKos are educated and capable of reading between the lines well enough; however, there are some things that caught my "teacher eye."

First, there’s the idea that the Obama Administration is preparing to "square off" against the teachers’ unions about holding teachers accountable for student failure or success. I’m all for holding teachers accountable. What I am not all for, is holding teachers solely accountable for student success in an environment where there are no community programs that support the families of those students.

Herein lies the problem with "one-size-fits-all" education policy. Sure. Hold the teachers accountable for student success and failure in areas where property taxes bring in a lot of money and there are many resources available – including money and support from the parents of those students – to help them succeed. But do not attempt to apply the same standards to every district, because of the most fundamental fact: they are not all the same in funding or community opportunities; not by a long shot. Every student is entitled to a "free and appropriate public education" according to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (which has been updated several times since then, of course). But how is that possible, really, if the absolutely essential funding, and the strong, supportive community components just aren't there?

Another point of contention in the article (at least for me) was the fact that Duncan’s legislation encourages states to remove laws "limiting the expansion of public charter schools." The exact wording, from the legislation’s Proposed Selection Criteria for the RTT grant, follows:

1. The extent to which the State has a charter school law that does not prohibit or effectively inhibit increasing the number of charter schools in the State (as measured by the percentage of total schools in the State that are allowed to be charter schools) or otherwise restrict student enrollment in charter schools.

2. The extent to which the State has statues and guidelines regarding how charter school authorizers approve, monitor, hold accountable, reauthorize, and close charter schools, including the extent to which such statutes or guidelines require that student academic achievement be a factor in such activities and decisions, and the extent to which charter school authorizers in the State have closed or not renewed ineffective charter schools.

3. The extent to which the State’s charter schools receive equitable funding, compared to traditional public schools, and a commensurate share of local, State, and Federal program and revenue sources.

4. The extent to which the State provides charter schools with facilities funding (for leasing facilities, purchasing facilities, or making tenant improvements), assistance with facilities acquisition, access to public facilities, the ability to share in bonds and mill levies, or other supports; and the extent to which the State does not impose any facility-related requirements on charter schools that are stricter than those applied to traditional public schools.

Sorry to laboriously include all of the above criteria, but it was only one section, and in the interest of completeness and fairness I thought it important that I include it all. I should also take a moment to mention that, of the 19 categories for selection criteria, the category for Charter Schools had the most selection criteria, at four. Only one other category had four (Enlisting Statewide Support and Commitment), two of which specifically referred to Charter Schools.

I include the information about the Charter School criteria because of the fact that encouraging their expansion is, as I see it, pushing for further exclusivity in education.

Note the following evidence:

A local Charter school in the seven-county metro Denver area has repeatedly been named one of the best schools in the state by 5280 Magazine. The school’s Special Education population, according to the school district’s website, stands at 4%. The Free and Reduced Lunch percentage for the school tops out at 6%. I’ve quoted similar figures for my school district before (we have 74% free and reduced lunch), but the new one needed here is my school’s percentage of Special Education: 16. Just for the sake of comparison, other schools in the same affluent district as the number-one rated Charter School range from 6-14%. The difference between the two figures has a direct and profound result on the state test scores, as Special Education students are required to take the same test (albeit with certain limited modifications, such as extended time, scribing, or teacher-provided directions) as "regular" students. Since Arne Duncan’s RTT legislation relies so much on the data from state assessments to determine student achievement (definition provided by the legislation: "means, at a minimum – for tested grades and subjects: a student’s score on the State’s assessment under section 1111(b)(3) of the ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act]"), the attempt at education "reform" is flawed, futile, and therefore no better than NCLB.

Other definitions of import from the legislation itself:

effective teacher: means a teacher whose students achieve acceptable rates e.g. at least one grade level in an academic year, of student growth

high-quality assessment: means an assessment designed to measure a student’s understanding of, and ability to apply, critical concepts through the use of a variety of item types, formats, and administration conditions (e.g. open-ended responses, performance-based tasks, use of technology)

While I'm speaking of schools, I have to touch on the fact that Cruz mentions Duncan’s attendance at the "prestigious" and "rigorous" University of Chicago Lab Schools. What Cruz so delicately left out is that tuition for the UCLS is the lowest at $12,882 for nursery school and tops out at $22,671 per year for grades 9-12.

This is, I feel, where the hypocrisy of Duncan's attempt at school reform comes in. Having experienced an educational background such as his, how does he have any perspective at all about what public education today really looks like? Yes, he headed Chicago Public Schools, but did he ever teach in one? Did he deal with the "daily grind" of behavioral problems, special education students, and the occasional over-achievers to which every teacher must tend in a day?

Not every student (read: nearly 99% of the current US public high school population) has the same opportunity as those students at UCLS, and therefore they should not - no cannot - be treated like they do. I know, in my school at least, that students struggle for every passing grade, often against parents that aren't there because of working several jobs, friends that accuse them of "wanting to be smart," or any number of other factors that work against the drive they have to succeed. Don't even think about those kids having - or even getting close to touching - almost 23,000 to go to any sort of "prestigious" school, and I can almost guarantee you that Duncan's educational experience founds the basis for his "vision" of education reform.

I must close with the fact that Duncan is quoted in the article as saying that "We’ll probably get a really smart ten-year-old to figure this one out for us." How about any number of my fifteen-year-old students that constantly ask me why I don't go teach the "rich white kids in Boulder, they're smarter than us?" They've already got the crux of the problems within our current education system figured out. How long will it take for the highly-educated members of the Obama administration to do so as well?

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