fresh voices from the front lines of change







Even after writing the headline to this post I have to wonder, “Is this a point that even has to be made?”

But in light of events in Washington, DC this week, I have to answer, “Yes.” Because just as lawmakers in the White House and Congress were hard at work crafting new legislation mandating strict new “accountabilities” to, supposedly, ensure “great teachers,” there is an equally determined effort afoot in Capital Hill to scuttle any attempt whatsoever to ensure many of our nation’s teachers get to keep their jobs.

In the meantime, this dysfunctional DC dialogue is playing out in stark contrast to a very different narrative portrayed in a new report detailing the real crisis befalling our nation’s public schools.

First, in DC: Despite the vast differences in legislation being drafted in both the House and the Senate to change Federal education policy, a clear commonality between Congress and the White House is that the Federal government wants to insist on requiring states to develop new teacher evaluation systems that tie teacher performance assessments to — to some degree — how students perform on standardized tests.

The purpose of this is ostensibly to ensure that states employ only the very best teachers, never mind that there is very little credible evidence proving that using standardized test scores in teacher evaluations actually ensures greater “teacher effectiveness.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against evaluating teachers. In fact, teachers are great at evaluating each other. Think about it: If you’re in charge of a class of fourth graders every year, wouldn’t you care how well the third grade teachers are doing their jobs? And how well the fifth grade teachers are going to carry on your good work?

So you have to wonder why at the same time that policy discussions in DC are emphasizing the importance of effective teachers in public schools, why would Senators shoot down a jobs bill with $30 billion for preserving teacher jobs? If teachers are so important, shouldn’t we preserve their jobs? To give credit where credit is due, the White House believes so. But where are the other actors in this farce?

This brings me to the new report I mentioned. The report Starving America’s Public Schools: How Budget Cuts and Policy Mandates Are Hurting Our Nation’s Students documents on-the-ground evidence of how our nation’s public school systems are disinvesting in great teachers and robbing our children of the education opportunities they deserve.

In compiling this report (yes I am the author), I descended from the 30,000-foot view of the American public school system that is so pervasive in our national policy discussions. And believe me, the closer I got to the ground, the worse things looked.

What I discovered was that huge cuts enacted by state legislatures across the country are having catastrophic effects on our nation’s teaching force and in turn the education opportunities available to our children and youth.

In community after community, I came across clear signs that our schools are in dire straits due to severe decreases in teacher jobs. In so many places, all art and music teachers are being fired. Teachers who help children with developmental problems or emotional issues are being let go. Students who want to take courses they need to get into their dream college are told those subjects are no longer going to be taught because the teachers have been reassigned or let go. And experienced faculty who staff school libraries, technology classes, and gifted and talented programs are being told their services are no longer needed.

I came across an elementary school in Arizona where art and PE were being cut to once per week, a high school in Pennsylvania where the students walked out because they were sick of attending classes of more than 50 students with not enough desks.

At a time when our political leaders are stressing the importance of teachers to academic attainment, why are we firing teachers wholesale? Why are we presuming that parents and the populace at large are going to be content that our schools are supporting “great teachers” based on their test score results at the same time that schools are actually firing really great teachers who to teach art, music, physical education, reading, business and economics, journalism, drama, and technology because those subjects have been eliminated due to budget cuts?

Keep in mind that I completely understand that there is a wonk in an education think tank somewhere who has worked out an immaculate spreadsheet “proving” that we can fire so many thousands of teachers and be “just fine.” But based on my observations, these pundits have no idea how education cutbacks affect pre-K-12 students on the ground.

Here’s how education cutbacks really work to undermine learning opportunities for our children: When schools are told that they need to cut by X percent, they can’t just lop X percent across the board. The costs of transportation continue to go up. Heating and cooling school buildings and keeping them maintained costs more every year. So what gets cut are personnel costs, namely, teachers.

Furthermore, schools facing across the board cuts of X percent can’t just eliminate a faculty position in a particular grade level. That would be unfair to all the kids in that grade. So what administrators tend to do is eliminate a whole program that applies across all grade levels — such as reading instruction or art.

Things would be much worse if there hadn’t been some investment from the Federal government. As the report notes, school districts in many states, such as North Carolina and Florida, saved thousands of teacher jobs this year with stimulus — or “EduJobs” — funds that were pushed through by the Obama administration. But those funds are going away.

So here’s the bottom line: While Congressional leaders dither about how to saddle school districts with more costs associated with identifying “great teachers,” the learning opportunities for our children are being severely eroded by huge cuts that states are making to teacher jobs. To help rectify this, Congress must pass the increased funding for teacher jobs that the Obama administration has called for. And it has to happen now.

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