Public education has been the cornerstone of democracy in the United States of America for more than a century. It has served as the pathway for all American citizens to the American dream of financial success and social freedom. It has been the place where we all learn to get along with one another despite different backgrounds, where hard work leads to the disintegration of socioeconomic divisions.
Today, it is facing its most serious threat: privatization.
The much-touted film “Waiting for Superman” argues that the only way to save American education is to fire teachers and principals and hand the future of our children to private education companies and charter schools.
The film distorts reality, misrepresents charter school performance, and neglects to mention the dauntingly inflated salaries of charter school leaders, who take home more than twice as much as some of the highest paid superintendents in America. It fails to explain that private education companies are profiting by using tax dollars to hire teachers at half the salaries they earn in public districts, and that a good half of those profits go to politicians’ campaign war chests.
Top education leaders such as Diane Ravitch, who served as the Deputy Secretary of Education under Presidents Reagan and George HW Bush, have already spoken about the dangers of believing the film’s claims. Once a charter school and voucher advocate herself—one of the most powerful in the nation—Ravitch has recently changed her position. In her 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, she explains that 30 years of research shows that charter schools actually do more harm than good: only 17 percent of students who move to charter schools show improved achievement, whereas 37 percent do worse. The remaining students show no change at all.
Using the simplistic business model of firing teachers and closing underperforming public schools to “fix” public education is failing in every city where it has been employed. In Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee fired hundreds of teachers and saw no improvement. A University of Chicago study conducted over the past 20 years has shown that neither site-based school management nor the implementation of charter schools improved academic achievement in Chicago. And don’t ask me to even go into New York City’s debacle, where students and their families gather nervously hoping against hope that they will be lucky in lotteries that determine whether they will be in “good” or “poor” schools (based on test scores, of course) and thousands of them go home disappointed, believing they will now have no chance of success.
However, more sophisticated business models that have been proven to work in America’s most successful corporations can lead to school district reform that works.
Eighteen years ago, Dr. Gerald W. Kohn, prior superintendent in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was one of four superintendents of top-achieving school districts in Massachusetts invited to participate in a program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Business. He worked with Professor Peter Senge and others to identify best business models that were critical in leading to their districts’ success. These superintendents discovered the common denominator—district leadership that operated like the best corporate management in America.
Just as on-going training of highly valued employees leads to business success, developing the professional capacity of teachers is the number one strategy of improving students’ academic performance. Teachers who are valued and provided the supports they need become highly motivated professionals who are invested in the overall success of a district. It is they who transform schools.
Furthermore, Americans are evaluating schools using the wrong methods. Standardized tests measure students’ ability to perform basic skills, not their level of preparation for success in the 21 Century—skills like critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, oral and written communication, and information analysis.
Standardized test results are not predictive of future success in college or beyond. Plus, they correlate to nothing except the family income of students. On average, the children of middle to high income families achieve high test scores, whereas low income families’ children score much lower. Why? Many reasons, with a powerful one being that lower income students arrive at kindergarten already behind in vocabulary and social skills, and even with good (and expensive) intervention, never truly catch up.
For these children, high-quality preschool is essential.
Dr. Kohn and his team implemented a model in Harrisburg, and it was working. Of course, these programs require extra funding, but the funding is out there. Pennsylvania and many other states offer grants for PreK. And if Congress has any sense (oh, dear, big if), they’ll make federal monies available for it, too. Research shows that every dollar invested in preschool results in $10 of savings later in juvenile justice and many other areas. Successful students become good citizens who pay taxes and contribute to their communities.
In addition, dear PA Governor Corbett, PA Senator Piccola, and all the rest of you voucher proponents, good try, but vouchers don’t work. Economically disadvantaged minority students are not served well by suburban, middle-class districts. Their scores lag well behind those of similar students taught by well-trained teachers in urban schools like Harrisburg.
Like in business, in education, real sustainable reform and improvements take time. We must appoint good leadership, allow them to do the work they’re trained to do, develop teachers’ capacity, give them the supports they need, and be patient.
Remember the original “Superman,” and the naive kids who received Superman capes and believed the cape gave them superpowers? Naive, right? Even dumb? I mean, you wouldn’t jump out a second story window in a cape, believing you could fly, now, would you?
Believing that a quick fix like private education programs, vouchers, or charter schools will cure America’s education ills and inequities is just as much a fantasy as is the power of a costume. And if we buy into the propaganda, we’re going to be in a horror film of our own–soon coming to your neighborhood, too.
Dr. Gerald W. Kohn contributed to this piece.