By KAY MATTHEWS
I recently sat down with a teacher from Santa Fe High who is taking early retirement because, in the immortal words of Peter Finch in Network, she is “mad as hell” and “can’t take it anymore.”
What this teacher—one of my son’s favorites, smart, dedicated, fair—can’t take anymore is the bureaucratic nonsense that fills her life with unnecessary details and oversight by administrators who function as statisticians, not educators. She describes them coming into the classroom with their clip boards asking the kids, “So, what did you learn today?” and if they don’t think their answers meet some cobbled together criteria that a faceless bureaucrat devised to judge if students are learning the “right” things, she gets a bad report.
The “right” things are also measured by standardized tests, which are rigidly taught “to” by teachers whose evaluations are based on these same tests, despite differences in students’ socioeconomic situations and the many other factors that contribute to a student’s success or failure.
Nationally, people like Michelle Rhee, who runs the non-profit Students First and was formerly the chancellor of the Washington D.C. schools, are the ones pushing this educational agenda. Her tenure in D.C. was marked by top-down administrating: firing teachers and administrators without school boards’ input or approval (and without documentation); closing schools without public input; ending teacher tenure; and questionable results in improving student achievement. One of Rhee’s most vocal critics is education expert Diane Ravitch who has alleged that during Rhee’s tenure in D.C. “cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum” were the true outcomes of her tenure in D.C. schools.
Here in New Mexico our designate Secretary of Education, Hanna Skandera, appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez, is pursuing this same agenda. The “designate” remains part of her title because in the two years she’s directed that department, designate or not, the state legislature has failed to approve her appointment. Last year it never got around to scheduling a hearing. This year, the Senate Rules Committee hosted a marathon session that lasted hours and heard hundreds peoples’ testimony. Albuquerque Journal columnist Leslie Lithicum described it “going deep into a ‘House of Cards’ binge on Netflix, except that this political thriller stars our own friends and neighbors.” No vote was taken.
Not that it really makes any difference. Skandera has been running the department without the confirmation, generating great praise from the right side of the isle and much criticism from the left. Skandera previously served as California’s assistant secretary of education under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and in a similar post under Jeb Bush in Florida—all without having been a K-12 classroom teacher or principal. She has implemented a grading system for all schools as she did in Florida, on an A-F scale, again, without consideration of the socioeconomic conditions that distinguish schools.
Last February Skandera overruled the Public Education Commission’s decision to deny an online charter school to open in the fall. The school has connections to a foundation that advocates for free markets and less government and will contract with the online, for-profit company Connections Academy to run it. It will serve students from K through 12 and is expected to open with an enrollment of 500 students. Connections Academy also contributes to Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which supports school grading and virtual schooling. Concurrent with Skandera’s overruling the Commission’s decision, the non-profit In the Public Interest released thousands of e-mails between the Foundation for Excellence in Education and education policy makers in various states: many of these were between the foundation and Skandera.
Diane Ravitch has been the leading voice against these educational trends:charter schools, privatization, vouchers, standardized testing, school grading, and abolishing tenure. With the publication of her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education, in 2010, she often appears on National Public Radio, Democracy Now!, and Bill Moyers to deconstruct the Michelle Rhee and Hanna Skandera narratives. By no means deemed a radical—she served as assistant education secretary under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton—her thinking on education has evolved as she witnessed the failures of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind—and the redundant Obama program Race to the Top. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why I Changed My Mind About School Reform, she stated, “The best predictor of low academic performance is poverty—not bad teachers.”
In an interview with the American Prospect she had this to say about charter schools: “I started out being supportive of charters. Then I became agnostic on charters. Then I became skeptical of charters. And I now think that charter schools are leading us to having a dual school system again. We’re going back to the period before Brown v. Board of Education, but the differentiation in the future will be based on class instead of race.”
Ravitch is partnering with other education advocates in the group Network for Public Education to counteract the wealth of Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, who, along with groups like Michelle Rhee’s Students First, donate to individual campaigns and ballot measures that support test-based teacher evaluations and charter schools. Ravitch’s group hopes to generate a grass roots campaign to oppose them and will grade and endorse political candidates. The group supports public school curriculums that include arts, sciences, foreign languages and physical education; better financing for schools; more respect for teachers; and the “appropriate use of testing to help students and teachers, not to punish or reward students, teachers, principals, or to close schools.”
A week ago 35 former educators, principals, and test administrators were indicted in Atlanta on charges of helping students cheat on standardized tests. The tests were the key measure the state used to determine whether it met the mandates of the No Child Left Behind law and could receive extra federal dollars. All told, a 2011 state investigation found cheating by nearly 180 educators in 44 Atlanta schools. Doesn’t sound much like Ravitch’s call for the “appropriate use of testing,” does it? Instead of being punished for not increasing their standardized testing scores they may be punished by going to jail.