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Thank you Paul Farhi and The Washington Post—-
In the May 22, 2011, Outlook Section of The Washington Post contained a column titled “5 Myths about fixing America’s Schools” by Paul Farhi that is one of the few articles in the mainstream press to focus accurately on public education in the United States. At the Learning First Alliance (LFA), we are well aware that all of us at the local, state, and national level need to be vigilant in our efforts to improve the public school experience for all our students, especially those who live in poverty and/or have physical or emotional disabilities.
And, at no time do any of the members of LFA suggest that we should do away with achievement testing; however, based on the depth and length of experience working in and with local public schools, the education leadership of the 17 member organizations of LFA know that easy answers, proposed quick fixes, and punitive use of standardized test data contribute nothing to sustained school improvement. A look at the five myths detailed by Mr. Farhi makes the case for a constructive conversation that is built on the truth around the work we do:
• Myth #1: Our schools are failing.
What we know is that we have a serious equity issue with US public schools. In areas where communities are affluent and community members value education, the public system is quite good. Such is not the case in poor communities without supportive infrastructure. However, even with the equity challenges, the percentage of American’s earning a high school diploma has risen steadily for 30 years and the percentage of 16-to-24 year olds who were not enrolled in school and hadn’t earned a diploma or its equivalent fell to 8 percent in 2008.
• Myth #2: Unions defend bad teachers.
What unions advocate is intervention and support for weak teachers and due process for those who are deemed ineffective. Successful districts across the country have strong, collaborative relationships between administration and teacher unions. Mr. Farhi cites the example of Montgomery County, MD to make his point, but others exist around the US. In examining strong school systems internationally, all the top performing countries have strong teacher unions.
• Myth #3: Billionaires know best.
Gates, Broad, Zuckerberg and others have been strong advocates for merit pay to reward strong teachers. Like most of us these well-heeled, successful men self-refer and assume that what motivates them and their corporate executive colleagues to peak performance is true for everyone. However, research has shown that students do no better with teachers eligible for merit pay, and most professional educators are motivated by different things, though most would favor better working conditions and more options for career growth, not to mention general respect for their work.
• Myth #4: Charter schools are the answer.
The original idea around charter schools was to create learning laboratories exempt from the policies and rules under which the public schools are compelled to operate, so we could learn how to make public schools better. Instead, charter schools, serving 3 percent of our public school population, have been positioned to compete for scant public resources with the school districts in which they sit. Knowledge transfer, from charter schools that succeed (and many don’t) has rarely taken place. However, the biggest argument against investment in charter schools is that they’re not scalable. To truly learn from the lessons of charters, robust partnership with the traditional public schools must be created and cumbersome policies and practices under which the traditional schools operate need to be changed or dropped to incorporate the learning from the charter partner….and vice versa.
• Myth #5: More effective teachers are the answer.
Of course, we all want effective professional educators in our public schools. Not just teachers….superintendents, principals, counselors, curriculum specialists…all make important contributions to successful public schools. However, schools and the professionals in them can’t do it alone. Family and community support for all children is crucial to a successful school experience for all students in the system. As Mr. Farhi states in his closing remarks, “So let’s seek to improve the state of families. Attacking schools and teachers makes everyone feel like a reformer, but the problems begin long before a child steps through the schoolhouse door.”
Thank you, Mr. Farhi, and The Washington Post ……