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High-Risk School Reform

Dec 17, 2013

Not until reformers ask why teachers leave the profession in droves will we accurately diagnose the problem

Article was taken from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By David Morris

In case auld acquaintance be forgot, “A Nation at Risk,” the landmark Reagan commission report on America’s public schools that augured “a rising tide of mediocrity,” turned an unhappy 30 this year.

By all accounts, the three decades since the warning was sounded have done little to allay fears that we’re headed for flood stage should the status quo persist.

Practically beyond debate is the contention that public schools need reforming. Under the banner of “accountability,” a glittering generality usually digested whole, the reformers have mobilized widespread support for Big Ed’s holy trinity: standards, testing and teacher evaluations.

Enter Common Core, a seemingly sensible antidote to the inconsistencies of our fragmented and, as we’re reminded regularly following international test score releases, middling educational system. Anchoring the many metrics of the new age of assessment, Common Core delineates grade-level skills its creators and adopters believe students should master.

On the face of it, the logic is simple — standardize rigor, test for proficiency and evaluate teachers accordingly — so simple that it calls to mind H.L. Mencken’s quip that “there is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong.”

Leave aside a lengthy detailing of the logistical weight that a burgeoning bureaucratic presence lowers onto teachers’ and school administrators’ shoulders. Though the intentions of reform may be noble, the stifling ways in which it is implemented threaten to further deflate an already debilitated morale. I take my lumps from friends for having summers off, but the irony of my job is that there is less and less time to do the important work.

One indication of imprudent reform is that individuals who don’t teach largely drive the national dialog on education. A few of the influential reformers taught a few years a few decades ago — stints sufficient to earn promotion from classrooms to committees. Many of the rest never dreamt of settling for so low a ceiling on prestige as a school-teaching career affords.

Of course, solutions to field-specific problems need not come from practitioners. And with an institution as central to the culture as education, everyone is a stakeholder deserving of a voice.

Yet turn an ear to what’s not said at your local school’s next open house and you’ll sense that the pitch is off. So urgent is the roar of reform it skews teachers’ worries.

Less troubling is the ungraded pile of research papers than the thought that a chronically absent student’s low test scores will factor into a professional evaluation. Not nearly as daunting is a roomful of Sweat-hogs as is a binder full of domain rubrics authorized by a distant state bureaucracy. No angry parent can unnerve a teacher quite so ably as a likely presidential hopeful who denounces his state’s 200 lowest-performing schools as “failure factories.”

Mediocrity, let alone failure, must never be acceptable, but neither must ignorance of its causes.

Though it is a self-evident and fundamental truth to every public school teacher, it nevertheless needs pronouncing that education exists downstream of culture. Where the culture is reasonably healthy, we find reasonably healthy schools. Communities blighted with crime, high rates of single parenthood and severe unemployment almost predictably give rise to our most troubled schools.

The same may be said at the level of family, where student success time and again follows from supportive, stable and academically focused homes.

True, Hollywood has struck gold with tales of extraordinary teachers who countervail the handicaps of their students’ troubled backgrounds. Equally true is the indictment that low-quality teachers carry on in schools across the gamut, ascending the salary scale at the same rate as their peers though their students languish.

It is a testament to the competence and devotion of the better part of our country’s teaching corps that, of the 1,001 adult respondents to the 2013 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, over 70 percent graded their local schools an ‘A’ or ‘B’ — the highest score in the poll’s 45-year history.

But in general the fact remains: As the culture goes, so go its students. The real reform that needs undertaking will require far greater moral courage than the champions of Common Core and Keystone Exams have grasped.

It is a barometer of the condition of American schools that nearly 50 percent of teachers leave the classroom for higher climes in their first five years. Not until the visionaries begin by examining that symptom will they ever diagnose the sickness accurately.

In the vacuum of educational theory, it makes sense to elevate standards and gauge teacher competency according to measurable student progress. But actual schools contend with variables beyond their control, yet integral to achievement. We risk demoralizing an institution by measuring it in the absence of such consequential factors.

Regardless, the reformers are on the march. No problem for me. My AP kids show up for class prepared and attentive. Their parents wouldn’t have it any other way.

David Morris teaches English at North Allegheny Senior High School in McCandless (dmorris@northallegheny.org).

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Ashley Bartko