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Madeloni/My Turn: Reboot public education

August 11, 2013

August 11, 2013

When I became an English teacher in middle-age, it was because I saw public education as the space to grow the democratic project; because I wanted to introduce young people to the imaginative world of literature and its capacity to grow empathy, creativity, critical thinking and a sense of life’s possibilities; and because as an educator, I would be supporting young people as they developed the ability to listen, speak, write and engage others within a spirit of good will and shared commitment to community.

In my 15 years as an educator, in the high school English classroom and in teacher education at the university, the opportunities to teach to these hopes have been severely diminished. The world of public education has been infected by ideas about teaching, learning and the purpose of education that reduce students to data, teachers to technicians and schools to spaces all but devoid of the uncertainty and magic that are essential ingredients of learning.

How did we get here? We have been subject to very effective disinformation. In the 1980s, the Business Roundtable, with the publication of the later discredited “A Nation at Risk,” began a campaign that claimed that our public schools were failing, that teachers and their unions were to blame, and that test scores should be used to evaluate the impact of schools and teachers. Further, when schools, teachers and students did not measure up, they would be subject to punitive measures: school takeovers, mass firing and failure to graduate.

This became federal policy under Bush II through No Child Left Behind, and grew exponentially under Obama’s Race to the Top, which strong-armed financially desperate schools into accepting teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, lifting the cap on charters and brought in the threat of destabilizing school turnaround plans like that we are seeing right now in New Bedford, where the “turnaround plan” requires all teachers to re-apply for their jobs and only 50 percent to be rehired.

It is essential that we understand how profoundly this campaign has changed the landscape of teaching and learning, has altered the school experiences young people have each day and has limited our ability to address the real needs of children and the potential of public education to grow our democracy. I invite readers to take a few minutes to recall their own school experiences, the ones that had the most positive impact. Was it a concert you performed in? A poem you wrote that the teacher asked you to read out loud? The time you figured out how to fit a pipe properly? A science experiment that left you with more questions than answers? Or was it a test score posted on a data wall in your classroom? Did your teacher inspire you by knowing about your life, your dreams and hopes or by knowing your score on a standardized test?

Parents, students and teachers understand that what we do in school is so much more than a test score. We understand that students grow at different rates, that strengths and interests emerge at different times, that development in school is about the whole child and not a test score, a standard or “college and career readiness.”

Still, we find ourselves in meetings where the conversation is all about “data driven” instruction; and we read newspaper articles that rate schools and teachers based on testing and busy-making teacher evaluations. When we are talking about these accountability measures we are not talking about two more important issues.

First, we are not talking about schools as places of growth, engagement, human relationships, democracy and creativity. Second, we are not talking about the real needs of children, families and communities. Here in Greenfield, where 58 percent of the students are low income and receive free and reduced lunch, why talk test scores instead of growing economic inequality?

It is well past time that we interrupt the conversations about data and standards to ask some critical questions. What is the purpose of public education in a democratic society? How do the schools we construct impact the world we make? What do we, in our hearts, want for young people; for a life of meaning and happiness?

It is well past time we address the devastating impact of poverty, joblessness, racism and instability on our students and our communities. There is a peculiar emotional violence in denying the real struggles our students and communities face while telling them to buck up and focus on a test. It is time for teachers and our unions, parents, students, and community organizations to fight together for economic and racial justice. It is time to refuse policies based on dehumanizing data, mistrust and punishment, and to work toward schools and communities based on trust, empathy and the democratic ideal.

Barbara Madeloni is a former high school English teacher and now a teacher educator. A national voice in the fight against corporate education reform, she is now running for president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

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