Posted in Article Medleys, poverty, Public Ed, RightWing

2017 Medley #24: “Government Schools”

The War Against ‘Government Schools’,
The Myth of Failing Schools


The War Against America’s Public Schools by Gerald Bracey, published 2001. The war continues…

What the ‘Government Schools’ Critics Really Mean

In a New York Times op ed, Katherine Stewart reminds us that the phrase “government schools” carries a negative connotation. She then goes on to connect the phrase to radical market guru Milton Friedman, and before him, Jim Crow.

…in certain conservative circles, the phrase “government schools” has become as ubiquitous as it is contemptuous.

What most people probably hear in this is the unmistakable refrain of American libertarianism, for which all government is big and bad. The point of calling public schools “government schools” is to conjure the specter of pathologically inefficient, power-mad bureaucrats.

To Defend Public Schools, the Hard Left Puts On the Tin Foil Hat

David French, writing in the conservative National Review, responds to Stewart’s article and says that the right calls public schools “government schools” because that’s what they are.

Public schools are government schools…Too many Americans are stuck in a time warp, believing that the local school is somehow “their” school. They don’t understand that public education is increasingly centralized — teaching a uniform curriculum, teaching a particular, secular set of values, and following priorities set in Washington, not by their local school board. The phrase is helpful for breaking through idealism and getting parents to analyze and understand the gritty reality of modern public education. The phrase works.

Technically, French is correct. Public schools, like any public service, is, by definition, a branch of the “government.” That’s why governments at most levels have departments of education. That’s why school boards are (or should be) elected. That’s why teachers can’t engage in religious proselytization while they are working and are “agents” of the government.

But it’s the negative connotation Stewart wrote of that French promotes in his condescending attempt to support the privatization of public education. While disingenuously claiming that public schools are indeed government schools so the name doesn’t mean anything negative, he goes on to use the phrase negatively. He claims that, since public school supporters can’t defend the “failing” public schools, we take to name-calling to support our argument.

Even worse for the government-school loyalist, the fight takes place on unfavorable ground. Public schools are failing large segments of the public. They’ve been failing for decades. So rather than defend public schooling on its meager merits, all too many ideologues fall back on the old insults. “Racist!” they cry. “Theocrat!” they yell.

What could be more democratic than choice, he claims, falling back on the old argument that poor children ought to have the same “choices” that wealthy children have…without noting that…

  • It is often the schools which do the choosing while feeling perfectly comfortable in denying “choice” to students who are difficult or expensive to teach.

Ignoring these facts he begs us not to deny private school excellence over public school failure.

…Spend much time with America’s wealthier families, and it’s not uncommon to see parents with three kids in three different schools. They made choices based on each child’s unique needs. They give their children the best possible chance to succeed. Why deny these choices to poor kids? Should we punish them for their parents’ economic performance? Faced with the difficult task of defending a failing system and limiting parental choice, all too many defenders of government schools fall back on name-calling, conspiracy theories, and their own anti-Christian bigotries. But they can cite Rushdoony all they want. It doesn’t make him relevant. It doesn’t make public schools better. And it certainly doesn’t invalidate the good and decent effort to use greater competition to improve education for everyone — white and black alike.

Three kids in three different schools? What poor family would have the transportation resources for this situation, unless French wants vouchers to cover the cost of taxis, time off work to transport children, or extra cars for kids to transport themselves. Why not? Should we punish those children “for their parents’ economic performance?”

Are public schools failing “large segments of the public?” Public schools struggle to effectively educate the shamefully high number of high-poverty students in America because they don’t have the money or resources to support them in the way they need to be supported. There aren’t enough counselors, nurses, and social workers in high-poverty schools. There aren’t enough librarians, books or materials. There isn’t enough science equipment. There aren’t enough learning specialists. School buildings are in disrepair. And the budget proposed by the current administration in Washington will guarantee that there won’t be enough after school programs. [For a good discussion of the needs of public school students see The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve: Research-based Proposals To Strengthen Elementary And Secondary Education In The Chicago Public Schools by the Chicago Teachers Union.]

Public school advocates are not “faced with the difficult task of defending a failing system.” Instead we’re faced with the difficult task of responding to the misinformation, deflections, and lies coming from privatizers who deny that poverty has anything to do with low school achievement and that it’s the politicians and policy makers who have failed to fully support public education. Policy makers ought to be held responsible by their constituents to provide full public school funding based on the needs of the community. Policy makers ought to be held responsible for relieving the pressures of our society’s economic inequality, rather than blaming the victims who are relegated to understaffed, and under-resourced institutions.

And we’re not faced with the task of defending a failing system. America’s public schools are not failing.

Public schools, when statistics are corrected for demographics, perform better than private schools. The University of Chicago Press reviewers of The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, write,

Private schools have higher scores not because they are better institutions but because their students largely come from more privileged backgrounds that offer greater educational support. After correcting for demographics, the Lubienskis go on to show that gains in student achievement at public schools are at least as great and often greater than those at private ones. Even more surprising, they show that the very mechanism that market-based reformers champion—autonomy—may be the crucial factor that prevents private schools from performing better. Alternatively, those practices that these reformers castigate, such as teacher certification and professional reforms of curriculum and instruction, turn out to have a significant effect on school improvement.

Instead of accusing public school advocates of “anti-Christian” bigotry because we refuse to approve of mixing public tax dollars with religious school education, French ought to get his facts straight.

The Right Wing in America Has Long Tried to Destroy ‘Government Schools’

Another discussion of the “government schools” phrase. The people who are working to privatize public education hate government, and because public schools are government sponsored public services, they hate public education, too. This isn’t new.

Do they also hate public libraries? public parks? and public water systems? Do they hate the government run military?

…these people are working with a completely different ethical system than the rest of us and a different philosophy, but it’s a coherent one and they are pursuing their goals with very strategic, calculating tools.” That’s also why the right is so focused on the teachers’ unions. It’s not because they are only concerned about the quality of education and think that teachers are blocking that. First of all, this is a cause that hated public education—what they would call government schools; they don’t even want to say public education—before there were teachers’ unions.


Challenging the myth that public schools are failing is one of the greatest obstacles facing public school advocates. Some selected responses to that myth…

What the numbers really tell us about America’s public schools

What I have suggested for ameliorating the low performance of low-income children, on all our assessments, are characteristics of schooling and the provision of health and other supports for children now present in wealthier communities. Perhaps, then, we should rely on John Dewey to help low-income students succeed, instead of putting our faith in vouchers, charters, test preparation, teacher accountability and the like. To paraphrase just a little, Dewey said:

“What the best and wisest … parents want for their children, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

The Myth Behind Public School Failure

In the rush to privatize the country’s schools, corporations and politicians have decimated school budgets, replaced teaching with standardized testing, and placed the blame on teachers and students.

U.S. Public Schools Are NOT Failing. They’re Among the Best in the World

…why do we believe that American public schools are doing such a terrible job?

Because far right policymakers have convinced us all that it’s true.

It’s not.

Let me repeat that in no uncertain terms – America’s public schools are NOT failing. They are among the best in the world. Really!

The Myth of America’s Failing Public Schools

The problem that DeVos and others don’t understand, or just simply ignore, is poverty. American public schools accept everyone and test everyone. Not all countries do that. We don’t weed out our poor and low-achieving students as they get older, so everyone gets tested…

The fact is that students who come from backgrounds of poverty don’t achieve as well as students from wealthier backgrounds. And we, in the U.S. are (nearly) Number One in child poverty.

The Myth of Public School Failure

But when schools are doing better than ever before, the best way to encourage continued improvement is not a concerted attack on school governance and organization. A more effective approach would be praise for accomplishment, provision of additional resources to programs whose results justify support, and reforms on the margin to correct programs and curricula shown to be ineffective. 

Posted in ADHD, Article Medleys, Equity, Public Ed, reform, RightWing, RtI, scripted teaching, VirtualSchools

2016 Medley #17

Equity, Corporate Reform, Failure, Charters, ADHD, the War on Public Education, Community Schools, RtI


Chris Christie Punches Poor School Children in the Face

In the last session of the Indiana General Assembly the state’s legislators decided to provide more money to wealthy districts and less money to poor districts. Now, New Jersey’s Chris Christie has done the same. It’s what Republican “reformist” policy makers do.

Rick Riordan wrote in his young adult novel The Red Pyramid, “Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.” That, in a nutshell, is the difference between equality and equity. With equality every school gets the same. With equity every school gets what it needs. As long as our policy makers are unable, or unwilling, to deal with the massive level of child poverty in the country, our schools, and all our public services for children, need to focus on equity.

It is, of course, clear that impoverished urban areas need more money to provide a decent education to children hobbled by the impact of poverty, poor nutrition, poor health care, high crime rates and unemployment. Recognition of this is what made New Jersey a national leader in providing extra resources to urban schools through the Abbott decisions of three decades ago. Christie says that the urban schools are getting the extra money, but are under-performing. He should know since for the last six years many of those districts have been under his control and he has failed at every turn to make improvements…

Christie’s one-size-fits-all plan for taxation does not meet our most basic understandings of fairness and justice.


Going Off the Rails

Corporate education “reform” is a train wreck failure. “Failing” schools closed throughout the country have been replaced with other schools that, based on “reformers'” favorite metric, test scores, were “failures.”

No matter how hard you work, malnourished and traumatized children will not score as high on standardized tests as children of the wealthy. No matter how well trained the teacher is, children who lack medical and dental care will not learn as well. No matter how much you threaten, teachers alone cannot overcome all the deleterious effects of poverty, segregation, and racism.

How long will we keep feeding fuel to a train wreck?

At what point after a locomotive crashes should the engineer and fireman stop shoveling coal?

I would think the first priorities in the above scenario would be to clean up the wreckage, investigate the cause of the crash, and then work to correct the reasons why the train went off the tracks in the first place.

That’s if you believe train wrecks are generally something to be avoided.

Therefore, adding more fuel to the flame by continuing to shovel coal into a broken train engine would be rather idiotic, right?


The Failure of Failure

Alfie Kohn reminds us that progressive education works better than canned programs and “teacher–proof” scripts.

A few years ago, two researchers in Singapore published a study that compared the effect of traditional and progressive instruction in middle-school math. The traditional approach consisted of having students listen to lectures and individually solve practice problems with clearly defined right answers. The progressive approach was defined by collaboration, discovery, and open-ended questions.

If you’re surprised to learn that the latter turned out to be much more effective — producing “deeper conceptual understanding without compromising performance [on conventional measures of achievement]” across “a spectrum of. . .ability levels” — well, chances are you haven’t been following the research in this area. It’s long been clear that direct instruction and other traditional practices aren’t very effective in general and are particularly counterproductive with younger children.


A Call to Action to Improve the Quality of Full-Time Virtual Charter Public Schools

Virtual (online) charter schools are so bad even charter school advocacy groups admit it.

This report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers reinforces the fact that virtual charter schools are failures. Their solution? Have the public pay to continue the failed experiment through continued funding of such schools. Let the profit continue while the privatizers try to fix things.

The well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual charter public schools should serve as a call to action to state leaders and authorizers across the country.

It is time for state leaders to make the tough policy changes necessary to ensure that this model works more effectively than it currently does for the students it serves.

It is also time for authorizers to close chronically low-performing virtual charter schools.

Our organizations plan to work actively with state leaders and authorizers as they embark on these efforts.


When ADHD Collides With Grit: What to Do?

I grew up with untreated “minimal brain dysfunction” (the name for ADHD in the 50s and 60s)…and struggled as a student. I kept hearing “you’re just lazy,” “you need to try harder,” and “you give up too easily.” Year after year (decade after decade) of the same negative messages has a tendency to damage one’s confidence (to say the least). It’s still something I struggle with daily half a century later!

Demanding “grit” in students with ADHD is contraindicated. The one size fits all mentality (aka ‘learn or be punished’) damages our most vulnerable students and denies them of their right to an appropriate education.

…is today’s grit more punitive than helpful? Is it just an excuse to browbeat students into accomplishing unproven school agendas, or to insist that they put up with the lousy conditions adults fail to fix?

Think about the loss of recess. Is that supposed to teach grit?

In special education the goal for students with ADHD, or other differences, has always been about helping students find what they do best.


Why the right hates American history

In light of Oklahoma’s recent attack on AP History, it would be easy to argue that today’s Republicans don’t recognize the value of a good education. However, the reality is that they do, and that the spreading attack on public education is far more sinister.

When the Patriot Act was signed, Bush and his ilk claimed the power to violate citizens’ private lives because, they said, there is no “right to privacy” in the United States. In that, they – perhaps purposefully – overlooked the history of America and the Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776. And they missed a basic understanding of the evolution of language in the United States.

Of course, they weren’t the first to have made these mistakes. And, the Conservatives waging today’s war on education hope that they won’t be the last.


A Community Is More of a Community When It Has a School

Public schools provide an anchor for communities. They provide stability for children…something lacking when “failing” schools – i.e. schools in poor communities – are closed and replaced by charters which don’t do any better.

Local schools are important for both urban and rural communities. “Churn” and disruption might be good for business, but it doesn’t help children.

…while a community school reflects and preserves the strengths of its community, it also reflects the problems and weaknesses as well. But I also know, and have seen with my own eyes, that a community is more of a community when it has a school, a place where all members of that community come together to care for and nurture one of their most precious resources—their children. In a democratic society, that has to count for something.


Response to Intervention Falls Short

I was talking to a former colleague last week – a special education teacher – about Response to Intervention (RtI) and how it isn’t working. We agreed that it seemed to be a way of keeping children from getting the special educational services they deserved – saving the school system money.

Many schools and school systems adopted RtI plans because money needed to fully support special education services was inadequate – public schools are still waiting for promised federal support. There are just too many kids who need help, and not enough special education teachers – as well as not enough money to pay special education teachers – to go around.

If we, as a nation, actually cared about our children (as opposed to “my children“) we would make sure that extra help was provided when needed. Instead we dump the impossible task of fulfilling every classroom need on overworked and under–supported classroom teachers…and then blame them when it doesn’t work.

A US Department of Education study evaluated RtI and found that there was little research basis for using it as a method of helping students. In fact, the report reports that RtI was worse than ineffective. It actually made things worse for some students.

…this study examined over 20,000 students in 13 states and found that first grade students who received RTI actually performed worse than a similar peer group that did not. Instead of catching up to grade level, the students receiving RTI lost the equivalent of one-tenth of a school year. To quote one of the study’s authors: “[T]his turns out to be what RTI looks like when it plays out in daily life.”