The purpose of this blog is to know and understand the teacher's perspective concerning current issues on education reform and the teaching profession. Inputs from the ones who probably knows what is best for students academically -- the teachers -- are rarely considered in decision making of policies. Yet, these so-called education experts and lawmakers dictate how we do our jobs and what we should teach. That's not right!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Competitive Advantage: Is Student Learning a Product?

The super-hyped educational documentary, Waiting for Superman, has finally reach the Atlanta area since last Friday. While I haven't seen it yet, I do plan to sometimes this week. Nevertheless, with its overkilled buzz,  the movie has intensified an already heated national debate on education reform...and there are two sides: The "so-called" experts who wants to take a more business-like approach to schooling and the "underrated" experts -- teachers and teachers' unions -- who are being scapegoated and viewed as the villains. The so-called experts are currently winning the battle due to their influence on public perception, their advantageous ploy on public ignorance, and their convincing propaganda tactics. However, the underrated experts are fighting back; but can they win? Only time will tell.

Over a month ago, I posted a blog entry on The Blueberry Story. It was an anecdotal story, told by a staunch businessman who is now an education advocate, of how schools and businesses differ and why schools should operate differently from a business. While schools can indeed learn a thing or two from corporate America, they are not businesses. However, many organizations are using schools as breeding grounds for human capital. Unfortunately, schools are being forced to sell out their souls to gain additional support and funding from these same companies. The sad reality is we can't blame schools for doing this; corporations have become powerful and influential in all aspects of American way of life. In fact, corporate America has supported the business model to schooling and are backing most so-called experts.

So how do the so-called experts and corporate America view student learning?

Using a familiar quote from the movie, Dreamgirls (2006)

May (Deena's mothers): I'm amazed, Mr. Taylor. As much as I love my daughter, I never thought she had much of a voice.
Curtis (Deena's boss): Oh, Deena has something better. She has a...quality.
May: You make her sound like a product.
Curtis: A product. I like that!

Since when student learning became a product? This is exactly how the so-called experts viewed student a product!

Using a familiar quote from another movie, American Gangster (2007)

Frank Lucas: "...that's a brand name, like Pepsi... I stand behind it, I guarantee it. They know that even if they don't know me any more than they know the chairman of General Mills."

How can one market student learning when the process is highly individualized? Is offering individualized student learning then a product? How would "this product" be accessible to the masses? Can it be? Will it be? Whoa! It's supplying differentiated instruction! It's providing the least restrictive environment for students with disabilities! It's offering co-teaching! That's it! But wait! Aren't public schools doing them already? Well, what's the problem?

The so-called and underrated experts both agree that our public schools need to improve in better preparing our children for the future. They differ in how and what aspect of the future to focus on; concerning the latter, schools focus on the students' well-beings while businesses' ultimate focus is the bottom line -- making profits. While my views are biased toward the underrated experts, since I was formerly a part of that number, both experts have valid points and flaws. Nevertheless, while the underrated experts have a more direct experience in working with children, their perspectives are often ignored and ridiculed. However, the so-called experts have limited experiences in working with children, yet they have powerful allies and a strong publicity machine that are pushing their messages more effectively. Who will benefit from their efforts the most...the students or corporate America? Let's see...

The so-called experts are pushing for the following:
  • More charter schools -- Based on several studies, like those conducted by USDOE/Mathematica Policy Research (2010) and Stanford's Center for Research on Educational Outcomes [CREDO] (2009), the effectiveness of charter schools are generally mixed to negative findings in comparison to their traditional public school counterparts. Yet, the so-called experts praise them and support the development and investments of more public schools.
  • Test-based teacher evaluations -- In late August, there was an extensive research study, done by a group of well-respected educational researchers, released focusing on the effectiveness of test-based teacher evaluation. As previously noted in an earlier blog entry, this study overwhelmingly discouraged the use of such evaluation tool. Unfortunately, these REAL experts are advocating against what the so-called experts wants.
  • Elimination of teacher tenure -- Personally, I am for a more difficult access to tenured status for new teachers as well as periodic re-evaluation for tenured status for veteran teachers. Nevertheless, like the underrated experts, I am totally against removing teacher tenure. In addition to the public misconception of what teacher tenure is, the so-called experts not only want a very narrow means of evaluating teachers, but also an "easier" way of removing any teachers who fall short, even when the teachers are dealing with elements that are beyond their control. While they are firing "bad" teachers, they may inadvertently be firing good and effective ones too. The tenure process needs to be fixed, not eliminated; in my opinion, the 2009 study on teacher tenure by the Center for American Progress gives a balanced assessment in doing just that.
  • Merit pay for teachers -- A few weeks ago, a new study on pay-for-performance for teachers conducted by Vanderbilt University's National Center of Performance Incentive was released and is considered to be the first national scientifically rigorous study on merit pay for teacher. The study convincingly showed that teacher bonus pay doesn't improve test scores. In addition, earlier this summer, another study on the merit pay for teachers by Mathematica Policy Research concluded there was no evidence showing incentive pay for teachers improved student test scores or teacher retention. Yet, again, the so-called experts are pushing for this as well.

The effectiveness of every one of these efforts have been questioned and/or disproved by research studies. Yet, the so-called experts are preying on the public ignorance to shape these reform measures as the only viable hope in saving our schools. As the REAL experts, the underrated experts, and I have alluded to the complexity of student learning, while teacher quality and available school resources are critical component of student achievement, there are other factors that can greatly influence student learning that cannot be ignored or downplayed. Nonetheless, the fight to help the public understand this will be tough and dirty at best.

From The Bluberry Story,

Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap…. I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.

“I send them back.”
"That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”
In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries!

America public schools educate everyone! Charter schools may not! Pushing for test-based teaching evaluations, removing tenure protection from teachers, and endorsing teacher merit pay will make the teaching profession more unattractive, especially since we are still dealing with extensive teacher shortage and teacher layoffs. But, to the so-called experts, these don't matter. As long as they can offer parents and the public options and accountability for results while tying it all to funding.  So, I guess the old adage, the best ____ that money can buy, can be applied to education reform  as well. But for whose benefit? Surely, not the students!

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