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It’s taken as an article of faith that our schools are in a crisis, and teachers are to blame. Why can’t Johnny read? Because Miss Crabtree doesn’t give a rip about Johnny. And her union says she doesn’t have to.
Or so goes the conventional wisdom.
But there’s something happening in Seattle that proves the “wisdom” wrong. Teachers at two high schools there voted to boycott the Measures of Academic Progress, or “MAP” test. This standardized test is given three times a year, diverting time and resources from classroom teaching. The teachers don’t like it because they’d rather teach the curriculum they were hired to teach, instead of handing out a test that doesn’t gauge students’ mastery of that curriculum.
It’s all part of the “accountability” craze, the constant push to test and measure learning, which theoretically is not a bad thing. Advocates point to countries like Finland and South Korea, which routinely sit atop international ranking for student achievement, and say we could do that, if only we held teachers accountable.
But in practice, it is horribly flawed. How do you quantify analytical assessment, critical thinking, creativity, and ethics, all important parts of a well-rounded education? Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic are important, to be sure, but they hardly suffice to make an aware, engaged citizen.
That’s not really a concern for Northwest Evaluation Association, the private, for-profit firm that administers the MAP test. It turned a hefty profit of $287 million in 2011, and dropped $35 million of that to acquire two other testing companies. And they’re fairly minor player in the $1.3 billion testing industry.
Which is cause enough to make one wonder, is the push for accountability motivated more by profit rather than pupils?
When it comes to making money, it’s instructive to listen to those who have a lot of it. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch says education is “a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.” That’s why he spent $360 for Wireless Generation, a company that, the Wall Street Journal says, makes “software and other tools to help schools evaluate and monitor student performance and devise instruction accordingly.”
It’s also why his 20th Century Fox studio distributed Won’t Back Down, a fictional account of parents and teachers taking over a Pittsburgh school through a “trigger” law. These laws, spread by the pro-corporate, anti-union American Legislative Exchange Council—of which News Corp. was a member—allow parents to seize control of a school by a simple vote, bust the teachers union, and turn it into a “charter” school, like the ones lionized in the award-winning documentary Waiting for Superman. They’re run by private companies, usually for-profit, and paid for by public funds.
If you missed Won’t Back Down, don’t feel bad. It took a bath at the box office. Ticket sales were so bad that Regal Cinemas, owned by Walden Media, which also produced the film, actually offered 2-for-1 specials. Walden also produced Waiting for Superman. And it owns an educational materials company, too.
Think that’s a coincidence?
When you’re looking to grab a fistful of a half-trillion-dollar booty, an easy way to get it is to build a propaganda machine to beat it like a piñata until it cracks open and rains cash down upon you. So teachers become “glorified babysitters,” and their collective bargaining representatives are “union thugs.” And as Won’t Back Down and Waiting for Superman taught us, the best way to solve these problems is to crush unions and privatize schools.
(What we didn’t learn from these films is that a Stanford University study found that 83 percent of charter schools are no better, and nearly half of those are worse, than their public school peers.)
But unions are taking an active role in reforming education, promoting new procedures that make it easier to weed out bad teachers, provided the judgments are valid and administered fairly. As one union leader told the New Jersey Star-Ledger’s Tom Moran, “The teachers who come in early and stay late, and take the job seriously, are offended by the teachers who don’t.”
Perhaps instead of smearing teachers to improve students’ performance, we should follow the top-performing countries’ example. In Finland and South Korea, teachers are recruited, trained, paid, and regarded as professionals. And they’re unionized.
Better pay, greater respect, stronger unions, and better results? Sounds like a great plan. But unless corporations can make a buck off it, not much chance it’ll happen.