A Great Defense of Public Education by M.P. Goldenberg

I am reprinting part of an exchange between Michael Paul Goldenberg and a Michigan State Senator concerning a petition to ‘save great teachers’. Apparently, the goal of this petition was not really to save any teachers at all (i.e. not to prevent massive layoffs and funding cuts), but to destroy seniority and collective bargaining so that teachers could no longer organize to defend the education of their students. How clever…

The first letter is from Goldenberg.

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Dear Senator Pavlov:

I appreciate your reply. However, there is some error: I didn’t intend  to sign any petition designed to break unions and/or do away with  tenure. I fear that such is the plan in this country: destroy teachers
unions in order to deliver public schooling into the hands of  for-profit, private management companies so that those already rich  can get much richer.

Public education is, or should be, the backbone of core democratic  values. It is only through committing to free public education  not controlled by corporate interests that we can educate all citizens  as responsible, critical thinkers who consider the facts before making  decisions, and who participate in democracy rather than allowing a small  group of powerful citizens to do all the thinking for them. I see the  current war on teachers and public schools as a key battleground for  the future of democracy in this country. And the petition I  signed (apparently in error) is on the WRONG side of that fight.

I agree that we need more cooperation between teachers,  administrators, and unions to improve the quality of public schools.  But the current movement to rate schools and teachers solely by  multiple-choice test scores is either blindly ignorant of what those  tests’ serious limitations are in providing useful feedback to  teachers, students, parents, et al., or flat-out evil: a conscious  decision to ignore the facts.

Examine the policies of Finland, which is amongst the world leaders in  international tests of literacy, mathematics and science. It supports  teachers who aren’t doing a great job by providing them needed  mentoring, professional development, etc. For those teachers who don’t  improve, they offer even more help.

Yes, we should encourage teachers who clearly aren’t professionals to  find other areas of employment. And we should also reward teachers  based on a variety of criteria. But we should be starting out doing  something that few government officials in this country are prepared  to commit to: raising the national level of compensation, not taking  away benefits, salary, and bargaining rights. Of course, if we paid  teachers an appropriate salary, perhaps there’d be a lot less  need for collective bargaining. But the current structure is based on  how we have as a nation historically denigrated teachers and we reap  what we’ve sown in that regard.

If you know of a truly valid and reliable set of measures of teachers,  do let me know. But I hope it’s based on a great deal more than kids’ test  scores on vapid, multiple-choice tests. I happen to be an expert in  such tests, and you’ll need to do a lot of very serious research to  find something I don’t know about them. I can assure you that the  United States is in a very tiny minority of countries that uses them.  That’s not an accident: most countries realize how worthless they are,  unless, of course, you’re looking for a cheap, easy way to get “data”  to beat down public education.

If you’re convinced that the current system is really useful and  meaningful, here’s a challenge: you (and the rest of the members of  the Michigan legislature, state department of education, and, of  course, the governor, take the full battery of the high school tests  from the MME, including the ACT, and so will I. And we’ll publish the  scores in all the newspapers in Michigan. Is it a deal? If not, why is  it fair to publish the scores of public schools and pretend that what  we see really distinguishes which schools, principals, teachers, and,  by inference, children?

The best assessments are formative, providing specific, constructive,  non-graded, non-comparative feedback that shows students where they  are are doing well, what needs work, and how to move forward. There  is ample research to support that view. There is no valid research to  support the view that the best way to improve teacher performance or  student learning is to use  multiple-choice summative testing.

Furthermore, the current national testing craze, fueled by NCLB and  RttT, is leading us off a cliff we may not recover from for decades,  if ever. The mathematics that determines school “success” is  unsound, guaranteeing that eventually EVERY U.S. public school will be  judged to be failing, no matter how great it may be in actuality. Any  mathematically competent person should recognize how mad such an  evaluation system is. And how ethically and morally wrong it is.
The US has many great schools. They are most usually found in communities and  neighborhoods where there is relatively little poverty and where  parents are engaged in supporting children’s education. I happen to do  work with high school mathematics teachers at public schools in  Detroit. Where I work is the antithesis of the sorts of places where  most kids have decent to great teachers, adequate materials, and a  safe physical environment. The problems I see daily in Detroit aren’t  the result of bad teachers who don’t care (some, of course, are not  good, but that is true in all lines of work, in all communities, in  all states), but rather the fact that no one can reasonably expect  education alone to help overcome the enormous handicaps kids in  poverty are burdened with before they ever set foot inside a public  school, and the horrible conditions they have to come to grips with  every single minute of their lives when they leave the school buildings.

What is unconscionable is that the performance of our good, very good,  and excellent schools are being lumped in with that of  schools of poverty, urban and rural, and we are then told that all  our schools are inferior to a handful of elite private schools and  some pie-in-the-sky charter schools, both sorts of which are able to  pick whom they educate (and, thus, whom they test). Detroit Public  Schools take everyone, and where I work, there are on average more  than 50% special education students being MAINSTREAMED in all  classrooms. If you haven’t visited lately, it’s not that long a drive  from Lansing.

On my view, while there are most certainly places in this country that  are a national disgrace, low-performing schools of extreme poverty are  a symptom, not a cause, of that shame. We can, of course, do much  better, but it  isn’t going to be either by bashing teachers and schools or by handing  our public education over to greedy for-profit management companies,  hedge-fund managers, or billionaires like Eli Broad, Bill Gates, the  Walton Family, or the Koch Brothers. It’s far more likely to figure  out how to improve entire communities so that education can contribute  to improving the life of that community, not be held responsible for  the conditions there to begin with.

You have a critical responsibility to make important decisions about  the future of Michigan’s children and its economic survival and  growth. Cutting back on funding for public schools isn’t the answer.
Picking on nearly the entire teaching profession based on what a  relatively small minority of bad teachers do or fail to do isn’t going  to make a single child better-educated. Making choices based on
slogans and bumper-stickers won’t do it, either.
If you care to learn more about the serious short-comings of  high-stakes tests and how we can get back on track to support public  education, I’d be more than happy to take time to speak with you. But  I need you to know that I do NOT support the petition named in the  subject line: it’s just one of those slick attempts to pull the wool  over the eyes of educational stake holders, slick enough that  apparently it fooled me temporarily into thinking it was something  meaningful and effective. I urge you strongly NOT to buy into the  notion that there’s any concern for “great teachers” in this: it’s  about getting rid of teachers with experience who are viewed as “too  expensive,” to destroy tenure, and to make it easier for private  interests to increase profit margins when they take over public  education.

Sincerely,

Michael Paul Goldenberg

Quoting Senator Phil Pavlov <senppavlov@senate.michigan.gov:

Dear Michael:

Thank you for taking the time to contact me. I sincerely appreciate  your feedback on the so-called “LIFO” issue.

Most public school districts rely on these provisions to determine  layoffs in difficult budget situations. While such an arrangement may  make sense in some cases, it’s important we recognize that not all  teachers are the same. I agree that a number of factors should be  considered in determining the effectiveness of public school teachers,  and only the best should be retained in positions where they affect our  children’s learning.

It’s important to make the distinction that changes to “LIFO” policies,  and other performance related issues, are not an attack on the teaching  profession. These efforts are intended to recognize new approaches to  instruction and evaluations. Our world is rapidly changing, and we  cannot be afraid of new ways of doing things. We know the current  approach to layoffs and compensation does not highlight or reward people  who go the extra mile for our students. As chair of the Senate  Education Committee, I look forward to addressing these issues with my  colleagues.

Please feel free to contact me again with your questions and concerns.  You can also stay in contact with me on Facebook, or by signing up for  my newsletter at www.senatorphilpavlov.com

Sincerely,

Phil Pavlov
State Senator
District 2

Published in: on April 21, 2011 at 11:07 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Beware the quicksand of the NCLB in its concepts and vocabulary. Bush was a business man–oil–not an educator.

    Like

  2. […] Read the rest of Guy Brandenburg’s comments on his blog. […]

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  3. we posted Michael’s letter as well at our Parents Across America blog; wxplaining how the people running change.org divert all signers of progressive education petitions to Michelle Rhee’s.

    http://parentsacrossamerica.org/2011/04/regrets-clarification-after-signing-one-of-michelle-rhees-petitions/

    Please protest these deceptive tactics to Ben Rattray at ben@change.org with a cc. to nonprofits@change.org

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  4. […] deeper, and then decide for yourself. Some of what I’ve found is here on the Daily Koz, and here on GFBrandenburg’s Blog. If I’m wrong, please let me know why, and send studentsfirst […]

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