Monday, November 2, 2009

The Two Sides of School Reform


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Note: This article is still a draft. I welcome comments that will help me to make the article clear, concise, complete, and easy to follow.

"School Reform," as I have seen it used, has quite a specific meaning.  Before proceding with a definition of this term, it is necesary for the reader to pay attention to the distinction between  charter schools [internal link] and non-charter public schools. Both types of schools are institutions of public education, as both types of schools recieve per capita state dollars designated for K-12 education. 
School reform comprises the school choice movement, privatization of public education sector, and what I call industrialized education in public schools serving low-income/minority student populations.

School Reform refers, first of all, to an approach for re-making public-financed non-charter education with the goal of increasing the readiness of high-school and community college graduates to be submissive, productive members of the workforce.  It also encompasses the School Choice Movement.  School Choice calls for per capita state K-12 dollars to follow a child to wherever the family chooses to enroll child, be that a private school, a charter school, or a non-charter public school. 

To reduce some confusion that surrounds the use of this term, I urge people to refer to this movement as Corporatist School Reform.  ("Militaristic Corporatist Reform Movement" would be more fully descriptive of the school reform movement, but this is too ungainly.) The adjective corporatist captures several features of the movement. Firstly. it characterizes the primary advocates and financial backers of the movement -- this is not a popular grass roots movement, as the noun "movement" connotes. Secondly, it refers to the business creation goal of the movement.

Thirdly, it refers to the belief that bringing systems engineering efficiency, innovation, and competition into the public school realm will lead to cost efficiencies and to a better product, i.e., service-sector job-ready high school graduates. This is not to say that Corporatist School Reform movement discounts the need for a cadre of high school graduates ready for college-level studies in math, sciences, and engineering. It seems, rather, that the movement finds that as long as private schools and a few great public schools are providing opportunities for advantaged children to obtain a superior education, it is cost-effective to have schools serving less advantaged students to focus on providing an education that prepares students for employment in the low-wage sector of the ecomony.

Fourthly, it calls for what I term Industrialized Education in non-public charter schools and in militaristic charter schools.  This is the type of education that I am referring to as preferred by "Reformists" in schools that serve lower income communities.

The reader can refer to Industrialized Education for a description.

 Industrialized Education takes the form it does because it is the most cost-effective way to serve the intent of the Federal legislation No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  NCLB calls for narrowly-defined student, teacher, and school accountability to be based on state-mandated norm-referenced high stakes testing. Not incidentally, Industrialized Education implemented in charter schools provides at present the best opportunity for private business income profits [see articles by Lisa Snell at the Reason Foundation].

The form of back-to-basics eduation seen in the non-charter schools of reformed school districts is ultra-regressive, and is organized around high-stakes standardized, computer-greaded tests.  I feel that "Industrialized Education" is an appropriate name for the School Reform movement's extreme version of traditional education. In the School Reform construct, the ideal non-charter public school is a factory, where teachers are machinery that punches and molds the raw material (the students) in order to imbue the raw material with the desired attributes. The high stakes tests are the primary means of carrying out Quality Assurance. QA provides feedback necessary to improve the percentage of product that meets the product specification, and can be shipped to customers (business that seek submissive, literate, competent, low-wage non-unionized employees for dead-end jobs) .

Some charter schools are also organized rigidly for teaching-to-the-test.  These tend to be highly regimented.  Military charter schools are of this type.  These schools are less expensive to operate than progressive schools, can succeed in meeting their AYP without supplemental support from Foundations.  Thus, these kind of charters provide the best opportunity for business income and profit.

Notwithstanding the existence of conservative charter schools, it is a fact that educational innovation is welcomed by reformists, as long as the innovation occurs within charter schools rather than non-charter public schools. Anything goes, as long as schools meet their accountability (AYP) targets. To help them meet their targets, charter schools  have more strategies legally available to them than do non-charter public schools. Charters also sometimes have generous financial support from private Foundations, most often one or more of these Foundations will appear on the donor list of  a charter school: Gates, Broad, Stuart, and Walton Family. So charter schools have certain advantages over public schools when it comes to the struggle to meet AYP. We also know that sometimes charter schools engage in activities and strategies that enhance the charters school's chance of meeting AYP while a the same time diminising the public school's chance. For example, charter schools are legally allowed to dump their least successful and their more disruptive students back into the non-charter system, and it is known that this does happen.

The term "public-private partnership" is inscribed on both sides of the metaphorical coin.  On the Charter School side of the coin, public-private partnerships means generous gifts of money to reduce class size or otherwise pay for extra intructional support, maybe to provide extra psychosocial services, great libraries, etc. One has to wonder if the Foundation support will be perpetual: What will happen to these schools when the Foundations loose interest in supporting the school (this happend to T.T. Minor).

On the Non-charter public school side, public-private partnerships go to the Central District instead to school buildings. The private grants pay for part of the data-driven decision making implementation start-up costs of establishing, refining, expanding the infrastructure for data-creation, data warehousing, and data analysis, and data-driven decision making, instructional leadership training, and enforcement of requirements for teachers to teach-to-the-test.

So now I realize "School Reform" does just mean "regressive education." It can also mean progressive education.

Reformists have a different set of values for charter schools on the one hand, and non-charter public schools on the other. In the case of non-charter public schools, reformists are opposed to innovation and progressive education. Within a charter school system, reformists welcome innovation and competition; they set no limits on pedagogical approach. Non-charter public schools, however, must conform to a strict regime of narrowly focused, district mandated curriculum, and teaching-to-the-test.


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