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Education Reform: Who's Winning and Why We're All Losing

We're running schools like businesses. But children are not widgets, and we confuse relation with correlation at our own peril.

Ella sits at a school desk and takes a paper from the pile. The directions are clear: "Connect the dots from A to Z and you will find a great surprise." She takes her crayon and finds the letter A. This is easy, she thinks as she looks for the B. But the surprise is on Ella. There are no more letters. No guide to help her. She doodles a bit, circles a few dots, and finally gives up.

Sounds a bit like public education these days. Many of us hear that something is desperately wrong in our own school, our own state. Teachers are exhausted from being pummeled on all sides. Unions are worn down by laws to dismantle them. Words like "right to work," and "reform" and "choice" permeate every conversation. Fads like national curriculum and tests that equate teacher effectiveness with student achievement are all the rage. We're running schools like businesses. But children are not widgets, and we confuse relation with correlation at our own peril.

No one is connecting the dots. Understand that these are not isolated initiatives. They are connected. The key players have an ideological and financial interest in reframing the narrative around public education. If public schools are the link that America has relied on to develop a vibrant middle class, to define our democracy, what will happen when they are privatized or disappear altogether?

The first dot: The "Houston Miracle."

George H. W. Bush convened an education summit in 1989. It was the first meeting of state governors and the President devoted to education since The Depression. Significantly, not one educator was invited. This summit begat No Child Left Behind, an ultimately unfunded mandate that was based on the "Houston Miracle," where principals made their dropout rates disappear in order to boost their schools' ratings and their own paychecks. Unfortunately for the nations' students and its teachers, The "miracle" turned out to be a fabrication created by the man who later became Secretary of Education.

NCLB has morphed into "Race to the Top," whereby some states got funds only if they followed untested ideas about education and about kids. Few of the authors of this dogma attended public schools, taught in public schools, or read significant research about the effects of poverty on test scores.

Instead we woke up a Sleeping Giant: "Choice Matters."

If you saw Waiting for Superman, you learned that charter schools and vouchers were the answer. And before we knew it charters became for-profit, students who had special needs were left out, and vulture capitalists suddenly realized that a $809 billion industry was up for grabs. The relationship between the economic and political stakeholders is now dictating the architecture of education "reform." They are aided and abetted by groups that intend to dissolve public education completely or others who intend to make millions by any means necessary—test makers, technology czars, real estate developers, and foreign investors.

Now the dots are flying so fast and furiously, it's impossible for Ella and her parents to see the whole picture from a classroom in Chicago or a living room in Sacramento. They need to continue to be informed in order to fight back.

That’s why the non-profit project I'm spearheading, Going Public, is working on a documentary that will tell the story of why what's happening to our schools is happening now... who's winning and why we're all losing. Thanks to the generosity of supporters, we already have 10 hours of footage, and we're looking to broaden the story through a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

We plan to interview thought leaders like Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and Karen Lewis, and travel to New Orleans and Miami to tell the story of the money men who are scoring big by leasing buildings to charters and raking in the profits. We'll also head to Cincinnati and Baltimore to document the amazing things that are happening in public schools that have buy-in and political will.

Once informed, Ella, her parents, and concerned community members can claim their place in our democracy by letting state houses, governors and Washington know what they know. They can join groups of students, teachers, administrators, parents and legislators who are working toward a future that includes a public education system that speaks to our highest ideals.

Overcoming poverty, not more tests, is the solution to our national educational problems. Tell us where a child lives and we'll tell you how they'll score on any standardized test. If you look carefully, you'll find businesses and schools and unions that work together to prove all students are valued. Ella knows that the future of American democracy is contingent on a powerful, enlightened public school system. It can be a beautiful picture if we connect the dots correctly.

Nancy Letts has been an educator for 50 years. She is the author of Scholastic's "Creating the Caring Classroom" and the Executive Producer of "Going Public," a documentary about the privatization of public education currently raising finishing funds on Indiegogo.

Click here to add supporting "Going Public" on Indiegogo to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Public school sign detail on school bus image via Shutterstock

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