GOOD

Why America's Prep Schools Aren't Following Arne Duncan's Public School Education Reforms

If the reforms mandated by Departments of Education were so fantastic, prep schools would be implementing them.


Our public education system, with all of its admitted flaws, manages to nurture the vast majority of young people, many of whom go on to be hugely successful. But the prevailing education reform movement in the United States, premised upon market-based solutions, economics, disruption, and similar sounding corporate buzzwords, seeks to standardize curriculum, teaching, and assessment as a method of control.

Let me be clear: We are in a battle for public education and we are struggling against those who wish it to be extinct. There is no room for negotiation. If current trends continue, our education system will become entirely vocationalized—perpetuating both class-based and racial apartheid, and teachers will eventually become short-term, at-will employees without the protections available to intellectual professions.

This is not an exaggeration. Allow me to explain it further: Education reform proponents, whose backgrounds are primarily from management, finance, technology, government—and not education—are trying very hard—to the tune of billions of dollars—to sell the public a rather interesting bill of goods. You will see, among other things, the championing of common core standards, standardized assessments, data-collection systems, and an expensive technological infrastructure to make this all possible.

We are told repeatedly that this is what America’s children need, especially those in impoverished communities. “Spokes-reformers” market their wares on all major cable news networks and control the message on most mainstream print and online publications. As a teacher educator and former classroom teacher, I’m happy to provide all the proof I need that their messages, every last one of them, are destructive. But for now, I have a simpler demonstration.

Go ahead and do an online search of the country’s top prep schools, or check out this list from Forbes. Peruse some of the school websites and do a search for anything that mainstream education reformers suggest we implement in your neighborhood public school. Try, for example, common core state standards. How about data-driven instruction? Or, what about two weeks worth of mandated high-stakes, standardized state tests, preceded by weeks, if not months, of benchmarks, short-cyles, and pre-assessments?

If you think there's time for all of this, you'd be mistaken. Most social studies and science instruction ends as early as January for a March test, if it's taught at all. In some cases, it isn't. In other cases, art, music, physical education, and recess are also dropped, or at least taken away from students whose scores are lowest. I wonder if any notification of such adjustments to the academic schedule are included in the glossy brochures for the country's top prep schools.

I have another interesting suggestion: Check out the proportion of teachers at those schools who possess advanced degrees. At Horace Mann in the Bronx—where 36 percent of students are accepted at an Ivy League school, Stanford, or MIT—94 percent of the teachers have advanced degrees. Now, who was it that said rewarding teachers with advanced degrees is a waste of money? Ah yes, our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. How far do you think Mr. Duncan’s argument would get with parents who examine a potential school's "Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline" percentage score? Not very far.

The problem is the public is force-fed these ideas of standardized curriculum, teaching, and assessment as the best tactics education science has to offer. They tell us that this is how we must educate our children. Wait, whose children are we talking about? Not the kids at Trinity School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—41 percent are in that Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline—or Philips Exeter in New Hampshire, which educated Mark Zuckerberg. As someone with more experience in education than those whose voices are most prominent, I can also assure you that mainstream reform ideologies are not the best anyone has to offer. In fact, they are the cheapest and easiest to control. That's it.

I can already anticipate the devil’s advocate argument: Parents pay a hefty sum to send their children to Roxbury Latin, so they get what they've paid for. And on that point I would agree with you—if we were talking about, say, automobiles. Yes, the financier who pays extra for the package with the mahogany inlays and heated seats certainly deserves his or her mahogany inlays and heated seats. The one who mops the financier’s office floor, well, he or she might manage to eek out a full-sized spare, maybe some nice floor mats or something.

But these aren't cars; they're kids. These are kids who've had the temerity to be born and this is how we’ve resigned ourselves to discuss their education. We give all to those who can afford better and the rest get, well, they get what they get—and no one is supposed to get upset about it.

This is nonsense. If the reforms mandated by Departments of Education and fawned over by upstart think-tankers were as fantastic as advised again and again, then you can bet that every single one of the country's best prep schools would be implementing them as rapidly as possible. They're not, and you shouldn't accept them either.

This entire enterprise operates on one very powerful currency: data. Without the data, the machine ceases to operate. Educators, parents, and students are starting to understand that and are now refusing to fuel the machine. At the time of this writing, entire schools in the Seattle area are lining up to boycott high-stakes tests with overwhelming support from their local communities and are making national headlines.

I suggest that we no longer feed the machine—and that we fight back. From April 4-7, 2013, educators, community activists, parents, and students from across the nation are heading to Washington, D.C. for Occupy 2.0: The Battle for Public Schools. Prominent educators, public school advocates, and activists from around the country will be leading talks and workshops to raise awareness and resist corporate-style education reforms. If you cannot join us in Washington this April, then encourage any colleague or friend who can attend to do so. Connect with us online during our livestream of the event. Or, download our free high-stakes testing toolkit (PDF) to begin a conversation in your community.

Click here to add sharing the Opt Out Toolkit with your community to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Lockers image via Shutterstock

Keep Reading Show less
Articles


While it isn't official yet, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has hinted that he will return to President Obama's cabinet for a second term. This isn't good news. As a 17-year-old high school student, I'm both a No Child Left Behind and a Race to the Top baby. I've lived through two pieces of failed legislation—under former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and now Duncan—that have seriously derailed the status of education in this country.

At the Council of Chief State Officers conference earlier this month, Duncan outlined the basics of a second-term education agenda with plans to "replicate" the work the administration did in its first term. He hopes to reauthorize the defective No Child Left Behind Act and continue his carrot-and-stick approach to ramming his proposals into states and school districts. Secretary Duncan's most likely reappointment is a clear sign to the American public that President Obama has turned a blind eye toward students, educators, and parents.

Keep Reading Show less
Articles

Can the White House's $1 Billion Plan Keep Math and Science Teachers in the Classroom?

The Obama Administration's throwing their muscle behind a STEM Master Teacher Corps.

We know that without great science, technology, engineering, and math teachers it's impossible to prepare students for the jobs of the future. Unfortunately, 30,000 STEM teachers leave the profession every year and it's tough to lure STEM grads into the classroom when becoming an educator is seen as something you do when you don't have any other options.

Keep Reading Show less
Articles

Ask Arne: Disgruntled Teachers Invited to Put Duncan on the Spot

Will Arne Duncan answer the tough education questions in his upcoming Twitter town hall?


Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined Twitter at the end of May, and now he's ready to put himself in the social media hot seat. He's opened the floor for the inaugural #AskArne Twitter Town Hall, and he's bound to receive plenty of tough questions on a wide range of education issues.

Duncan's stances on key education issues haven't made him too popular with many educators, particularly his blaming "bad" teachers for subpar standardized test scores. Despite research showing that evaluating teachers based on those test scores isn't good policy, Duncan's supported doing so. He's also consistently backed charter schools and held them up as the shining examples of education excellence, even though the latest CREDO study showed that only one out of six performs better than the neighborhood public school while two out of six do worse.

Keep Reading Show less
Articles

Are Teachers Overpaid? One Educator Says Yes

What $1,800-per-month paychecks? D.C. teacher Michael Bromley says his peers should stop complaining because they're actually making too much money.

When I hang out with my friends who are teachers, I always offer to pay for whatever it is we're doing. I've been in their shoes so I know they're not exactly rolling in dough. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said that teacher salaries should start at $60,000 and educators should have the opportunity to earn up to $150,000 in merit pay.

Keep Reading Show less
Articles

The Pygmalion Effect: Does Calling It a "Failing School" Make It One?

There's been an incredible spike in the prevalence of the term “failing school”—and that label itself could be hurting our education system.

Nowadays it's pretty common to hear talk about “failing schools.” We rarely pause to consider, however, that that label might suggest the students and teachers inside the building are failures themselves. And our casual use of the term could have pretty dangerous consequences.

Keep Reading Show less
Articles