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Students First or ‘politics first’?

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It’s become an accepted bipartisan fact, given the nature of political versus actual truth in our post-truth political system, that America’s schools are gravely broken. Broken almost beyond repair. The popular agitprop documentary “Waiting for Superman,” heavily praised by both political parties, beamed heart-rending images of students struggling against corrupt teachers’ unions to succeed. It fired us up with photogenic, former Washington D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, striding purposefully toward the camera, shutting down failing schools and opening innovative new charters. They didn’t film the part where teachers cheated to meet impossible standards. There was a chance to save America’s schools, we were told. But only if we made tough choices and fought for longer days, higher-stakes tests, more charter schools and against teachers’ unions. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that these tough choices, that favorite phrase of the right, boils down to another morally bankrupt attempt to privatize and corporatize an essential American public good.

Ask Diane Ravitch, an NYU Steinhardt professor who was formerly a key theorist of these would-be-reformers. An adviser to the Bush administration on the No Child Left Behind Act, she advocated for more charter schools and high-stakes tests in math and literacy in the early 2000s, which helped create the climate in which today’s education battles are fought. Ravitch has since recanted and admitted the evidence shows these methods do not work, and education reform as it is currently understood is a chimera for a privatization of American schools. The goal is to shut down more and more “low-performing” (read: public) schools and replace them with privately run and often for-profit charters. Charters, however, prove to be no more effective than public schools once you take away their ability to pick only the best students and leave the rest for public schools. Ravitch’s current agenda has seen her come down in favor of locally devised assessments, higher teacher pay to attract a better caliber of teaching and a national curriculum with rich artistic, mathematic, scientific and literacy-based elements.

Despite the evidence and the theoretical U-turns, however, the bipartisan pro-testing, pro-charter, anti-union consensus has shown no signs of flagging until this week. Chicago teachers went on strike on Monday to protest a new contract that would force a longer school day with stagnant pay and teacher evaluations that could affect job security — based on standardized tests that don’t work. If they win, it will be a significant stake in the heart of those who would ignore the actual problems with American education and pursue policies that all evidence shows are failing.

The real problem with American education is that we have a schizophrenic approach. Instead of national schools teaching a national curriculum, we leave it up to municipalities to self-fund, leaving a patchwork of radically unequal educational systems to reinforce wealth and class divides rather than attacking them. Most teachers are not paid enough to ensure that the highest-caliber applicants want to teach. Most districts cannot afford the kinds of music, arts and exercise programs that reinforce learning and involve kids outside a traditional academic setting. While these are politically difficult problems that require a radical rethinking of the American primary education system, breaking unions and raising corporate profits at the charter-runners is politically easy. The reformers call their organization Students First, but students have nothing to do with their agenda. They might as well call it Politics First, and the hell with schools and students.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Sept. 12 print edition. Ben Miller is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected] 

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