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Market mentality education

By Kay McSpadden
Special to the Observer

The caller said she wanted to ask some questions about charter schools, so I agreed to take a 10-minute survey. The first question should have been a clue.

“Do all children deserve a quality education and a free iPad?”

The very next question was “Do you believe that public education is failing the majority of America’s children and that a charter school could better meet their needs?”

“No,” I said, thinking of the 35 years I’ve spent as a public school teacher working in a high-poverty high school. “No,” I said as I thought of the local public schools my sons attended that prepared them well for college.

“No more questions,” the voice on the other end of the line said, hanging up.

I’d heard about charter schools trolling for students and offering bribes to enroll, but I was always skeptical. Until now.

Increasingly that’s what’s happening in states that impose a market mentality on public education as part of education reform.

“In the view of these reformers, ‘government’ schools have a monopoly that must be disrupted in order for competitors to gain entry to the marketplace,” education blogger Anthony Cody wrote recently in Education Week. “This monopoly can be disrupted by the use of standardized tests, with high stakes consequences for failure. In order for this to work, failure MUST be identified in public schools, and they must be shut down, so as to release students and public funding to semi-private and private alternatives.”

Cody isn’t being paranoid. One of the popular education reform measures is assigning letter grades to schools and districts based on student test results. Last year South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais pushed through such a plan despite objections from the state’s Education Oversight Committee, a nonpartisan group established by the legislature to monitor South Carolina’s school districts. At a press conference in early August upon the release of 2013 school and district grades, Zais suggested that parents in schools with low scores might want to pull their children out.

“Students have received letter grades on their report cards for decades; schools and school districts should be held to the same level of accountability and transparency,” Zais said.

However, the EOC argues that a single grade ignores the multiple nuanced differences between schools and districts, making any comparison moot.

Likewise, Matthew DiCarlo, a researcher with the nonprofit Albert Shanker Institute, points out that the states that use such a system of “accountability” show similar results. Schools that are low-poverty are far more likely to score A or B. Schools that are high-poverty are far more likely to score D or F.

“Under Indiana’s system, a huge chunk of schools, most of which serve advantaged student populations, literally face no risk of getting an F, while almost one in five schools, virtually every one with a relatively high poverty rate, has no shot at an A grade, no matter how effective they might be. And to reiterate, this is a feature of the system, not a bug – any rating scheme that relies heavily on absolute performance will generate ratings that are strongly associated with student characteristics like poverty.”

He cites similar results in Florida.

“There is a reason why over 97 percent of Florida’s lowest-poverty schools receive A or B grades, and virtually every one of the schools receiving a D or F have poverty rates above the median. It’s because schools are judged largely by absolute performance, and students from higher-income families tend to score higher on tests.”

Someone who knows both Indiana and Florida well is Tony Bennett. In 2008 he was elected Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Education and implemented the A-F grading system, along with other education reform measures that proved so unpopular that he lost the 2012 election. Nevertheless, a unanimous Florida Board of Education selected him as Commissioner of Education in December of that year and brought him to a state with similar reforms.

Two weeks ago Bennett resigned after an Associated Press reporter uncovered emails implicating him in grade changing in Indiana. When Christel House, a charter school started by Christel DeHaan, a political contributor to Bennett’s election campaign, scored a C on the state grading measures, Bennett directed his staff to find a way to change the score to A, which they did.

Now districts in Indiana are petitioning the state to throw out the system, stating that the metrics and cut scores are too easily jiggered for political and ideological purposes. Hopefully the other states that adopted the practice will drop it, too. Not only is such a system not transparent or helpful, it causes harm, particularly to schools branded failing whose only fault is that they serve economically disadvantaged students.

Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C. Write her at kmcspadden@comporium.net.
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