Stunting Students’ Growth


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I was teaching a composition class in Toledo a few years ago, and in that class I had a student who always wore sports-themed clothes. He was a Red Wings fan, so I was able to get him to talk whenever I brought up the team’s fortunes (at least they made the playoffs that year, grumble grumble), but he fell bone-silent on nearly every other topic. That changed about halfway through the class, though, after someone else in the class brought up the subject of charter schools. This student then went on an incredibly powerful monologue, talking about his experience working with special needs students in the Toledo public school system. According to him, Ohio’s voucher school funding was set up so that the voucher schools got all their state money at the start of the academic year, so if a school failed, and the students at that school had to go back to public schools to finish the year out, the public schools wouldn’t get any more money to handle the additional students. Worse yet, the public schools’ accountability standards stayed the same, so the schools would get punished if they couldn’t give those additional students a high-quality education, despite having no additional money to help those students.

That would be bad enough for any student, but for special needs students to be treated this way is absolutely deplorable. After my student talked about his experience for a few minutes, other students started asking him questions. I was able to take a seat and let the class teach itself for fifteen minutes, using the critical thinking principles I’d been using in other discussions throughout the term. I didn’t make a total breakthrough with this student, but he wasn’t nearly as reticent during class discussions from that point forward.

The thing is, this student mentioned that despite his experience seeing what Ohio’s charter school system does to special needs students, he was still in favour of charter schools. To be more precise, he still liked the idea of charter schools; he just didn’t like how they were being implemented in Ohio. On an abstract level, the idea of trying out different school models, so we can figure out which parts of those models will work best for students, has its obvious benefits. We don’t live in a world of abstractions, though, and when schools fail — whether we talk about charter schools that should never have been given licence to operate, or the public schools which (often by design) suffer from politicians privileging charters — it’s the children who suffer most, and we are all diminished through that suffering.

It is true that even vocal charter school advocates have been critical of the way that both Ohio and Michigan have been handling the legislation of how charters are created and operate. However, when one of the main proponents of the Michigan system is now running the federal government’s education department, and the main Ohio-based charter proponent may be more responsible for the deliberate dumbing-down of America than anyone else, the need to stand up against the effective liquidation of the American public school system becomes even more imperative.

Like so much in our culture right now, the dominant right-wing narrative about the American public school system is based on carefully-cultivated myths repeated ad nauseum until people start to believe them simply because their repetition gives them the veneer of “common knowledge.” As Diane Ravitch details in her excellent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the idea that American students have steadily been falling behind students from other countries has been going around for over a half-century, and at the time when the charter school experiment began in the 1990’s, it wasn’t even true. When the first country-versus-country educational scores came out four decades earlier, America was actually in last place. Over the next forty years, America was able to raise itself up to about the middle of the pack, but then after charter schools became widespread, our scores began to stagnate. If anything, America’s international test performance in recent years should be a damning mark against charter schools, but because conservatives have been conditioned to believe arguments along the line of “[This aspect of America[ is in decline and it’s all the liberals’/unions’/whatever’s fault” without a second thought, the reality of what’s going on in American schools receives far less airtime, and thus public consideration, than the right-wing pablum that’s been regurgitated generation after generation.

Although charter proponents will often claim that they want to set up a “best of both worlds” for students through “choice” between charter and public schools, the reality is that even in states where the charter system isn’t as profoundly messed up as it is in Ohio and Michigan, public schools are often at an inherent disadvantage because of how charter schools are allowed to pick their students (and find excuses to discard underperforming students, often those with special needs), skimming the “cream of the crop” to make all their results look better than they likely would be if charter and public schools were teaching equally-capable groups of students. Again, Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System provides much more detail about the history and detail of this process, but the fact that charters (on the whole) are still not providing a significantly better student experience despite their huge advantage should be another strike against charters in a sane, informed world (which, sadly, we’re pretty freaking far from right now).

Just like the Reaganite “race to the bottom” of gutting government agencies so as to make them inherently incapable of doing the jobs they’re supposed to do (detailed in another quality book you should read after Ravitch’s), many of America’s public schools have been set up to fail for decades now. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been legitimate problems with American public education since before the charter movement began — I do a whole video series on the problems with modern education, for crying out loud — but rational discussion of the actual causes of those problems, and possible solutions to them, has been drowned out for so long by the worn-out conservative rhetoric of “unions bad, privatization good” that it’s nearly impossible to find anything like a real, critical discussion of American education outside of the halls of higher education.

The fact that said halls are now less economically diverse, a generation since the charter school experiment began, is no accident; it is an intended consequence of this whole process of creating and privileging charter schools. Students from well-to-do families are less vulnerable to the economic difficulties underlying the problems with American public schools, since the higher tax base in their neighbourhoods means that their schools have the money to afford higher-quality teachers and educational materials, and those schools don’t have to devote all their time to the insidious standardized testing regime just to be able to survive year after year. Just like Republicans in years past have deliberately crippled government agencies, then stopped every attempt to resuscitate the agencies by claiming that there’s no money for them (after running up the debt with huge military expenditures), America’s public school system has been rendered asunder, and the attempts by the pro-charter advocates in power in Washington now to further slash the institutional foundation of American public schools may well be the coup de grace they’ve been clamoring for.

One of the core ideas of education is that it is supposed to be one of the most important tools, if not the most important tool, with which any person, young or old, rich or poor, can raise themselves up and improve their lot in life. By cutting the legs out from under American public schools, through everything from sadistic defunding to moronic evaluation standards to obfuscating debate about the reality of America’s schools right now, right-wingers are turning education into yet another tool with which the rich and privileged can bludgeon the less fortunate among us. Again: This is deliberate. I have seen how this works, both as a teacher and as a student, and not only is it deleterious to America’s children, but it could well prove fatal to our country as a whole if it’s allowed to continue unchecked.

I know all too well how tiring it is to keep track of all the things going on in American politics right now, especially when those in power give every appearance of deliberately sneaking harmful legislation through our government while Americans are distracted by the hoopla of the scandals-of-the-day. Education policy affects me more than the average American, not only because of my profession but also because of my past experiences as a student and how they’ve coloured the rest of my life. Still, I cannot beg enough for all of you to  pay more attention to what’s going on with American education, and to do whatever you can (however large or small) to stop our schools from getting any worse than they already are. Every student in America deserves better.

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