Editors Note: The below is a guest post from writer Brandon Melendez on the issue of Charter Schools. Some interesting observations are made in the piece, and this is an important issue to consider when it comes to what is really behind this push for “education reform”
What Is The Bottom Line For A School System?
By Brandon M. Melendez
What is the bottom line for a school system? Is it to provide a quality education, a center for a community, and a nurturing environment; or is it a source of political clout, a resource of corporate friendship, and a loose end in a cumbersome budget? If you’re a New York City resident the answer is obvious and disheartening. With the recent announcement from the Bloomberg Administration that nearly fifty schools are going to be shut down, recast, and rechristened one has to wonder: what is this going to achieve? To extend the question a little further: what has this tactic achieved already?
Essentially, it hasn’t done very much. Bloomberg’s approach to running a school system like a corporation is not only flawed in its results but flawed in its fundamental approach. Profitable corporations provide a readily available product that is quantifiable, tangible, and readily inspected; if the product is of value to the public, and the marketing is good, it will turn a profit and will continue being made. Education doesn’t work that way. The measure of a good education system isn’t found in test grades, or college enrollment, or even graduation rates—the measure of a good system is found in the balance of two areas: commitment to students and a student’s lifetime achievement. If a school is committed to its students intellectual interests and piques their curiosity students will thirst for knowledge; they will seek it out and devour academia at every turn. As they grow from children to adults they will use their cumulative knowledge to actualize and make their dreams real. That is the measure of a good system, and it can take decades to see the results.
Individual success can be speculated upon, but it cannot be predicted. The school system should be spending its time nurturing young minds to edify themselves not teaching them test prep skills and jargon. The more “research based” boxed curriculum seem to be released on these children, the less freedom teachers actually have to accommodate the needs of their charges. There is a growing notion in the world of politically steered education reform that people learn in a standardized way, that there is a hard and true science to educating and imparting information—as if students could be put on a conveyor belt and have their high school and college diplomas assembled like a Model-T. Students are no more standardized than adults, and adults know that we all assimilate knowledge in different ways, only as adults we’ve found our idiosyncratic ways—our personal metacognitive strategies to use the jargon—to cope and flourish. Children are only just learning to learn, and forcing them all into the same square hole is only going to limit their ability actualize their potential as they grow. Disregarding the incredibly obvious fact that all people are different, the political mandates thrust upon education systems and educators demand that practices and assessments be standardized.
Despite all popular political assertions to the contrary, standardized testing is not the most effective measure of student learning or an accurate predictor of student success. They are, by and large, bunk. Certainly, they do measure a degree of knowledge, a specific skill set, and can be used to determine how students operate under duress but as a measure of true learning they don’t do much. A general criticism of standardized testing is that they are biased either economically, racially, ethnically, or regionally. Famously, the SAT encountered this problem with the Oarsman-Regatta analogy question that relied heavily on knowledge of crew; a sport generally more common to the wealthy. While there are certain lines that have to be drawn between what is discriminatory academically versus what is discrimination against large groups these lines will always exist. Even when one removes the economic factor, the racial factor, and the ethnic factor, in a country as large and wide as our own great United States there will be regional problems with standardized tests; it is even true in the great State of New York. Yet, seeing no disparity in the circumstances of life from region to region, from state to state, county to county, or town to town, let alone from person to person the national trend has been to treat everyone’s experience as consistent. The fact that everyone’s experience is not consistent has been one of the most hotly debated political albatrosses since (at least) abolition.
The Bloomberg approach to education is right in step with the No Child Left Behind mess that got shoved down our collective throats a decade ago. The only thing these combined approaches have allowed for is statistical manipulation to close down public institutions and open private ones that operate on the tax payer dollar with little regulation. These private institutions are commonly known as charter schools. While charters do have their place in the realm of education as a place where experimentation and research can be conducted what is occurring in the American urban setting is incredibly dangerous. What is occurring is a slow and obvious privatization of the public school system. What “school choice” will there be when all of the schools are run by corporations? In Philadelphia this is already happening with the move to break the entire school system into a network of privately run networks. To whom do these corporations answer? Certainly not the public; the public school system barely answers to the public. An honest fear about this trend will lead even an unjaded observer to wonder “What will happen when the public system becomes private?” The answer is one scary word for all parents of public school students: tuition.
Between the corporations that develop and publish standardized tests, to the corporations that run our school cafeterias, to the corporations that sell boxed curriculum, to the corporations that run charter schools the bottom line is clear: profit. As corporations, there is nothing wrong with that. Businesses exist to provide a product and make a profit from it. When opportunity presents itself, a good business will find a way to meet it. Public Education is not a corporation, however. Public education is a right owed to the children of our society—an education that is fair and appropriate. The goal of the system is to level the playing field, to allow for economic mobility, and (from a progressive perspective) provide essential services for children and families to help them, at the very least, sustain themselves. A failure on the part of the government to provide a quality school system is a failure of the governors on the governed, to be certain, but to outsource that responsibility to an entity with an agenda, any agenda, is irresponsible. When cities claim they can’t afford to run schools but give millions upon millions of dollars to sports franchises to build stadiums that the city will never see back is beyond criminal—it’s insane. What is the bottom line for school systems? What do these tactics aim to achieve? The answer is obviously more about cents than sense.
Brandon Melendez is an Adjunct Professor in the American Urban Studies Program at the Audrey Cohen School for Human Services of Metropolitan College of New York and serves in the Special Education Department in the East Williston School District. Additionally he is the Media Director/Education and Curriculum Supervisor at Eat Your Serial Inc. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in American Urban Studies from MCNY and a dual Master of Arts in Childhood Education and Childhood Special Education from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.