Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When "reform" became the answer and teachers became the problem

Former education secretary William Bennett knows exactly what’s wrong with America’s schools.  In response to a report College Board published about an unexpected drop in SAT scores across the nation in 2010, Mr. Bennett jumped right to the source of all of educations problems – teachers and their evil, money grabbing unions.

According to the report published by College Board – the company responsible for developing and scoring the SAT – the drop in SAT scores from 508 (the level recorded six years ago) to 497 on the reading component is due in part to “the record size and diversity of the pool of test-takers.”

In his 15-paragraph article posted on, Mr. Bennett devoted three paragraphs to how much money is spent on education in the US, six paragraphs on teacher contracts, teacher pay and unions and one paragraph, the last one, recapping College Board’s assessment of the problem (there is a two-paragraph introduction as well).  Like most education “pundits”, Mr. Bennett ignored the reason stated in the report by College Board (which has no political stake in presenting its findings) and went right to what he knew was the obvious cause – teachers and unions.  And why not?  Teacher bashing and demonizing unions has become the cause celebre among conservatives and other “reform-minded” citizens. 

Are there bad teachers in American schools?  Of course there are.  Just as there are bad mechanics, bad doctors, bad accountants, and bad financial planners.  Are some of the examples Mr. Bennett cited in his article legitimate causes for concern among parents and administrators and in need of reform?  Again, the answer is yes.  However, rather than examine the causal theory supported by College Board, Mr. Bennett saw this as another opportunity to push an agenda bent on dismantling the system by blaming the easiest and least defensible target.  Furthermore, he fails to make even one direct correlation (no studies, no data, no programs, no anecdotal records – NOTHING) between a one-year decline in scores and the performance of ALL teachers.  More important, Mr. Bennett failed to give relevance to any of the following factors that may (or may not) have attributed to the decline in SAT scores:

a)      The overemphasis on high-stakes testing at the expense of authentic learning experiences.  The pressure on students and teachers to raise standardized test scores has created a “teach to the test” mentality across this nation.  Its origin can be traced to the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act and has continued into the Obama administration’s Race To the Top education program.

b)      The lack of focus (and resources) on our “top performing” students due to an overemphasis on our “lower performing” students.  Please understand I am not advocating that we ignore our struggling students so we can increase SAT scores.  I am saying that over the past 10 years, there has been a deliberate shift in instruction that has been geared toward struggling students at the expense of others.

c)      The deterioration of American families and their focus on education.  Many families have heard the “blame the teachers” cry from politicians so often over the past few years, that they have adopted a similar mantra.  Many have an “It’s not my child’s fault…it’s the teachers fault” approach to every issue and circumstance involving their children.

d)     The deterioration of the economic support system for our schools and our students.  More of our school-age kids are living in poverty than in any time since the Great Depression.  More and more kids are helping their parents raise younger brothers and sisters. More and more kids are escaping the pressures of home life via video games and other non-academic endeavors.

e)      Last but not least, absolutely no “blame” was placed on administrators, district and/or state officials who have allowed some of the deplorable situations Mr. Bennett described in his article to continue. 

During this past legislative session, Florida enacted sweeping education reform similar to what Mr. Bennett proposed.  Senate Bill 736 (and its accompanying House Bill) is currently being implemented.  Its purpose – claim its supporters – is to remove “bad teachers” by eliminating tenure and reward “good teachers” by creating a performance-based pay system.  Sounds great, right, Mr. Bennett?  Here’s what education reformers are not telling you.  Under the new system, it takes three years to fire a “bad teacher” when it took only 90 days under the old system.  As for rewarding good teachers with bonuses based on student performance, these savvy reformers forgot two key elements – funding and providing a valid instrument in which to assess all students.  The result?  Already financially-strapped school districts will have to redistribute funds to pay for the program as well as create assessments (and administer and score them and calculate whose students have shown learning gains) with ZERO funds given to achieve this wonderful reform.

My advice to Mr. Bennett is this:  Let those who work most closely with students decide how to reform the system.  My guess is Mr. Bennett is “gambling” that the public won’t know any better and will continue to buy into the “Let’s bully the teachers”approach he and like-minded folks have already begun.

If you’d like to read Mr. Bennett’s article, you can find it at:

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