Stop Blaming Teachers for Poor Student Performance

The Baltimore City Council, spurred by Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, deserves praise for its resolution endorsing the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action, to be held in Washington, D.C., on July 30. This march, and the national attention it brings to the plight of our public schools, is long overdue ? especially as it falls on the heels of the mass hysteria around blaming teachers for the questionable lack of student performance on high-stakes tests.

This resolution comes at a very important time for education policymaking in Maryland. Gov. Martin O’Malley must appoint a new state schools superintendent, now that Nancy Grasmick is retiring. Perhaps the governor will take the hint from Baltimore City that we need to reverse course immediately.

Ms. Grasmick was a strong proponent of Race to the Top, which has been more appropriately labeled “Race to the Bottom” and even “Rat Race to the Top.” The entire focus of President Barack Obama’s educational policy is to replace public schools with charter and non-union schools; bust the teachers unions by stripping teachers of collective bargaining rights; rely on extremely nebulous, faulty and often fraudulent data to assess school and student performances; tie teacher salaries to standardized test scores; and ignore economic reality in order to shift blame for apparent failures.

The politics around blaming teachers is simple. If you’re not going to go after the legitimate targets for educational “failures,” then look for scapegoats. This approach is clearly bipartisan, as President Obama, the Democrat, chants a similar mantra to the likes of Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin ? that all should share the sacrifices. In education, shifting the responsibility almost entirely onto the professional teaching class is their way of sharing sacrifices.

Our national focus on education is to turn it into a business with no input from its workers. Teachers are laborers, and students are the commodities. But consider this: The state with the highest state test scores, Massachusetts, is the most unionized state for teachers. Conversely, South Carolina, the most anti-union state in the country, shows the worst performance among its students but nary a peep from the “reformers.” Yet it is somehow the unions’ fault that students aren’t performing well? Who is manufacturing failed “products?”

The data that back up the notion that students’ failures are the fault of teachers are easily debunked. Diane Ravitch, the lightning rod for exposing the fraudulence of No Child Left Behind and its permutation, Race to the Top, posits that the success of Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the D.C. public schools, may be based on widespread fraud. Unfortunately, Ms. Rhee, one of the heroes of the Superman syndrome and one of Mr. Obama’s educational champions, is not alone.

Who is favored? Race to the Top certainly does not favor the student. It favors test makers and new assessment tools and their enormously expensive software, professional development gurus, young Teach for America recruits who quickly see greener pastures after toughing it out for two years, and six-figure principals of non-union chartered schools.

Merit pay ? tying test scores to teacher salaries, a major part of the new Baltimore City teachers contract ? is one of its “selling factors” that guarantees those with the most needs will be those who are least served. Hey, who wants to teach students who will likely bring down a school’s scores and have a direct impact on one’s paycheck?

Governor O’Malley, your former colleagues from the Baltimore City Council have sent you a message. Look for a state superintendent who does not see teachers as the problem, or pit teacher against teacher with wild schemes of merit pay for only a select group, or endlessly test students only to prove how well they can do on taking multiple choice tests. This is not education. The business model does not work ? and replacing the superintendent with one who recognizes this will turn Maryland into the educational powerhouse it used to be.

When we march in Washington this summer for our schools, let Marylanders know that we are in the business of teaching and that pedagogy should not be based on the corporate bottom line.

Myles Hoenig is an educational advocate and veteran ESOL teacher with Baltimore City and Prince George’s County public schools. His email is hoenigedu@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun.



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