The Obama administration, to its credit, is actually paying attention to, and putting money into, urban public education. But Arne Duncan, the education secretary, is using some of the money to push a broad agenda that, frankly, drives me nuts and undermines a lot of what public education ought to be about.
The New York Times Magazine did a good job laying out the agenda May 23. The self-styled reformers want to encourage charter schools, push standardized testing (and other easily quantifiable methods of evaluating classroom performance) and change the way teachers are hired and fired. In fact, in many ways, the Duncan agenda is all about blaming the teachers for the problems in public schools.
There are, absolutely, some bad teachers out there. There are people who are so burned out they should leave and find other work. There are people who never were terribly good at teaching anyway. There are people who can't do the job, and somehow stick around year after year, dooming students to poor-quality classes. There are 300,000 public-school teachers in California; not all of them will be great. (There are also, by the way, terrible lawyers who never get disbarred and terrible doctors who kill and maim patients and manage to protect their medical licenses.)
But in California, certainly, the relatively modest number of poor teachers is not by any stretch the biggest problem with public education. And tests, particularly standardized tests, are not remotely a valid way of determining which teachers are good and which aren't.
Teachers in California cities face widely divergent student populations. In some San Francisco classrooms, a majority of the students are English learners, or come from broken or troubled families, or lack proper nutrition, or are homeless ... and those are just the surface issues. Telling a dedicated first-grade teacher that he or she is going to be fired because of test scores in a classroom where it takes heroic efforts every day to get 20 troubled kids to sit down and pay attention for even 15 minutes isn't just unfair. It's crazy.
The teachers unions have fought some of these efforts, and -- thanks to world-class organizing efforts and a fair amount of campaign money -- have managed to beat some of them back in Congress and state Legislatures. That's where Race to the Top comes in.
Duncan and his merry band of "reformers" are dangling out federal money to districts that desperately, desperately need any pennies they can get -- but the price is high. In essence, you have to sign on to at least part of the Duncan agenda, which promotes testing, charter schools, etc.
The highest number of points — 138 of the 500-point scale that Duncan and his staff created for the Race — would be awarded based on a commitment to eliminate what teachers’ union leaders consider the most important protections enjoyed by their members: seniority-based compensation and permanent job security.
It's almost a cruel bargain: You don't have enough money to buy chalk for the chalkboard or pencils for the kids, and the feds are happy to help -- as long as you stick it to the teachers unions and sign onto an agenda that a lot of progressive school boards despise.
And that's where San Francisco is.
In a special meeting May 20, the San Francisco School Board signed on to a Memorandum of Understanding with the state of California that will be part of California's application for Race to the Top funding. You can read the MOU here. It's not as bad as some of what Duncan is pushing, but still: SFUSD is participating in this madness.
I asked Jane Kim, president of the School Board, about it, and she told me that the district's proposal "doesn't have anything about charter schools or merit pay. It's really just a continuation of the work that we're already doing." And that's true, although Dennis Kelly, the head of the local teachers union, United Educators of San Francisco, isn't happy about it, though; he told me that "this is not something we could sign on to. It's pretty much the standard state form."
And the board passed it unanimously, and a lot of the local board members are good progressives who know more about education than I do. And as Kim pointed out, at a time like this, "I don't think we should refuse to go for the extra funding."
Frankly, the San Francisco Unified School District isn't going to get any Race to the Top money anyway -- not with districts all over the country selling their souls and going way, way further than we are to scrap for that cash. But I have to ask: Since Race to the Top is such a bad idea, why are we even playing the game?
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