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December 5, 2010 - Ray Hall (Archive)
If there was a Golden Age for education in America it was in the fifties and sixties. For those attending high school in the fifties SAT scores (the standardized test for college admission) was at an all time high. The sixties were a heady time in the United States—JFK, the moon landing, MLK, Woodstock, Vietnam and education in America was the standard by which the world’s nations were measured.

Now, barely ten years into the new century, America no longer leads the world in education. We are not even a close second—we are not even ranked in the top ten nations around the world. We plummeted from the top of the class.

Some scholars suggest that instead of looking at what other countries did to move ahead of the United States so quickly we have spent precious time looking for someone to blame. The result—America is in a near panic. For thirty years we have been looking for the culprit—for something or someone to blame for our failing schools. Our self-loathing for education began in 1962 after the Supreme Court declared prayer in schools to be unconstitutional. Religious zealots bellowed that declining education was the result of removing God from public schools. Like minded Conservatives saw an opportunity to launch an all out assault on their number one enemy—labor unions, teacher unions in particular; they happily joined the chorus in dummying down education in America.

All sorts of crackpot solutions evolved from that movement. Ignorance is on parade. Some southern conservatives want to assuage the unpleasantness of slavery in our textbooks with the more benign sounding term Atlantic Triangular Trade. They would have students learn about the unintended consequences of affirmative action and the Great Society with more emphasis on Conservative icons like Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Einstein’s formula for relativity—E=MC2 would be challenged by a bible verse instead of mathematics.

However, religious zealots and conservatives are far from being alone in what has become a relentless barrage against education in America. President Clinton and Al Gore joined the attack on public schools by encouraging individual vouchers and charter schools despite ample scholarship that shows charter school students perform no better than public school students.

Despite mountains of evidence we have chosen to ignore the role family circumstances plays in educating our children. The income gap between the rich and the poor is growing at an alarming rate and shows no signs of shrinking. That income disparity is evident in the classroom. Studies show that by age 10 children with professional parents are three years ahead of their counterparts.

Other countries have overcome that income gap by setting rigorous standards and providing struggling students with one-on-one attention. In Finland one in three students has help from a tutor. Countries like Australia, Korea and Finland invest heavily in teacher training. Studies have shown that children with effectual teachers learn three times as much as those with less effective teachers.

Yet, we seem paralyzed to do anything other than to blame teachers for our problems and playing that blame game is not only irresponsible but reckless. Opponents of teachers unions have deliberately spread the word that tenure makes teachers immune from firings. As a result, the myth unfolds, is that teachers become lazy and uncaring and their job performance drops once they attain tenure.

Tenure does not guarantee a job—teachers are fired all the time—tenure only provides due process. Brought on board to reform Washington D.C. schools Michelle Rhee recently resigned as Superintendent after she locked horns with parents and firing 241 teachers. Ms. Rhee was heralded as one of the most capable school reformers in the United States and so was Joel Klein who for the last 8 years has been Chancellor of the largest school system in the United States. Mr. Klein became notorious for firing teachers and administrators throughout the New York City school system. Both districts only show marginal improvements.

In Burlington, Vermont Joyce Irving was removed July 1 as principal of Wheeler Elementary School. According to the New York Times Ms. Irving received sterling job performance evaluations from her superiors and glowing praise from students and parents of students.

The Times reports that Ms. Irvine wasn’t removed by anyone who had seen her work (often 80 hours a week) at a school where 37 of 39 fifth graders were either refugees or special-ed children. A parent of one such student and supporter of Ms. Irvine said he was delighted that his daughter learned to play the violin.

Ms. Irvine was removed because the school district wanted to qualify for $3 million in federal money for its dozen schools. Under the Obama Administration rules schools with low test scores must either close down or remove the principal and half the staff or remove the principal and transform the school into a charter school. Vermont does not have charter schools.

At a time when school districts are held hostage for federal and state dollars, when teachers are judged by test scores and victimized by wholesale firings we know what we ought to do; we ought to be hiring more teachers instead of firing them. We can no longer claim to value education when we have turned against teachers, the only people capable of righting our educational wrongs.


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