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Educating for Democracy: Thoughts at the End of the Year

As we approach the end of the year, we educators should give some thoughts to where our country might be heading in the future of public education. From the beginning of the year, there have been countless public demonstrations protesting the closing of neighborhood schools, "co-location" of public schools with charter schools, overuse of standardized tests to determine teacher competence, demonization of public school teachers. Moreover, despite all of the "reforms" of prominent figures such as Mayor Bloomberg, Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates, there is the persistence of flat test scores and little if any improvement in the "racial achievement gap" which, according to a recent report, will now be obscured by lumping in economically disadvantaged students of all racial backgrounds in evaluating test scores:

A number of states struggling with vast racial achievement gaps in schools may have found a way around the problem: Lump blacks and Hispanics with handicapped and poor children. Nine of the 11 states seeking federal waivers from the No Child Left Behind law have proposed revised accountability systems, designed to track how an all-encompassing group of "disadvantaged students" stacks up against the student population as a whole, according to a new study from the Center on Education Policy, a D.C.-based education think tank. . . Compared to NCLB, the waiver proposals place far less importance on the gaps between two specific groups of students. Instead, the disadvantaged category -- dubbed a "supergroup" by some education specialists -- would be compared to the overall student population, and the plans call for schools to make progress each year in closing that disparity.

Ironically, by creating this new category, instead of merely obscuring racial gaps in education, these states will be pinpointing what many educators have been insisting for years: educational achievement is directly linked to economic well being. There are a few inspiring stories about students in low-income neighborhoods with relatively modest educational resources who have outstanding achievements in their test scores and graduation rates and who have been inspired by exceptional teachers and strong and intelligent leadership from administrators. But, as I wrote in a recent HuffPost blog:
my opinion is that -- unlike Mayor Bloomberg's assumption that if half of the teachers in NYC were fired and class size was doubled, the "good teachers" would improve the educational experience of young learners and the "bad teachers" would be eliminated -- good and bad teaching depend on many other factors besides the teachers themselves, most of which are beyond their control. The number one issue that has a direct correlation with poor education is poverty.

In this past year I have attended many demonstrations and one national event in July, the Save Our Schools March, in which many of the issues that concern educators, parents and children were dramatized. I have seen a moving film about the negative consequences of the Bloomberg Administration's educational policies, An Inconvenient Truth About Waiting for Superman, and I have heard strongly argued demands for reduction in class size as a way of improving education.

What I would hope for in any future appeals to those in charge of educational policy -- most of whom seem totally oblivious to the concerns of educators, public school parents and young learners as anti-learning policies in the guise of "school reform" are still the norm -- is to direct their attention, as the Occupy Wall Street movement has done, to economic inequality. I believe that the future emphasis in any effective school reform movement should be to improve the living conditions of the low-achieving students in order to give them the opportunity to become high-achievers. Then, perhaps, the kind of quality learning that is evident in many other industrialized countries can become the norm in ours.

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Joel Shatzky

Joel Shatzky is an early-retired English Professor who taught writing and drama at SUNY-Cortland (1968-2005) and is presently teaching English and writing at King...