If you want to feel a daily pang of real distress and helplessness (as though there is not enough of this on our side of the Atlantic), the regular litany of underfunding, corporate takeover, maladministration by state governments and sheer plutocracy that governs the weakening dinosaur that is US public schooling is a persistent reminder of how painful it must be to be a supporter of public education in America. The clearest window onto this situation is Diane Ravich’s blog which I check each morning for the few snippets of good news coming from what we must now term resistance fighters, mainly from parent and teacher groups, fighting the corporates who are turning as many as possible of US public schools into charter schools. The reasons for this are (from the government side) the deepening panic that “test scores” are dropping and their determination that the “no child left behind” strategy from the Bush years reflect well on whichever current administration needs to look good. As a result, charter sponsors have received buckets of federal and state money to set up and in places to continue running these charters, which grow in direct proportion to the difficulties faced by the remaining public schools to thrive – all of this sounds horribly familiar, but the situation in the US is simply becoming dire. From the sponsors side, the foundation of charters is sometimes motivated by a excess of wealth and the need to invest it “philanthropically” somewhere (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, is causing havoc in some states, notably California), or by sheer exasperation with the existing public schooling in a particular district, or in some places, just by greed and the chancing upon an investment opportunity. From the “education private sector” the issue is that of “school choice” which means as little in the US as it does here for the vast majority of lower income families. Viz. this comment from Milwaukee from this post of Diane’s:
Despite the failure of choice to improve education, Governor Scott Walker wants to expand school choice and eliminate public schools altogether. The irony is that the students in public schools repeatedly have outperformed the students in choice schools, even though the public schools have a disproportionate share of students with disabilities and others that are not chosen by the choice schools. Chances are that Walker and the legislature will keep some public schools to use as a dumping ground for the students unwanted by the charters and voucher schools.
I love the idea of “expand school choice and eliminate public schools altogether” – and they say Americans don’t get irony.
It is of course much more complicated than this, and the growing process has, in the course of the last few years, exposed many shady links between states, districts and charter sponsors, many of which are under some sort of investigation, whether legal or journalistic. What matters is that somewhere along the line, one of the deepest instincts of US citizenry, that of public service and willingness to serve a local community through all branches of government, has been eroded in favour of the relentless march of corporate greed and expansion, leaving the periphery to fight for itself against the centralising thrust. So today we read that high schools in Erie, Ohio, are closing for lack of resources and having to send pupils to other districts to be educated. Last month it was Detroit schools that had no money to pay teachers.
It is sounding very like a 3rd world country to my ears, or like Russia when it had a good, committed functioning school system and no money to pay its teachers.
And then I look at this article in the TES from Andy Hargreaves, one of the most astute commentators on genuine school reform in North America, and we have to look at England again. (If you want a flavour of his passion and desire for teachers, watch this presentation from Bologna in 2013). Hargreaves argues thus in his TES article:
Britain has a teacher recruitment crisis. But it is not truly British. The complaint is much more spectacular in England. In Scotland, teaching is an attractive profession and while recruitment levels are disappointing, the issue is not as profound. The Scottish system is creaking; the English system has fallen over. What explains the difference?
The answer is simple. Scotland values a strong state educational system run by 32 local authorities that is staffed by well-trained and highly valued professionals who stay and grow in a secure and rewarding job. Teachers serve others, for most or all of their working life, in a cooperative profession that supports them to do this to the best of their abilities.
England no longer values these things. About half of its schools are now outside local authority control. England offers a business capital model that invests in education to yield short-term profits and keep down costs through shorter training, weakened security and tenure, and keeping salaries low by letting people go before they cost too much.
By comparison, Scotland models what is called professional capital: bringing in skilled as well as smart people; training them rigorously in university settings connected to practical environments; giving them time and support to collaborate on curriculum and other matters; and paying them to develop their leadership and their careers so that they can make effective decisions together and deliver better outcomes for young people.
The tragedy outlined by Hargreaves is that the failure of the business model used by English education means that the central attack is against teachers (to attack their pay), against their growth (to reduce CPD costs) and to reduce teacher collaboration (because it “doesn’t work”). This is a serious misreading by those with the money of what truly generates professional capital (horrid term, but Hargreaves and Fullan’s book on the subject is fantastic) and promotes the health of the whole system. The DfE has, since December last year, a “school efficiency metric” which is the most industrial approach to education yet advanced by a department that has to do with children’s souls. The fact that it exists at all tells you nearly all you need to know about the state of English education.
The essential conclusion: until we eliminate competition and corporate interference in national education, we will never build a truly collaborative, communal education system that breeds confidence in teachers and parents, and serves the communities we find ourselves called to serve.
Right, now I am properly distressed. I shall watch the Hargreaves video from Bologna to regain my perspective.