This was written by Carol Corbett Burris, principal of South Side High School in New York. She was named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is also one of the organizers of the New York principals’ revolt against evaluating teachers by student test scores.

By Carol Corbett Burris

My assistant principal, John Murphy looked baffled and dejected when he told me the news. During the vacation he saw his daughters playing school…with scantrons. “Hush Daddy, they are taking a test,” his eldest said.  It is easy to find a pretend scantron online, a Google image for a pretend class in a pretend school. How could anyone be a good teacher in 2012 without a supply of bubble sheets?  So sad, we thought, as we shook our heads. Truth be told, we were sad but not surprised. These days, everyone plays school with scantrons.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan plays school with scantrons. Those lovely lead-filled bubbles help him sort the wheat from the chaff in classrooms all over America. He and other market-based reformers claim there is now “scientific evidence” to sort the ineffective teacher from the strong.  And after the weak contributors to scantron scores are found, we can fire our way to excellence.  We will drill and drill our students and raise the bar so high, every child will walk under it.

 The caring teachers who spark creativity and joy will disappear. She will be replaced by those who cower in fear of their number score.  My colleagues are already seeing the transformation. The rich conversations about teaching and learning that used to occur after observations are being replaced by timid voices asking, “What is my number?” But do not worry, as we Race to the Top, Mr. Duncan has a plan of ‘best practices’ in place to increase educational productivity.

There are virtual schools that play school with virtual scantrons. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “Technology ushers in fundamental structural changes that can be integral to achieving significant improvements in productivity.”

Read on and you learn that unlike those gosh darn teachers, technology is there, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to accelerate your child’s learning.  Even better, in the virtual world of learning, you only pay for results.  Just think of it.  If kids never finish a course in a virtual school, it would not cost taxpayers a dime!  Florida Virtual Schools, in partnership with Pearson Education, expects to make $20,000,000 in the next five years—so they can afford to offer clients a "virtual success guarantee" that "80 percent of your students will achieve a passing grade — or your money back for those students that do not!” 

You cannot lose, unless you are the student whose virtual failure will lead to a life without hope in a real, not virtual, world.

However, there are still other alternatives to those pesky teachers on the lower half of the bell curve. On the U.S. Department of Education website you can find a link to Kahn Academy, where a former hedge fund analyst plays school in his ‘flipped’ classrooms with YouTube instruction.

  After watching my first Kahn video several years ago, I asked my staff to discourage our students from watching them because I worried that the poor quality of the instruction would confuse their students. Several years later, I have yet to be impressed.  Perhaps teachers should pull out that Danielson rubric and score the instruction in the flipped classrooms of Kahn (a flipped classroom, according to Kahn, is one in which students receive instruction via YouTube at home, and do homework in school). 

Who evaluates the virtual instructors?  No one. The U.S. Department of Education provides a disclaimer regarding quality on their efficiency page. There are only rigorous standards for the real, not for the virtual.

 In the world of reform, real estate agents with time on their hands can play school, too.  In fact, the U. S. Department of Education will give you over half a million dollars to do it. As Mike Winerip reports in The New York Times, real estate agent, Sharon Akman’s application to open the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School was approved, without the department questioning the accuracy of the application. According to the application, the predominately African American and Latino families of New Brunswick want the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School in their neighborhood, even though the local N.A.A.C.P. does not.  I tend to think the N.A.A.C.P. is right.  I have yet to hear any of my African American students tell me that school would be so much better if they only spoke Hebrew.  Six hundred thousand dollars could do a lot of good for students in the New Brunswick public schools.

The list of those playing school appears to be endless.  The profiteers and lobbyists are racing to the top of a mountain of public dollars while both political parties cheer them on while gleefully taking their contributions.  Although research has clearly sounded the alarm on the substantially lower rates of virtual schools that meet Adequate Yearly Progress, the Department of Education has no problem listing them as ‘efficiency alternatives.’ And in that listing, the true colors show.  For how can any politician gnash his teeth and wring his hands about so-called ineffective teachers while giving free reign and funds to the profiteers who play school with taxpayer dollars without accountability or evidence that what they are doing works? 

What will become of the children who are ensnared by false promises?

How will the cyber teacher engage our children in thoughtful discussions, motivate them with a smile, respond to their confusion, be their advocate when they are bullied?

Will the PowerPoint presenter on YouTube realize the bleary-eyed child in front of the screen  had no breakfast? Will he know if he is there at all?

Who in cyberspace will dig into her pocket and buy the winter coat for the young woman who does not have one, the way my teachers do?

Where will the funds come from to enrich our students’ lives with art and music when tax dollars are handed over to charter school operators and online profiteers?

Who will want to teach or lead in the tattered public schools that are left behind for those who do not have the money to flee to private schools?

How can those private schools, many founded on a faith-based commitment to serving the children of the poor, compete with charters that grab the public dollars?

The agenda to turn our public schools over to profiteers while destroying the professionalism of public educators becomes clearer every day.  With one voice we need to say, no more.  The time of playing school with scantrons must end.


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