By Sara Stevenson
As a lifelong educator who has worked 10 years in a Catholic high school and now 11 years as a public middle school librarian, I am highly invested in the current conversation surrounding public education and reform. Some of you have stopped reading, assuming I’m a union teacher with tenure. Disclaimer: I work in Texas, a right to work state, where we have no tenure or unions with collective bargaining rights. Still, my experience demands that I defend public education, which is often under assault.
I am disturbed when high-flying charter schools, such as Harlem Success Academy, brag about their student standardized test scores, not because I begrudge them but because they seem blithely unaware of selection bias. Just the very fact that a parent takes the initiative to apply to one of these schools makes a huge difference. In addition, both students and their parents have to sign contracts and agree to longer hours and high performance standards. If students do not live up to these standards, they are no longer able to attend. A fair comparison between test scores of high-profile charter students and regular public school children must include only the public school students who attend regularly, do their homework, and, along with their parents, are committed to school. Or compare them to magnet schools, which is what they essentially are.
Editorial pages of many newspapers often bemoan the expense of public schools. Yes, since the 1970s, we are spending more per student. Part of this is due to inflation (try comparing house values in the 1970’s to now), but part is also due to the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law has enabled so many children to access services, including, when necessary, one-on-one aides, who guide them throughout the school day. These services are absolutely the right thing to do, but they are expensive.
Charter schools have fewer children with disabilities as well as fewer English Language Learners. Studies cite a 3-4 percent gap in special education students at charter vs. regular public schools. But as someone who works in a public school with a Life Skills unit, I wondered: where are the Life Skills units at high profile charter schools? They may have special education students, but do they have middle school students with a mental age of 1 1/2 years old, colostomy bags and diapers, students with multiple and severe disabilities who are served in their own classrooms? No. For example, North Star Academy Charter schools in Newark have 36 percent fewer students with severe (high cost) disabilities than the Newark public schools in general. While in New York City, 41 percent of public school students speak a language other than English at home, only 5 percent do so at Harlem Success Academy.
Furthermore, the greatest expense for public schools is personnel. It seems that some of the recent animosity toward teachers is due to the simple fact that our salaries are paid from tax revenue. As Rupert Murdoch has remarked, public education is a $500 billion business, and some see that public money as a private business opportunity.
People ask: what’s wrong with “choice” and vouchers? First of all, vouchers transfer public money to private institutions. Public schools lose the annual, per dollar amount for each child who leaves and takes the money with her. If choice in the form of charters and vouchers continues to siphon involved families and students from public schools, then public schools will become dumping grounds for our children with the greatest material, physical, language, and emotional needs. We become a nation in which some children win while others lose. While that may be the way of the wolves on Wall Street, we public school teachers will not abandon the lambs in our charge. Rather than working to improve schools for all, market practices make it acceptable to continue leaving children behind.
In closing, great schools have these things in common: a strong principal who is an instructional leader, committed and involved families, adequate funding, and committed, prepared, well-compensated teachers. According to the latest Texas Tribune poll, even 65 percent of Republicans believe teachers should be paid more. Colleges and universities need to make teacher programs more competitive. We must raise the bar on getting a teaching certificate, and we must get rid of fly-by-night, six-week training programs.
We must partner with parents. The secret to success in high-achieving charter schools and private schools is parental commitment to the shared goal of educating children. Amanda Ripley, in her excellent book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, cites research demonstrating that if parents do two things, their children will most likely succeed academically: 1) Read to them from a young age. 2) Model reading themselves.
We need to follow the common sense wisdom of Stephen Krashen’s “The Power of Reading.” Give students time to read in school, allow them to self-select their books, and provide them access to these books, and children will read. By reading, they practice and improve their literacy. Not only do readers do well on standardized tests, but according to research cited in “Reading in the Wild” by teacher Donalyn Miller, readers vote more, volunteer more, and are better informed citizens. Sadly, instead, many school districts are cutting librarians and library programs in order to spend more on testing.
We need to better support our children in the United States. Too many children live in poverty: 23 percent. In Texas, 60 percent of our public school students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Teachers will tell you of students living in cars, moving every other month because parents can’t pay the rent, coming to kindergarten not knowing their colors. Universal Pre-K will absolutely make a difference.
There are many things we, as a society, can do to improve our schools, but the current “reform” policies — which stress punitive testing, demonizing teachers as lazy leeches, advocating performance pay, and privatizing public schools — are taking us further from the noble traditions which made us great. Our nation was the first in the world to provide free, compulsory education. This mission is inscribed in most of our state constitutions. Our public schools are the centers of our neighborhoods and communities. They are run by democratically elected school board members. Public education as an institution needs to be nurtured and cherished for the common good.