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America’s schools are at a turning point. Our children are being over-tested, our teachers are physically exhausted and emotionally demoralized, and our tax dollars are being diverted to replace our public schools with a privately managed, free-market system of education.
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In Ohio, entering kindergarten students are required to take a state-mandated Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA) exam. In recent testimony before the Ohio Senate Education Committee, Jessie Rindler, a veteran kindergarten teacher for the Kettering City Schools, didn’t mince words in sharing how KRA testing is negatively impacting the academic growth of her students: “This test is not used to inform my work with my students. It is getting in the way of my very intentional work of authentically instructing and assessing the needs of my students. It is of little value because it takes so long to administer. The time used to administer it could be used to provide critical interventions. I question the developmental appropriateness of that much testing for young students, some of whom are four years old, have never been in school before, and may not speak English. Many students, especially fragile populations of students, show signs of stress and fatigue during testing. Some are unable to effectively use technology or appropriately seek support for technology problems as they arise. The downfalls are many.”
A champion of public education and author of Schools Cannot Do It Alone, Jamie Vollmer discusses how the mountain of social, psychological, and medical responsibilities that have been heaped upon the schoolhouse door has become an ever increasing burden on America’s public schools. John McKnight has reached the same conclusion but from a different perspective. Codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University and a Kettering Foundation senior associate, McKnight reports in “The Educating Neighborhood: How Villages Raise Their Children” that in one or two generations villages have lost their power to raise children and their functions have largely been transferred to the schools. He explains that these transfers have created teachers who often feel overwhelmed by all of these responsibilities and, as a result, diminished their capacity to teach those things for which they were prepared. His article appeared in the 2017 issue of CONNECTIONS, an annual journal of the Kettering Foundation.
On December 6, the former Director of the Office of 21st Century Education for the Ohio Department of Education made an eye-opening acknowledgement. In prepared remarks in support of the Public School Deregulation Act (Senate Bill 216), Dr. Robert Sommers testified before the Senate Education Committee that Ohio’s education reforms haven’t worked:
“Our efforts over the last 10-15 years have been driven by our desire to improve educational results. The reforms we implemented were thoughtful and, at the time of implementation, showed great promise. But now we know they haven’t gotten the results we wanted. Thomas Edison famously tested 3,000 different filaments before he discovered the one that made the electric light bulb possible. Thomas Edison is known for his incredible inventions and for his bringing light and electric power to the world. But his greatest accomplishments came not from being correct, but being willing to fail 2,999 times, learning from the failure, and moving on to new options. SB 216 is the first acknowledgement that our current reforms, just like the failed filaments, must be learned from and then let go. We must move forward into a new generation of reforms.… Continue reading
In a recent interview with the Kettering Foundation, Katherine Cramer was asked if there is anything – given all of the tumult in American politics – that bodes well for the state of democracy. Ms. Cramer is faculty director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service and professor of political science at the University Wisconsin-Madison. Her response: “Yes, there is one thing that gives me a great deal of hope, and that is the level of concern about our democracy. Heightened anxiety is not necessarily a good thing, but if it leads to action it is. I have had the unusual experience of suddenly receiving a great deal of correspondence from people I do not know who are feeling the need to express their concern and looking for answers about how we heal our democracy…Most of what I am receiving is correspondence from people who are wanting to understand others in the United States and looking for ways to pressure our elected officials to put more attention on the common good, rather on us vs. them, zero-sum politics.”
In a brief but provocative YouTube video entitled “Two School Districts, One Ugly Truth,” John Kuhn, superintendent of the Mineral Wells Independent School District in Texas, expresses his deep concern that the greatest educational malpractice in the United States happens in the statehouse not the schoolhouse. He states that “if we truly cared how our students end up, we would have shared accountability where everyone whose fingerprints are on these students of ours has to answer for the choices that they make.”
Early in his career as superintendent of schools, Charles Irish tried to follow in the footsteps of his mentors who taught him that success in the community would mostly be about selling your solutions to a “yet-to-be-informed” public. More than once he was told that people don’t know what they want or need and that you, as superintendent, have to patiently educate them. After frustrating experiences and a lot of soul searching, he concluded that this model of leadership was insincere and unsustainable. In “How I Learned What Not to Do as a School Superintendent,” (beginning on page 72) he shares a fascinating story about his journey on the road to a new way of thinking.
Note: My friend and colleague, Charlie Irish served for 13 years as superintendent of the Medina City Schools in Medina, Ohio. His “How I Learned What Not to Do as a School Superintendent” article appears in the current edition of Connections, a publication of the Kettering Foundation. An internationally renowned think-tank, Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should?
“If public education exists to serve the individual only, then “free enterprise education” ought to rule the day. Charters, privatization, etc. would be the way to achieve that goal — a race to see who can get the most and the best. But if the goal is tempered by seeking to enhance democracy by creating a stronger citizenry, then treating education as something for the individual only works against that ideal.” – Charlie Irish
Note: Charlie Irish served for 13 years as superintendent of the Medina City Schools. He currently works with the Kettering Foundation on what it takes for democracy to work as it should.
“Public education is predicated on the notion that you’re concerned about other people’s kids just as much as your own kids…But all of this privatizing, profit obsession, all of this preoccupation with short-term gain has pushed long-term integrity to the side, no matter what color you are or what class you are…And we have to be honest (and)…tell the truth about it. That’s the only way we’re going to turn it around.” — Cornel West
NOTE: Dr. West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He has taught at Yale, Harvard, the University of Paris, Princeton, and, most recently, Union Theological Seminary. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard and obtained his MA and PhD in philosophy at Princeton. He has written 20 books and has edited 13.
In her newly published book, These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools, co-author Emily Gasoi contends that the continued overuse of standardized tests lowers the quality of education and misrepresents the hard work of students, teachers and their schools. She believes that “test-based accountability encourages schools to emphasize outmoded instructional practices, such as prioritizing rote learning and correct answers over inquiry, holding all students to a one-size-fits-all benchmark, discouraging collaboration, undervaluing creative and critical thinking, and assessing discrete, decontextualized skills, all of which runs counter to what is now being touted as twenty-first century teaching and learning.”
As we all know, we live in a politically divided nation where the level of trust has fallen to a dangerously low point. However, there is a silver lining and reason for hope. It is our children. When we focus on the needs of our children rather than the needs of adults, we come together as citizens. I’ve observed this happening time after time over the past 30 years as citizens have come together to pass school tax issues in order to meet the educational needs of the children in their communities. With the creation of the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network, once again, children are the focal point of this grassroots movement to provide Ohio’s citizens with a stronger voice in shaping statewide education policy.