Derek Scarlino

Why Cuomo’s Education Plan Doesn’t Measure Up

by Derek Scarlino

It’s time for the United States to get serious about education. Like most other areas of this society, the apathetic retreat of the public has opened opportunities for non-person persons (read: corporations) to increase their influence on decision-making and policy. This is also, increasingly, happening with education.

While it is not yet the case that education is being widely privatized, it is plausible that the United States is on the path to such an outcome. This is the United States. If something isn’t generating profit, it’s not valued. Hell, our political system, from elections to policy, is basically privatized these days.

For up to 40 years, there has been a homeschooling movement very closely aligned with conservatives and those among the Religious Right to break away from the sin of secular, evidence-based education in favor of rumination, faith and cavemen riding dinosaurs.

Piggy-backing off of this, the charter school movement of the last 20-plus years has been championed, more or less, by the same ilk. People opting for alternative measures to publicly run and funded schools and their hardcore collectivist/Nazi/Islamic/commie/liberal/atheist/socialist agendas.

“Reform! Reform!” are the cries.

Reform is good. Reform is great, but the plans for that reform must be subject to due public and professional scrutiny. Also, we should hope that the model chosen as the basis for that reform is proven to attain wanted results. Charter schools, Cuomo’s model of choice, simply do not live up to the scrutiny.

Charter school reform is simply not the answer to the US’s education deficiencies. Yes, the United States ranks anywhere from the middle of the pack to the near bottom in everything from math to literacy to science among the education systems of the developed world. And the solutions being proposed here are the exact opposite of what more successful countries are doing.

The Scandinavian model, for instance (Finland in particular), typically boasts the best results among post-industrial nations. How do they do this? With rigorous third party evaluations? Increased reliance on standardized tests? Voucher programs? Independently run schools? Low-paid teachers without tenure or unions? Is Andrew Cuomo in charge of the Finnish model?

The answer to Finland’s success, and that of several other countries near the top, can be found in the exact opposite approach to all of those factors listed. Finland pays its teachers well (very well). It’s education system is 100 percent taxpayer funded. The teachers have tenure and working unions. They don’t rely on standardized tests or controversial teacher evaluation systems in which they have no say. In essence, they do not approach education like a business — which is the growing trend in these United States.

Of course there are caveats; Finland only allows its top percent of graduates to become teachers. The bar is lower in the United States, but that doesn’t mean teachers are not professionals or unprepared.

Our teachers hold Master’s Degrees. They have to. In all 50 states. That’s at least five to six years of higher education based on the program. A quarter of Americans even have Bachelor’s Degrees, let alone a Master’s. Still, we demean educators with a zeal uncommon in the developed nations we aim to compete with.

We use international rankings on education to further denigrate teachers and paint them as undeserving loafs. Clearly, these rankings show that teachers are not doing their jobs. There must be reform! So, while we reference these rankings to push that agenda, let’s make sure that we don’t, you know, do what the more successful countries do. After all, they aren’t America. The obvious answer is quality control (read: that “reform” word you keep hearing).

Among the most damning of charter school characteristics is that they have not consistently proven to be a better method as the majority perform at either the same rate of success as public schools, or worse. Up to 85 percent of charters fall into that dyad.

Where charters do perform well are in underserved communities. In a place like New York State, of course a committed, concerted approach to serving poorer students is going to pay off. New York has some of the most unequal and segregated funding allocation for education in the United States. Also, charter schools have longer academic years, and this benefits low-income students who record the most loss during time away from schools. This could be solved within our public system. And therein lies the challenge, to make necessary changes as opposed to abandoning our public system.

Public schools can do what is expected of them, but the strings need to be cut; the lack of political will to see this through needs to be challenged. Those challenges have to start in the community. In the home.

Education always works best where there is a support system in place. If you’re not engaged, then you’re not paying attention and you’re seeing the results which put American students behind. What we see a lot of are parents who don’t like policies like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top or Common Core, and yet their solution isn’t to put any pressure on schools or elected officials, but rather to homeschool. To take their ball to a different part of the playground. Because who wants to be the squeaky wheel, right?

Again, while it isn’t the case that Cuomo’s beloved charter schools are technically private schools, they aren’t technically public, either. Most are privately run and while public schools educate everyone, charters often rely on lottery systems.

That communities might want an alternative choice between educational opportunities isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we need to come to realistic terms when it comes to the word choice. It doesn’t always mean it’s better. To reiterate, charter schools mostly do not outperform public schools and while a community may want one, the public funds to support the initiative should not be taken away from public schools. It should be separate, and it is, but for how long? It is not the history of this country that what’s public stays public; what’s allocated for public use is always committed to such ends.

We must also consider teachers. I have personal experience teaching in a for-profit, non-union setting in South Korean academies called hagwons. This is absolutely the last possible system that we want. Busy work, parents holding their tuition payments as ransom over changes they want in your classroom (or even your job), bosses with bottom lines, termination without an excuse (which is legal in New York, but in Korean private academies, there’s no review process). It can be a nightmare and it’s not a work environment that would want to pursue as a career. It’s not stable, but yet the demands can be very high.

While South Korea may boast high test scores, there are several reasons for that: Korean society (and East Asian/Confucian societies in general) values education as a pillar of said society; teachers are respected, though it is a bit different for foreigners; the learning method used to prepare for tests, rote memorization, is best employed for the exact task of maximizing performance on tests, yet it sees the greatest loss of content knowledge over a shorter period of time than other learning methods. While nations like China, South Korea and Japan value education greatly, and shape parts of their society around it (unlike the United States, but not unlike Finland, Sweden, Germany, France, etc.), they do approach tests in a methodical way in order to maximize positive results. So there’s that.

We need to be wary of Governor Cuomo’s education plans. He’s promoting an alternative that has only proven to be par to sub-par in comparison to what we have. He has suggested controversial changes to tenure and challenges to union power. It appears that he wants to pursue a more capitalistic approach to education via treating it like a business and “streamlining” the workforce to the least amount of actual teachers whose productivity will be maximized for the lowest wages possible, while worker rights are stripped and more rigid hierarchy replaces what was once more democratic.

It’s not a road we want to go down. Education is not a business.

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