Like every other public institution in the United States, our education system is simultaneously under attack and flailing in its attempt to defend itself. Politicians and pundits jump into the fray as No Child Left Behind morphs into Race To The Top. Schools are forced to comply with high stakes testing in order to get funding. Budgets are cut to the bone and teachers, struggling to make ends meet, are forced to teach to tests that seem to be designed to ensure that many schools, teachers and children will fail. The vaunted Common Core, for example, that will replace the STAR tests in California and most other states in 2015, is not developmentally appropriate, particularly in the younger grades. It was not designed by teachers who know what children can actually do at different ages. When it was previewed this year in New York schools, the testers had a new problem to solve: what to do with tests that stressed children had vomited on. Really.
Public schools, once seen as the keystone of democracy and the agent of an informed and responsible citizenry, are now facing takeovers by for-profit charter schools that cut teacher salaries and spending per pupil while pocketing profit from federal funding. How did we come to such a pass? When I was growing up, California boasted the world’s best educational system. My four years at U.C. Berkeley were essentially free. With health care included, I paid the Regents $150 a year in student fees. I did not have to take standardized tests or honors courses to be admitted. U.C. accepted my application with a transcript of courses and GPA. My ability to attend this prestigious university was considered an earned right, supported by the citizens of California through their taxes.
A student entering UCB next year will pay $13,200 in tuition. If her parents are not wealthy, she will most probably be indentured for decades to a usurious student loan scam. According to a recent article in Education Week, California now ranks 49th among the states in per pupil spending. Last year at the school where I was Education Director, the administration decided to take a 5% cut in salary and our teachers gave up five days of instruction in order to maintain our bare bones program. This, in one of the richest states in the richest country in the world.
The reasons for this devolution are complex, reflecting the values of our late stage neoliberal free market economic system that seems unable to correct its trajectory towards catastrophe. That said, corporate influence in public education has been pernicious for many years. A passionately engaged English and Drama teacher, I was horrified in the mid 1980′s that my new local public school required teachers to be on the same page on the same day in the same text throughout the district. That a school district would have so little respect for its teachers to force them into a scripted straightjacket violated everything I understood about creativity and learning. The idea that teachers did not know how to teach and needed to be guided by “experts” had taken hold. Textbook companies and corporate testing “services” increasingly determined how and what should be “taught” to children. I am not surprised that schools with a history of such rigid curricular mandates are floundering.
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