With rising amplification, the media and our elected officials have declared our educational system in crisis for more than a century. Despite this noise, national trends show progressive growth in achievement since 1978, and in New York, the graduation rate has soared from 58.5 percent to 78.4 percent over the past decade, with 66.7 percent earning a Regents diploma, up from just 35 percent in 1989. The achievement gap between black and white students has steadily narrowed.
Despite these gains, we still lag behind many other developed countries, and there are many areas in our schools where a crisis does exist. We are now seeing a growing achievement gap between high- and low-income students, regardless of race. With poverty growing nationwide and Buffalo ranked as one of the country's poorest large cities, the impact of poverty on our schools is substantial.
Ironically, the wealthiest individuals are determining the course of reform with some of the same policies responsible for the growing gap between rich and poor. Accountability, deregulation, management of our schools by business professionals, school choice/vouchers, competition and charter schools are their reforms of choice. These reforms have bipartisan support and are part of the federal Race to the Top initiative.
The Buffalo School District was recently forced to implement some of these reforms for its failing schools, in order to gain a significant amount of needed funding. Yet evidence that these reforms can systemically address failing schools and the needs of our most vulnerable populations does not exist. Even a 2008 federal government education report acknowledged that its recommendations – charter schools, "turnaround specialists," involuntary transfer of staff and standardized test to evaluate teachers – lack strong evidence of support.
To help sell these unproven, market-based reforms to the public, some of the wealthiest – Bill Gates, the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch and Phillip Anschutz – are personally and financially behind movies attacking public education. Furthermore, they influence policy and public opinion through the guise of reform groups. One such group, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), is comprised of Wall Street entrepreneurs and hedge fund managers. They are so influential Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo needed to earn their support in order to tap into Wall Street money for his 2010 ?campaign.
Education Reform Now, a group affiliated with the DFER, is known for pouring money and resources into Buffalo School Board races. The local reform group, Buffalo ReformED, is also connected to the DFER; its co-founder, Katie Campos, was formerly the group's development director. She now serves as assistant secretary for education in New York State. Buffalo ReformED's executive director, Hannya Boulos, is on the advisory board of NYCan, the New York Campaign for Achievement Now, a group funded by more than a million in donations from the Gates and Walton foundations.
School choice, vouchers and charters are appealing options to parents of students in failing schools. However, when demographic variables are controlled for, several studies indicate that private, voucher and charter students do not perform significantly better than traditional public school students.
Charter schools have become deregulated schools designed to compete with traditional public schools. They are not subject to the same oversight as traditional public schools and can deny our neediest students – special education students, English language learners and students with behavior problems. This course exacerbates our failing schools and poor communities, as charters educate more motivated and higher achieving students, while failing traditional schools educate a disproportionate amount of needy students. All this, while charters siphon funding from the school district and benefit from business donations.
Some charters effectively provide necessary alternative approaches, which some students require. If charters functioned as initially envisioned – by partnering with traditional public schools, serving all students and acting as models for our neediest students – they could have a meaningful impact on education reform.
A sound public education is fundamental to our democracy. A wealthy few, who are not publicly appointed and immune to public accountability, should not be dictating our reforms. ?If we expect that our teachers be held accountable, then those determining the course of ?reform should be most open, accessible and subject to accountability.
Reform must not build walls, but trust, with teachers, the essential craftsmen in education. Our children are not products; each child ?presents his own set of attributes, skills and challenges. Our schools should not be treated like a Walmart and our students like electronic gadgets.
If we truly want to see a turnaround in our failing schools, we must first understand and address the challenges of poverty. We should look to countries like Finland, which has become the number one performing country on international tests, by embracing public education reforms that work – intensive teacher preparation with paid schooling, a well-developed, cohesive curriculum and adequate conditions and resources for its neediest students.