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What “Education Reform” Really Means

Two must read articles appeared this week:

Wendy Lecker: The real needs in Connecticut classrooms

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In the past few weeks, Connecticut has been inundated with high-priced ads from out-of state lobby groups, op-eds from businessmen, and appearances by the governor, all claiming that there is a “moral imperative” to pass Governor Malloy’s version of the education bill, SB24.

Meanwhile, the real imperative that many Connecticut schools have to deal with is far more practical and mundane. Here are some examples of reality:

A mouse infestation in a school so severe that, while trying to learn, children hear them scurrying around daily.

Schools with no funds to buy textbooks and workbooks, instead relying on copying handouts for students, that run out of copy paper well before the end of the year.

A school with one overhead projector in a classroom (no, not a smart board) and no working bulb. The teacher waited months for a replacement.

A middle school with novels for only about half the students.

A school in its first year this year of providing calculators for students. They do not have enough, so they have to stagger CMT dates.

Schools with no construction paper, scissors, glue, crayons, markers, colored pencils, chart paper, etc. If children want to do a project, the teacher buys supplies.

A school with only one art class per month because they cannot afford more art teachers.

A school with no funds for substitutes, so when teachers are absent, the children are split up and join other classes for the entire day.

A school with no funds for a permanent substitute, so when a teacher has maternity leave, that class will have daily substitutes for months.

Schools with successful programs that target struggling students and provide them with extra help, but without funds to expand these programs. So they have to ration to whom these services are provided.

A district that drastically cut preschool for many of its needy children in order to save money.

These are the real problem faced by the districts and schools Governor Malloy’s bill is targeting. And these are just a few examples of the persistent and systematic deprivation in our neediest schools.

Across this nation, education experts and courts have consistently found that in order to provide an adequate education to children, schools must have a stable and consistent teaching force, adequate books, computers and supplies, adequate facilities, extra help for students with additional needs, and high-quality preschool for all. These are the basic building blocks no school should do without.

The governor’s bill does nothing to address these realities.

Instead, the governor intends to use our neediest children as guinea pigs.

He is pushing a Commissioner’s Network giving unprecedented and total power to the education commissioner to take over 25 of the neediest schools and do whatever he wants with them, including, but not limited to, firing all staff, turning the school over to a private entity, and withholding funds from schools if they don’t comply with his plan. Concentrating power in one person has never been proven successful at achieving sustained student improvement. Supporters say the commissioner should be allowed “to try new things.”

The governor seeks to force these districts to divert $1,000 per student out of the district for any child attending a privately run charter school, draining even more resources from the neediest schools. Charter schools have been around for 20 years, and are no more successful than public schools, are not innovative and increase segregation.

The governor wants to implement an unproven evaluation system before it is finalized and tested to be sure that it will not result in the improper dismissal of good teachers, as has happened in states across this country.

These measures are not only irrelevant to the challenges facing our schools, they are harmful. They will exacerbate the instability and lack of resources that deprive our neediest children of the opportunity to learn.

Wendy Lecker is a former president of the Stamford Parent Teacher Council

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What It Means To Be ‘Taken Over’: Notes On The Windham School District
by Mary Gallucci

As bad as the standardized test regime had become with No Child Left Behind, it has gotten so much worse since Steven Adamowski took over the Windham School district. CMT prep has become a subject, often taught more than once per day. In some classrooms, there is no longer social studies or any other subject not currently tested on the CMTs. Even in kindergarten through second grade, there are many tests given every few weeks. Drill, drill, drill. Unlike the carefree children who revel in their freedom in Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip,” a first-grader told his teacher in the district: “We’re good testers.” He was referring to the endless assessments conducted on behalf of the state and federal government.

The first change Adamowski wrought in Windham was to cut early childhood education. Many parents whose children had been accepted into the free preschool program found out that, instead, they would have to make other plans. Adamowski made this to cut an already bare-bones education budget. Budget votes, in which the school funds can be singled out while other parts pass, are very acrimonious in Windham, with out-of-town landlords placing “Vote NO” signs on the properties they own—but don’t live in. The effect of merely cutting further is to tell the town that inadequate funding isn’t the issue, and it makes privatization initiatives, somewhere down the line, more attractive. Adamowski seems to prefer appeasing the No voters to offering preschool to poor children.

I assume that a takeover by the Commissioner’s Network would be similar: cutting programs to the most vulnerable constituencies; reducing bus service, which will make it hard for some children to get to school; increasing test-prep and drilling; utilizing under-certified staff, such as Teach for America, rather than hiring traditional teachers who would stay in the district. Adamowski has also spent a lot of time redrawing bus routes; favoring some schools with lower student numbers while making others more crowded; and re-organizing the high school so that areas like Band and Art classes will no longer fit into students’ schedules.

The efforts of Adamowski and of the so-called school reformers have very little to do with education. Whereas in neighboring towns students begin foreign language study in fifth or sixth grade, in Windham students are lucky to have one quarter-term of a language in eighth grade. While it is nearly impossible for parents to speak to Adamowski, he has proven accessible to landlords and business people. The Board of Education, which is powerless, spends their time thinking of how to fundraise for Teach for America, accepting TFA as a band aid solution and a wedge for privatization.

Emerson wrote: “A collector recently bought in London an autograph of Shakespeare; but for nothing a school-boy can read Hamlet and detect secrets of highest concernment yet unpublished therein.” Emerson believed in equality for all Americans, and he saw the golden potential of every child. School is not a business, but one of the requirements of a free and just society. But I fear that when schools get taken over, school children will no longer read Shakespeare. They don’t even read Emerson. In a technocratic world, it’s easy to adopt technocratic solutions to all problems. But the great educators, from Plato to Locke to Rousseau to John Dewey and Emerson, have always recognized that education is an irreducible humanistic enterprise involving the whole human person. Certainly, school reformers should have a look at one of the greatest thinkers of the United States.

Mary Gallucci is a parent with three children in the Windham School District.