Once again, it’s sticks over carrots

By: - June 1, 2012 2:42 pm

State Senate tries to coerce public schools into performing better   

There’s an old bit of dark humor that often finds its way onto the bulletin boards and refrigerators in a lot of American workplaces. It goes something like this: “The floggings (or beatings) will continue until morale improves.”

By all appearances, one such workplace is the office of North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. And here’s the rather remarkable kicker: the Senator does not appear to get the joke!

Indeed, by all appearances, he’s going so far as to make this little aphorism the philosophical underpinning of the education “reform” bill that he and his colleagues rammed most of the way through the Senate in record time this week. (The bill is scheduled for final passage next Monday night). 

If you think this is an exaggeration, think for a moment about the main problems confronted by our public schools and the central premises embodied in the Senate “reform” bill.

Where we stand

There are many hard realities in our public schools these days, but here is the basic, thumbnail description of the central challenge we/they confront: Public schools must take all comers from an ever more diverse and multifaceted society and attempt to prepare them to be productive workers and citizens in an enormously complex and fast-changing world.

If all public schools had to do was educate an homogenous group of well-off children from healthy and engaged families to follow in the footsteps of their parents into upper-middle and upper class lives, there would, of course, be few problems. But this is obviously not the case.

And while public schools have always had to absorb large numbers of poor, near-poor and otherwise challenged kids (though, of course, for decades this did not include children of color), things are fundamentally different today. Forty years ago, kids could fail to graduate high school (as a huge proportion did) and still find decent-paying, blue collar work in a mill or a factory. Today, this simply is not the case.

Today, the stakes for failing to achieve educational success (both for individuals and the community as a whole) are much higher. Put simply, the public education system of 2012 has a much, much tougher and much, much more important job than ever before.

Unfortunately, when it comes to responding, our overall societal commitment to the growing challenge has changed little. For the most part, our response has been to demand more from schools and children. “Work harder,” we say, “produce more.”

It’s as if we were trying to respond to the challenges of 21st Century law enforcement (terrorists, high tech weapons, drug cartels, etc…) by giving the assignment to a slightly buffed up version of Sherriff Andy Taylor and the cops from Dragnet and The Mod Squad and demanding that these kinds of characters keep us safe.

The so-called “Excellent Schools Act”

This brings us back to the state Senate’s latest education “reform” proposal. At its heart, this proposal is an attempt to demand and coerce better results out of our schools. A quick review of the key provisions makes this clear. The proposal would:

  • Convert all of the state’s public school teachers into, essentially, temporary employees who would then, or so the logic goes, perform better for fear of losing their jobs.
  • Threaten more children with being held back in school for failure to test at acceptable levels.
  • Slap letter grades on schools and brand many as low-performers as a way of incentivizing them to wring out better test score results.

There are other provisions in the proposal – some of them potentially helpful (like focusing on early grade reading and writing), some kind of silly (like creating a “teaching corps” as a watered down version of the successful Teaching Fellows program that last year’s budget wrongfully scuttled) and some just absurd and mean-spirited (like doing way with public financing for candidates seeking the office of State Superintendent), but at its heart the bill is not about real “reform.”

There is no effort to provide the schools with more resources that would enable them to lure better teachers, lower class sizes, buy better facilities and materials, or access more and better enrichment experiences. There is no effort to combat poverty or to address the challenges of the ever-more-diverse student bodies in our schools.

On the contrary, the central message of the Excellent Schools Act is that the state of North Carolina will demand that administrators, educators and students produce better results with what they have and sanction them if they don’t.

A failed model    

What is perhaps saddest and most frustrating about the Senate’s proposal is how little in it is actually creative or new. As a general matter, the sticks-over-carrots approach has already been well-integrated into previous national and North Carolina “reforms” for years. Whether it’s high-stakes testing generally or the crazy notion that we should label schools as failing and/or create quasi-private charter schools in order to create “competition,” the notion that we can bludgeon schools and kids into doing better has been disproven time and time again.

As a more specific matter, however, it’s clear that the Excellent Schools Act is directly modeled on an ongoing (and largely failed) experiment in Florida. Ten years ago, Florida adopted a series of school policy and practice changes that were very similar to some of the key provisions in the Senate proposal. Today, the state is grappling with huge and vexing problems as a result.

According to the Florida Department of Education’s Division of Accountability, research and Measurement, fourth grade writing proficiency scores have recently taken a massive tumble. This is from a recent article in the Miami Herald:

“Just 27 percent of fourth-graders statewide earned a 4 or better on the writing FCAT, a steep decline from last year’s 81 percent. Eighth- and 10th-graders showed similar drops.”

Last week the paper reported that 9,000 third graders in South Florida alone are at risk of being held back as a result of poor test scores.

This is the model North Carolina should follow in order to reform its public schools?

Going forward

The attempt to impose quick fixes like those included in the “Excellent Schools Act” has been the dominant narrative in the American public education debate for at least the last 20 years and a temptation to which Democrats and Republicans alike have fallen prey.

Given our nation’s generally irrational aversion to paying taxes, it is in some ways an understandable response. On some level, it is also somewhat less toxic than the approach favored by the crusaders and “privatizers” on the far right who would do away with public education altogether.

For this – what seems a plausibly genuine desire to at least try to fix public education – Senator Berger and his allies deserve at least some credit. Let’s hope he really is serious about this and stays that way.

Ultimately, however, unless leaders of both political parties who believe in preserving and truly improving public education move beyond the sticks-only “reforms” of proposals like the Excellent Schools Act, they are only delaying a result that the market fundamentalists and religious theocrats are working so fervently each day to bring about.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.