Commentary: Film perpetuates myths about education
This guest blog comes from Ken Derstine, an award-winning retired teacher who spent 37 years in the Philadelphia School District, and is now a political activist on behalf of public education. The Notebook invites guest blog posts on current topics in Philadelphia education from its readers. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to make a submission.
by Ken Derstine
On Monday, Oct. 8, Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education and Matthew Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg discussed "parent trigger" laws on WHYY-FM’s Radio Times. Brouillette repeated the familiar but flawed argument now favored by corporate education reformers: bad teachers, not the conditions that policymakers force teachers to work under, produce “bad schools.”
As I see it, there are two myths that continue to gain traction despite contrary evidence and experience. They are the Bad School, Bad Teacher myth, and the “We tried throwing money at education, and it didn’t work” myth. Defenders of public education must continue to debunk them both.
Bad School, Bad Teacher myth: Most teachers in schools with low test scores are trying under adverse circumstances to teach their students. The corporate reformers say a good teacher can overcome the effects of poverty on low-income students AND do it with fewer resources than wealthier school districts. They make this argument even though research and data show that schools that rise above the effects of concentrated poverty remain the exception, not the rule.
"We tried throwing money at education, and it didn't work" myth: Proponents of the “no excuses” school reform movement say that the income level of a student population is irrelevant; ergo, we shouldn’t “throw money” into schools that educate mostly low-income students. This is a clever way of justifying the failure to provide these schools with equitable funding. In my view, No Child Left Behind ostensibly meant to draw attention to achievement gaps so that something could be done about them. It has instead become a justification for continued inequitable funding: highlighting low test scores in most high-poverty schools, and blaming this on the people in those schools rather than on the unequal and inadequate resources that the schools receive.
I would argue that nothing has changed in education policy since the days of racial segregation by law, except now the segregation is more subtly achieved and is done by class rather than by ethnicity alone. The corporate reform movement that brought us charter schools in the name of parental choice has led to a situation where students who are a little better off and come from more stable homes are segregated from students who come from more dire, unstable situations due to low wages and unemployment. These students are left in the underfunded regular system, further concentrating the effects of poverty.
"Won't Back Down," a film about parent trigger laws, was produced by the same people who gave us the pro-charter documentary “Waiting for Superman." Parent trigger laws have been promoted by the free-market, limited-government American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in legislatures all over the country. They promote the myth that parents overcome problems in their schools by taking them over. But the few times that school takeovers have been tried, they were orchestrated by pro-charter organizations. What the movie does not show is that after the parents take over, the corporate reformers move in and the parents become their customers.
Another consequence of the parent trigger is that it diverts parents from the issue of full funding for public education, sending them instead down the dead end of promoting privatization.
Defenders of public education are not defenders of the status quo, as Mr. Brouillette claims, but instead defenders of equal and equitable funding for all schools, regardless of the circumstances of each school's students. This requires much accuracy in the empirical information we use to show the truth. On Radio Times Mr. Brouillette misstated the amount of per-student funding available to Philadelphia students as $17,000, when the reality is closer to $14,000. He later acknowledged the mistake, but his error shows that he clearly wasn’t interested in nailing down the facts to bolster his argument before making it on the radio.
Those of us interested in quality, equitable education for all need to keep attacking these two myths. We should never stop questioning the basic assumptions that urban schools are filled with "Bad Teachers" and that money and resources don’t matter. We know they are not true. All we have to do is look at where many purveyors of these myths put their own children in school and what resources they have!