When Will Public Education Hit Its Tipping Point?

In sociology, a ‘tipping point’ is a point in time where a group of people dramatically changes their behavior. Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same name defines a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”.

I’m eagerly awaiting the moment when public education reform in the US hits the tipping point. Ed policy has been in the news once again with the recent midterm elections, and as has been the case for the past several years, the news is flat out depressing. Reformers continue to try and put band-aids on our education system while turning a blind eye to the real problem. Politicians continue to attack teacher’s unions under the guise of “protecting students” while failing to realize that hurting teachers hurts students, too. And perhaps most worryingly, we continue to hold up standardized test scores as the standard of success in our students.

Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) has been in the news with the re-election of Gov. Rick Snyder. Basically, the EAA is a state-run district comprised of “failing” schools that have been taken over by the state. These schools so far have been from nothing but high poverty areas. We were told that the goal of the EAA was to totally reform these “failing” schools and boost their test scores.

Well, to the surprise of almost nobody, that hasn’t exactly happened. But how could that be? All these rich business folks who thought the EAA was a great idea surely knew what they were talking about! Fire some staff, eliminate the ability of unions to collectively bargain, and BOOM! Thanks to the magic of free market competition and schools being run like businesses, test scores should be skyrocketing.

But they’re not, because not one person involved in the reform movement seems interested in fixing the actual problem behind low-performing schools. Remember when I mentioned that all the EAA schools were in high-poverty areas? Yeah, that’s the big problem. Poverty tends to have a negative impact on education.

Remember the Vergara decision? The court case in California that’s supposed to make it easier to remove “ineffective” educators from classrooms? Well, frequently when somebody talks about ineffective teachers hampering student growth, they’re talking about teachers in high-poverty schools. Schools in affluent districts tend to have high test scores, so they must be hoarding all the top quality teachers, right?

Wrong. Correlation definitely does not equal causation in this case. Granted, this is anecdotal evidence, but I’ve known several teachers who have moved from impoverished districts to affluent ones, and seen an increase in student achievement. The only thing that changed about them was their workplace. Would anybody seriously try to argue that moving to a new district suddenly made a teacher more effective? Of course not.

The real answer to our school problem, as it always has been, is poverty. Take a look at PISA scores by country. Ed reformers would have you look at the chart on the left, the one that shows us lagging behind Finland, Belgium, and many others. What we should be looking at is the chart, which shows those same PISA scores adjusted for poverty level. So instead of comparing all US schools against those of Finland, we can see how US schools with a similar poverty level to Finland perform.

When you break testing results down by poverty level, US schools come out on top of their peers. The problem is, if you look back to the chart on the left, US schools have by far the highest poverty rates out of every country in that comparison, which tends to skew the testing results down.

This should tell us that what we have is not a school or a teacher problem, but a societal problem. And unfortunately fixing a societal problem is significantly tougher than telling a teacher, “You’re ineffective, see ya.” Ed reformers seem intent on finding an easy fix, but nothing they do will have the same positive impact as fixing our poverty problem would.

The other big disturbing trend I’ve seen lately is the drive to integrate reading and maths into every classroom, regardless of subject. As a music teacher, this is concerning for a few reasons.

  1. I am not a maths or reading expert. I don’t hold a certification in those areas. There’s a very good chance that my instruction in those areas would not be close to the level of the content-area experts in my building. That’s not fair to my students.
  2. My classroom is a music classroom. I certainly recognize that maths and reading are important, but integrating them into my classroom on a daily basis wouldn’t necessarily give students an authentic experience in those areas OR music.
  3. This push for integration is saying that my subject area is not important enough to stand on its own merits. I need to incorporate STEM subjects into my classroom to validate what I teach. That’s an insult to my profession. The creativity and expression happening in my classroom is valuable enough to stand on its own.

So, when does common sense take over with all these changes? When do we step back and realize that not all of the changes in our education system are positive ones? And most importantly, when will the general public begin to understand where the actual problems lie?

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