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The Inconvenient Truth Of Education 'Reform'

Despite stated intentions to use education reform to advance civil rights, reform measures in their current frame are resulting in deep and pervasive civil wrongs.
 
 
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Events in the past week showed how market-driven education policies, deceivingly labeled as “reform,” are revealing their truly destructive effects on the streets and in the corridors of government.

From the streets, we heard from civil rights and social justice activists from urban communities that school turnaround policies mandated by the Obama administration’s education agenda are having disastrous results in the communities they were originally intended to serve.

From the corridors of government, we were presented with irrefutable evidence that leaders driving the reform agenda are influencing public officials to write education laws in a way that benefits corporate interests rather than the interests of students, parents and schools.

These events, in tandem, reveal an inconvenient truth of education reform that should make anyone who promotes these policies question, “Whose interests are being served here?”

The Message From The Street

This week, over 200 activists, community organizers, parents, and students from 18 cities across the U.S. gathered in Washington, D.C., to confront Secretary of Education Arne Duncan over widespread public school closures prompted by the Obama administration’s policies.

As reported by Huffington Post’s education reporter Joy Resmovits, “Members of the group, a patchwork of community organizations called the Journey for Justice Movement, have filed several Title VI civil rights complaints with the Education Department Office of Civil Rights, claiming that school districts that shut schools are hurting minority students.”

Although these school closures are often justified as necessary for budget reasons and declining enrollment, Journey for Justice activists unanimously placed blame for school closures on market-based “reform” polices.

Resmovits quoted Helen Moore, an organizer from Detroit, who called the current reform movement “tantamount to racism.” She said, “All the things that are happening are by design, by design, by design. They don’t want our children to have an education, but we’ll fight to the death.”

The “design” Moore likely referred to is the Obama administration’s “turnaround models” proposed for schools that don’t make sufficient growth in student test score results. These models, criticized from the get-go as lacking a research base and being too inflexible, became requirements for states and districts to receive federal grant money in the administration’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs.

The results of these punitive measures have been felt disproportionally in communities of underserved children – and especially among children of color.

In fact, the The New York Times article on the Journey for Justice confrontation referenced data from Action United, a Philadelphia-based group, showing that 80 percent of the students affected by the planned school closings in Philadelphia are black although the district’s enrollment is 55 percent black and 19 percent Hispanic.

That schools now being designated as “needs improvement” and targeted for closing on the basis of test data tend to be those schools struggling to teach high poverty children should not come as a surprise to anyone. The strong correlation of low test scores to low income is universally true in every country in the world. But that fact alone doesn’t explain why reform leaders chose closure – the harshest of the four turnaround models – as the remedy of choice.

What may be propelling that decision is another emphasis of the White House’s reform policies – the rapid scaling up of a competitive parallel system of charter schools.

Another representative from Philadelphia, Helen Gym, explained the role charter schools are having in school closures occurring in her city. On the website Common Dreams she is quoted, “Whatever your opinion may be of [charter schools], there’s no question that the District has failed to explain its inconsistent approach of allowing charter expansion without regard to expense or academic quality while insisting on draconian and widespread sacrifice among [traditional public] schools.”