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MASSON: Pushing back against education 'reform'

Doug Masson / Special to IBJ
January 18, 2014
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Masson
In Lafayette on Dec. 12, we saw the premiere of the documentary “Rise Above the Mark” addressing the effect of over-reliance on standardized tests in education, and the corresponding voucher, charter and school privatization movements in Indiana. It is spearheaded by the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation—an organization associated with West Lafayette School Corp. but funded separately.

The documentary has two primary goals: Start a discussion focused on finding the best way to develop the children who will be our citizens in the future, and give a voice to the public schools and public schoolteachers. The pro-voucher side is well-funded, well-organized, and has the ear of most of the decision-makers.

Relentless standardized testing is one of the main targets. We spend our limited resources on testing companies that waste our kids’ educational time in order to provide information the teachers and principals already know. (The implication—not mentioned in the film—is that advocates of standardized testing don’t particularly trust public schoolteachers.)

Such testing distorts the educational process, tending to produce students who lack creativity and who become rudderless without someone telling them what to do. Our democracy depends on creative, self-directed citizens—not citizens with superior Scantron bubble-filling skills.

Another salient point is that we have had over 20 years of experimenting with public funding of alternative schools and, turns out, they don’t produce results that are notably better than traditional public schools. Often enough, the performance is worse.

The sharpest attacks in the film were on events particular to Indiana, specifically those involving former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

For example, a stony-hearted inflexibility and rules-are-rules attitude shown by the State Board of Education toward Munster High School was contrasted with the contortions and after-the-fact metric-changing used to ensure that political darling Christel House charter received an A instead of the C it earned under the initial metrics.

Munster High School, on the other hand, was given a C. The difference between an A instead of the C it received was one special education student who barely missed a target. Munster did not get nearly the consideration that Christel House did. The message was clear: The deck is stacked against public schools.

The documentary also contrasts our current approach with more successful approaches in other countries—Finland’s model, in particular. In Finland, students can choose, but all the schools are public, all are well-funded, and there is not a great deal of disparity. Teachers are paid like the top-tier professionals we want them to be. On the other hand, nowhere is our privatization model notably successful.

One issue alluded to only briefly is that money is a driving force behind the privatization movement. A debate over the most successful educational approach is unlikely to be productive if a party to the conversation is motivated by an unstated desire to redirect resources to friends and well-wishers.

I’m not saying any of the people involved in this debate are nihilistic opportunists, mining the educational system for power and profit. I’m just saying that if such people designed an educational system, it would probably look a lot like the one we’ve been developing over the last 20 years.

It’s time to look around the world at what successful school systems do to produce a highly educated, capable citizenry and discuss how to imitate those methods. Rolling the dice on our kids’ lives guided by evidence-free ideological convictions is reckless.•

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Masson is a Lafayette attorney, author of Masson’s Blog and former counsel for the Legislative Services Agency. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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