Monday, June 17, 2013

The Lesson We Never Learn

After 29 years in the classroom, and with a pretty savvy political sense, if I may be so bold, I consider myself a keen observer of most things educational, but this story about Philadelphia's schools made me shiver with anger from the first paragraph:

Andrew Jackson School too agitated to eat breakfast on Friday, an aide alerted the school counselor, who engaged him in an art project in her office. When he was still overwrought at 11, a secretary called the boy’s family, and soon a monitor at the front door buzzed in an older brother to take him home. 

Under a draconian budget passed by the Philadelphia School District last month, none of these supporting players — aide, counselor, secretary, security monitor — will remain at the school by September, nor will there be money for books, paper, a nurse or the school’s locally celebrated rock band. 

I know that this kind of mindless budget cutting has been going on for years and real reformers, as opposed to the self-styled ones on the right, have been warning us that children are in real danger, but somehow this story caught me. Or maybe it just represents the last straw on my particular camel's back. Whatever. I have now officially had enough. If that's the way that Philadelphia's families are going to be treated, then we need an educational Tahrir/Taksim/self-immolating fruit-seller moment in this country. It's that bad now, and it's going to get worse.

Across the river, here in New Jersey, next fall is shaping up to be one of the worst for education since, well, four years ago when Chris Christie promised to destroy collective bargaining, and then made good on it, among other things. All of the polls point to a reelection win for the governor with a slight possibility that his coattails could enable the GOP to take over the state legislature. With a majority, even if it's just the Senate, they can reshape the State Supreme Court, and with both houses they can further erode worker's rights, eliminate seniority, impose radical cuts to public schools and stop funding for programs, like those in Philadelphia, that save lives, literally and figuratively.  

What might save the state is a current challenge to the October U.S. Senate primary, forcing it to be held on the same day as the gubernatorial election. That would bring out more pro-education voters. Opponents of the separate election say they've found a clause that specifically addresses the issue. Let's see if the State Supreme Court agrees.

And then, of course, there's the new teacher evaluation system that's set to go into effect statewide come the fall. Imagine a program that uses bad data in a manner that it wasn't meant to be used, then include horse-trading politicians who have little idea what the legislation says, and put a Commissioner of Education in charge of the system who has little regard for anything other than his political standing and whether the State Board of Education supports him. Oh, need to imagine. New Jersey's got it! 

I'm all for teacher accountability, but this system was created by non-educators as a means of punishing state workers and unions, and making it easier to fire effective teachers who cost too much. If it was about education, then private and charter school teachers would be included in it. But they're not, and that's all you need to know about the intentions of its authors.

So enjoy your summer everyone. Let's hope the shore businesses make lots of money and rejuvenate the towns and people who lost the most. Let's hope that students and teachers find exciting ways to add to their knowledge, or to just forget about formal learning for a while and smell some flowers. In the fall, a new storm will be brewing, but it won't be anything like Sandy. It will just be a lot of hot air.

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