While campaigning for the presidency, Barack Obama made it clear to the nation that education would be among his top three priorities if elected. He is making good on that promise.
Unfortunately, it's starting off on the wrong path.
Announcing his revamping of the No Child Left Behind law, the president unveiled a policy that emphasizes mass firings of teachers, school closings and replacing public schools with privately run, and many times for-profit, charter schools.
The president made these announcements while giving his full support to the Rhode Island superintendent and school board that fired en masse 90-plus high school teachers. In choosing to taking this public stance, the White House is sending a bad signal to all school districts: punish the teachers for low-performing schools, rip up collective bargaining contracts; don't worry, the federal government agrees.
It is an ominous signal for public education supporters, parents, teachers and students. Some see it as a political move to appeal to conservatives and anti-union independents, but it will have grave consequences for unity and progress down the road. Teachers were among Obama's biggest supporters, but in the White House political calculus, they must be seen as expendable.
The AFL-CIO issued a statement at its executive council meeting March 2 condemning the actions of the Central Falls, R.I., superintendent. It also said the AFL-CIO leadership was "appalled" by the president's and his Education secretary's "condoning" of the mass firings.
"These comments are unacceptable, do not reflect the reality on the ground and completely ignore the teachers'significant commitment to working with others to transform this school," the AFL-CIO statement said. "The comments are particularly disappointing in light of the recent state report, which found that the high school's reading and writing proficiency have gone up 22 percent and 14 percent respectively over the past two years. None of these facts is reflected in the comments from the Obama administration."
The fact is the punish-schools-and-teachers model is not effective education policy.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, formerly Chicago Public Schools superintendent, practiced this "turnaround" model there, and look what it has done for Chicago schools and students.
The Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago, a supporter of Duncan, issued a report last year saying city schools have made little progress since 2003, when Duncan took over!
Chicago parents, especially African American parents, have fiercely fought numerous school closings because of the destabilization effect it has on schoolchildren, families and communities.
Teachers, parents, administrators all agree with the president: public education MUST improve. But the key word is "improve," not demolish. If crime rates go up, do you fire whole precincts of police officers?
This administration emphasizes data as the basis for good policy. Well, study after study show lower class sizes make a huge difference in educating children, just as the federal breakfast and lunch programs make a big difference in children's learning. You can't learn on an empty stomach. And you can't learn when there are 30-40 kids in the classroom, gym has been cut out, recess has been cut out, art, music and science have been cut out. Public education is suffering death by 1,000 cuts, and 1,000 standardized tests as the only measure of learning. Teacher mentoring, support and evaluation - a management responsibility - is perfunctory at best. Most teachers report that "professional development" provided by school higher-ups (via high-cost consultants) is useless. That's the reality of public schools today.
The ONLY national study on charter schools shows that 83 percent of them are equal to OR WORSE than nearby public schools.
We urge our readers to call Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and politely tell him it is unacceptable for the federal government to support the scapegoating of teachers. His office number is (202) 401-3000. Let your senators and representatives, and the White House, know too.
And sign and circulate an online petition in support of the Central Falls, R.I., teachers. See http://centralfallskidsdeservebetter.com/petition.
Photo: Teachers like Christina Armburster, AIU Local 4394 president, left, and Phyllis Boyer, president of AFT Local 3942, of Pennsylvania worked to get out the vote for Obama/Biden in November 2008. (Molly Theobald http://www.flickr.com/photos/labor2008/ / CC BY 2.0)