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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Synonyms, snake oil and school reform

It's nationwide folks. -cpg


by Tony Lux

New legislation under consideration this year by the Indiana Legislature is nothing more than snake oil intended to create the illusion of school reform without any verifiable degree of probability that school reform actually will be achieved.

The true target of school reform is getting the bottom 20 to 25 percent of the state's schoolchildren to grade level and eliminating achievement gaps. The state "school reform" plan, however, is nothing more than flight from, and financial abandonment of, public schools without any verifiable degree of probability that the bottom 25 percent of students will do better because of it.

The illusions started with the notion that since some public schools are doing poorly, then all public schools basically are inadequate. The reality is that eight out of 10 academic indicators, including state test results, attendance rates and graduation rates, are at or near the highest levels ever.

The next illusion was that school choice -- i.e. charter schools -- and tax vouchers for private schools will result in closing achievement gaps. The reality is that nationally, only 17 percent of charter schools are even as successful as the average public school.

Regarding private school vouchers, the reality is that private schools have entrance criteria that are very selective, and for the prices private schools charge, they are not going to allow low-achieving students of different religions in their schools. Even charter schools that start with low-performing students can and will send any uncooperative and special needs student back to public school.

The third illusion has been that schools do not need additional funding. In fact, small public schools are told to consolidate to save money.

Despite universal acknowledgment that mandatory funding for kindergarten, full-day kindergarten, summer school and preschool is needed (and provided in most other states), low state revenue cannot cover them, and cuts are unavoidable.

The reality is that the proliferation of hundreds of charter schools creates more financial loss to public schools, as well as inefficient spending due to more staffing and profit-taking sponsors. The reality also is that millions of state tax dollars that could go to new education programs would not be collected because of private school vouchers.

The fourth illusion is there are too many ineffective teachers and not enough highly effective teachers. The reality is that the disadvantages some students have are so great that only significantly more time for instruction will make up for being two or more years below grade level. On a related note, where is the proliferation of charter schools going to find highly qualified teachers?

The fifth illusion is merit pay. Teachers and administrators supposedly will work harder if they get individual financial rewards for better student performance. Opposing this conclusion are the results of a major study in Nashville, Tenn., where $10,000 financial incentives were promised and awarded. There was no difference in student achievement between teachers getting financial incentives and those not getting financial incentives.

Snake oil salesmen, like the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City, don't want anyone looking behind the curtain to see their illusion. They also want to be out of town before the pubic realizes the illusion.

New charter schools will have five to seven years to prove they aren't any better, if not worse, than public schools. Plenty of time to get out of town. The public needs to look behind the "school reform" curtain of illusion in this state before it's too late.

Tony Lux is superintendent of Merrillville Community School

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