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Trigger Happy

Teachers and teacher advocacy groups have staged protests at early screenings of Wont Back Down, a new film about the widely assumed decrepitude of American public education that posits the only way forward is for parents to take back their schools. Thats not a critique; its what the filmmakers themselves say, and appealing to moms and dads in so visceral a manner is always a smart sell.But like many sells, it could be a disingenuous one. Education experts contend that the film is really an advertisement for whats known as the parent trigger, an increasingly utilized policy mechanism enabling 51 percent of parents in any public school to close it or hand it over to private management. Thats why knowledgeable educatorsare protesting. Dianne Ravitch calls the trigger an inherently terrible ideaa public school, built with public funds, belongs to the public, she says, not to 51 percent of the parents who have children enrolled in it. Would a simple majority of people using public transit have the right to privatize that?Maybe they wouldnt have the right, but if they were as flush with financial support as trigger advocacy groups, they might have the ability. The Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations are among the backers of trigger initiatives, along with test-development and test-prep companies, for-profit charter companies, educational diploma mills, educational consultants, and other businesses that stand to gain from the privatization of public schools. Right-wing organizations like the Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Council (ALEC) have helped craft trigger legislation in 17 states, with, in the case of ALEC, millions in funding from the billionaire Koch brothers, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. The centers PR Watch notes that ALEC also receives funding from Walden Media, the head of which owns the conservative Weekly Standard magazine and is a producer of both Wont Back Down and the notorious pro-charter documentary Waiting for Superman.Support for the trigger and for charter schools isnt limited to the right, as the administrations of Barack Obama, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg have demonstrated. They may not preach the gospel of market solutions with matching fervor. But in their enthusiasm for "reform," and for tying student and teacher performance to high-stakes testing, they have inevitably found themselves allied with interests seeking profit opportunities in public education.In other words, parental empowerment and reform may not be the real goals. If they were, as Ravitch notes, then the money would be going to community-based parent groups like those in New York City and Chicago that have actively opposed the closing of their neighborhood public schoolsnot sought to take them private. Or to Catholic schools, which according to Ravitch are being killed off by the marketplace of options in spite of noted successes.Michael B. Fabricant, professor of social welfare at Hunter College and co-author of Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, says in an interview that for-profit interests are exploiting anxiety over the public education crisis to advance their market-based agenda(.pdf; the interview begins on page 17 and is worth reading in full).

The language of crisis is really manufactured, and manufactured crises can open the door to various kinds of shock policiespolicies we wouldnt consider were it not for the threatened crisis. Id say [those policies] are the doctrine of school choice and the proliferation of charter schools. This freedom [of choice] is market-defined, for policy makers simply assume that market-driven reform, when applied to a public good, will produce efficient and productive results. They are, in effect, allowing ideology to drive social policy. And what they put forth as the primary solution to what ails public education is an exit strategy, a way to move children out of the public schools.

And the strategy, in terms of meeting its ostensible educational goals, isnt even working. Fabricant cites a study from Stanfords Center for Research on Education Outcomes showing that only 17 percent of charters have proven more successful than public schools, while 37 percent are less effective and 46 percent about the same. So, Fabricant sums up, ten to fifteen years into the experiment, public schools continue to outperform charters.The real issue, according to Fabricant, is the impact of class and race on achievement, and addressing this requires innovation, union flexibility, and smarter investment to fix a system that isn't working for the poor and people of color. North Carolina, Connecticut, and New Jersey are among the states that have followed this path, focusing on class size, teacher training and workplace support, and leadership development for principals. All three states have seen substantial improvements. We know what works, Fabricant says. There is no magic to this.No magic, and no profit, but dividends in terms of achievement. Which the trigger-happy backers of privatization, and Wont Back Down, may not want to hear.

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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Rotten Tomatoes suggests that it's a film worth missing.

My advice would be "take back your families" not "take back your school". As a teacher my job has expanded into secretary for the parents and mother to the children as well as counselor and you get the picture. A concrete example would be a mother never asking her child about what might be in the backpack of interest...a parent never sending a note back for a child who is absent...etc. My advice to parents is while you are contemplating your next tattoo, why not take a few minutes to see what your child is learning? Is it so hard to look at his graded papers? After all, is she not your child? The elephant in the room on education issues is our terribly disfunctional families. But let's not talk about that because I guess its none of our business. Instead let's do teacher bashing as that poor man or woman skates around the room trying to make up for society's ills and produce a good product...for the 7 hours the child is actually at school, that is!

Denise --Sadly, I have to agree with you. Grammar school and high school teachers are expected to raise the children of parents who are unable to or who did not themselves learn how It's a very vicious circle. As the population becomes even less well educated, the families become even more dysfunctional. And the teachers are supposed to pick up the pieces and put them back together again.I don't know what the answer is. Any suggestions?

Netflix viewers apparently are more impressed with the film. It's gotten an average of 3.4 stars. The review found most helpful is:"Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis play two determined mothers, one a teacher, who will stop at nothing to upgrade their children's inner city school. Although the two woman are from different races and classes, they together face a powerful system of impersonal red-tape to ensure their children get a good education. This is a powerful story about parenthood, friendship and courage, and making a difference."I don't think of the typical Netflix subscriber as being part of any vast right-wing conspiracy.

Ann--I think many schools are trying many different approaches. We each have a presentation station in our rooms and document cameras which greatly enhance our teaching efforts. We have media at our fingertips, so there is no shortage in those terms. We are at a crossroads when it comes to textbooks as the school system is trying to figure out the best approach financially for book replacement. Work ethic is a problem, and parents have trouble instilling it when homelife is poor. We will keep plugging away. I am for Obama, but sometimes when I look at the parental clientel, I wonder if we do have an entitlement society. Thank you for your interest.

For 35 or 40 years a thousand flowers of school reform have been blooming, here, there and everywhere. We have had a succession of "education governors" in every state, but all of them seem to have left a mess for the next "education governor" to fool with. The most successful, i.e., best-funded, of the reformers seem to be those who have never set foot in a classroom since they graduated or who began as teachers and quickly discovered they have neither the temperament nor the skills to teach successfully and so became reformers.IMHO, Americans have been playing games and goofing around with schools because "reforming" them seems easier to the current generation of politicians than doing anything that actually would require study, guts and leadership. Unfortunately, even school reform requires knowledge, but if anyone has ever brought it to bear, why are we still doing this?

I think Denise's and Tom's comments are a cold slap of reality here. I teach at a small private college that accommodates many non-traditional students who are struggling financially and trying for two-year voc-tech degrees or certificates to get out of the mess their lives are in.Most are unmarried, have children, and are enmeshed in the judicial system. These people love their children and are motivated to do better for their children. But they are singularly handicapped by stress, financial woes, and general ignorance about how to be parents. Many are also enmeshed in the judicial system in some way.Any education "reform" that does not include early childhood education in preschools and day care, and fails to help mentor at-risk parents has already set sail without a rudder.FWIW, many public libraries offer havens for stressed young families by offering reading programs for preschoolers. I was stunned to learn from the state library association that many young parents simply do not know how to put a kid on their laps and read them a story.

"Instead lets do teacher bashing"Hi, Denise, I haven't seen the film (and based on Rotten Tomatoes and the review that appeared in our local paper today, I may never see it), but I have seen "Waiting for Superman". The latter does not engage in teacher bashing so much as teachers union bashing and education system bashing. I expect that all of us know that there are some very good teachers in some very dysfunctional systems; in fact, if we had more excellent teachers in our most dysfunctional districts, the students might do somewhat better than they do now.Certainly, getting bad teachers out of the classroom won't fix every educational ill, by a long shot - but it can make a difference, and being unable to fix every problem shouldn't prevent us from addressing the problems we can address.

Hi, Jim. Yes, I am all for getting bad teachers out of the classroom. But how is it that my generation and that of my own children have had better educations than the current students? The factor that has changed is the aforementioned--homelife. The other factor is that the pool of teachers we once had were the cream of the crop because there was no other career for a woman (except the obvious..nurse, secretary, etc) Yes, I am for teacher unions. Without them we may not be able to retain the good teachers we have. Again I invite any adult to come into the modern elementary classroom and take over completely for two weeks. Those so called "experts" on the subject may be humbled.

Denise = =It seems to me that the while disfunctional families are indeed a great problem, they are not one that we should expect teachers to solve. Yes, some families are disfunctional partly because the parent(s) lack education themselves. But the only solution to that is adult education for them -- we cannot expect the teachers in the grammar and high schools to educate both the young and their parents in the same schools. Adult education, of course, would cost money too, and we are just too cheap to solve the problem.And as to getting rid of the "bad" teachers, that's am ambiguous term. Yes, as I never stop complaining, there are too many incompetent teachers, but IT IS NOT THEIR FAULT. They went to college, worked extra hard, decided to work with children and became teachers, being told all the while that they could do it competently I say we cannot in justice just throw them out of the system because at this late date we have decided that they don't meet our NEW standards. Either their contracts need to be bought off or place needs to be made for them within the system as -- what shall they be called? auxiliary teachers? teaching assistants? Expensive? Yes. But in justice they shouldn't just be tossed out.

As a baseline for discussion could we agree that there has never been a "golden age" of public education in America? (And I say this in full knowledge that the US has historically led the industrialized world in educating its citizenry, and that it is only in recent decades that other countries are reaching---in some cases surpassing---the standards we have set.)Taken as a whole, the current generation of students is more likely to attend and complete high school, more likely to attend and complete a 2 or 4 year college degree program, and score as well or better than previous generations on standardized tests, according to the best data we have (e.g., the NAEP). This is especially true for students with mental, emotional and/or learning disabilities who, until recent decades, were basically "locked in the attic".

I agree about the comment concerning special education, because it wasn't until 1989 that it became compulsory to educate them. However, I do believe we've had a golden age in education when the baby boomers went through school. They were raised by the WWII generation that demanded a high degree of discipline. Current countries that are surpassing us are doing so with their best and brightest and they are demanding a high degree of discipline from them. The CNN special a year or so ago on high school age Chinese was a stounding, and the methods they used to educate them would never be tolerated here.Yes, we are demanding that more and more kids go to college, but are we watering it down to force fit them in? We need vocational ed for the many jobs that are needed in our sociey. That's where the shortage is, and it may be that we will pay just about anything to get skilled LABOR.

If we persist in defining "success" in this country as the ability to make money whether as a skilled worker, a janitor, a lawyer, a CEO of a financial corporation, etc., our schools will continue to be commercial training schools, they will not educate a population that is capable of the critical and creative thinking needed for a democracy to work. Germany in the 1930's had some fine technical schools available to ordinary citizens. That citizenry legally produced the Nazi government.Yes, people need training for jobs. They also need educations.

That's good, Ann! It's getting them there that is sometimes the problem!

There's a famous class photograph of the students of a certain German technical schoo in the early 20th centuryl. It supposedly includes two of the most famous people of the 20th century -- Wittgenstein and Hitler. It is certain that they went to the same high school. Hitler said he was particularly fond of some pulp novels by an American about a "hero" who hates Indians and goes about slaughtering them. See what happens when you don't learn Shakespeare and Sophocles and Isaiah instead?

Anecdotal only, but I always ask my students to give me a list of their expectations of me after I review class policies in the syllabus (and it still seems strange to me that we have to have class policies in the syllabus that spell out comportment and the like).Anyhoo, many students tell me they expect me to give them an A if they try really hard and they want me to e-mail them "friendly reminders" if they are missing work.I find this astounding in an age where, with the touch of a button, students can access live-chat tutorial help 24/7 from the college and look up their assignments on line to see what's missing and what grade they received on it.Oh, and we also have a new college policy that doors have to be locked from the outside during class in case we get shooters on campus.What a world.

Jean --I hate to say it, but that does sound something like what some of the neo-cons rail about: the inability or unwillingness of some people to accept responsibility or their own success or failure. Th neo-cons do make a major point.Where I differ with them is that I see those people as unsure of their own capabilities and unconvinced that work will make them competent. They need teachers who truly believe that they can do the work, who inspire them to work their hardest, and who hold them to the necessary standards.

Ann, maybe it's just my age, but my sense is that the human race seems to be populated by people who are emotionally 17 years old. There is a sense of immaturity, a lack of social grace, an inability to pay attention, a desire to define people by their things rather than their ideas, a disconnect with the intellectual and spiritual in favor of the physical. I see this across age groups and social strata.And honestly? When the likes of me notices this, things have come to a pretty bad pass.To people living at this level--and I realize this is going to sound incredibly snobbish--the whole notion of an education designed to transmit some basic sense of what an average human in the early 21st Century should know (v. job training to get money) seems like an airy-fairy proposition.

Ann and Jean, this article, by a professor of education at an American University, about designing an alternative curriculum for his son in order to prepare him for life, may interest you.

Here's a very relevant article by David Brooks on why kids fail both in school in school and out of it. It seems that the more psychological traumas that a child suffers, e.g., divorced parents, physical abuse, family member in jail, the more likely it is to fail in school -- not just grammar and high school, ub also college. "Later research suggested that only 3 percent of students with an ACE score [which measures traum] of 0 had learning or behavioral problems in school. Among students with an ACE score of 4 or higher, 51 percent had those problems."A kid with a score of 6 (out of a possible 10) was 50 % more likely to attempt main problem apparently isn't the teachers -- it's the parents. So who will help the parents?

Big oops -- Those with ACE scores above 6 were 30 TIMES more likely to attempt suicide. !!!

To try to answer my own question (who will help the parents) --I suspect that the main answer is: the clergy of all faiths. It can help the parents to work out better value systems and encourage them to have the strength and patience needed to raise kids in these troubled times. But how much attention will/do parents give to the celibate clergy of the Catholic Church who have no existential acquaintance with the pitfalls of contemporary parenting? Further, and probably most important, the facts of the sex scandal show that the Catholic bishops as a group were incredibly indifference to the welfare of the children under their spiritual care. They have spent their spiritual clout. Why should parents listen when the bishops tell them how to raise responsible kids?

Rocha's article in the link Jim Pauwels is thought-provoking. I find somewhat jarring, if not ghoulish, the notion that a parent would see his primary function as ensuring that his kid went straight to heaven when he died. OTOH, if that's not your goal (even if you find it too difficult to put it in quite that way), what good is your parenting? Going fishing, reading nothing but improving books, and exploring the wonders of the world with only the best people--these are the kinds of fantasies it's fairly easy to entertain when kids are 6, particularly if they're tractable and obedient to begin with.However, I don't think kids are blank slates, and as their own preferences, talents, and personalities emerge, child-rearing becomes an endless game of "pick your battles." In fact, I think allowing kids to learn from a certain number of hare-brained ideas (oh, say, letting your girlfriend cut and dye your hair) can be quite salubrious, particularly if the parent offers comforting words such as, "You know, it'll grow back pretty fast. Just imagine if you'd let her give you a tattoo!"I hope Rocha checks back in 10 years when Tomas and his brother have discovered girls and cars.

Ann, many day care centers and preschools help parents. I knew nothing about children when my kid was born, and the ladies at the Catholic preschool were wonderful mentors ... and some were younger than me.However, as long as we pay people who take care of children minimum wage and require next to no skills to do the job, they can't provide that kind of daily contact and assistance.

Jean --I think that the problems with families are so varied that it would take a huge effort and wisdom we may not posses to change "the family" for the better. There have been so many sociolgical and religious changes since the 30's that the problems aren't going to be solved easily. I just think that the churches and the clergy in particular have to take the lead in inspiring some more solid values than the ones we seem to have these days. We are thoroughly hedonistic on a personal level and thoroughly materialistic in our political aims. I don't think academe can change much, so that leaves the churches to make us at least re-thing our basic values.It's not that I think that people are less idealistic, especially the young. It's that the society's values are inadequate for the flourishing of families.

Jean --I should have added that we aren't thinking our way out of this because the American culture is s9 stringently anti-intellectual and has been for generations. It's not a matter of not trusting the academics -- it's a matter of not trusting *our own* abilities to think critically. Consider all the bad nmes we have for people who study problems and try to think their way out of them: egghead, talking head, geek, bookworm. The list is endless. The last think a teen-ager want to be seen as is a nerd, so they don't study and grow up to inspire the same dumb attitude in their children. Comic books are one the nation's favorite sort of "book". And we can't blame this on the politicians. We end up with "going with our gut". Sheesh.

"Its not that I think that people are less idealistic, especially the young. Its that the societys values are inadequate for the flourishing of families."Ann, I agree in so many way ... and yet, there are so many families that do flourish in the midst of this society.I'm convinced that traditional Christian morality is part of the recipe. Not everyone follows every jot and tittle of it, and I suppose that it was ever thus, but it needs to be presented as an attainable ideal.

Jim --I agee that it has to be presented as an alternative to the hedonism, materialism of most of the people in our culture. But you can't just walk up to a pagan and say, "Christ saves!" You have to understand why the pagan believes as he/she does, and that means understanding the roots of their skepticism about the Church. I hate to sound like the proverbial broken record (kids these days don't even know what that expression means :-), but the sex scandal has destroyed the bishops credibility. Nobody exxcept hard-core conservative Catholics listens to them any more except to laugh at them or call them names. Their attempts at evangelization are doomed unless they change within themselves so radically that people see that they are truly capable of self-criticism and change. Then the skeptics have to see the bishops criticizing their own teachings for whatever flaws are there -- and unless the bishops admit that they too can make theological errors, they don't have a chance of being taken seriously by anyone. They blew it, Jim, with the sex scandal. Their arrogance and lack of empathy with the suffering children has destroyed their position in society. Unless the Holy Spirit provides them with some first class saints to lead them out of the social wilderness, their state of ostracism, they arn't going to lead anybody else anywhere.

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