The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy: Failing Public Schools

Everything you need to know about the post-truth demonizing of public schools and false promises of charter schools is in these two paragraphs from Education Week, the queen of misinforming edujournalism:

At their best, the most innovative charter schools provide convincing evidence that there are better ways to educate students (especially disadvantaged ones) than now prevail in most traditional district schools. In fact, these pioneering schools bring together most of the innovative policies and practices needed to transform the nation’s traditional schools into the most successful in the world.

And yet, most traditional school districts either ignore or actively resist innovation. And their processes are so ingrained that one significant alteration would inevitably lead to systemic change or even a total redesign. Few public educators can imagine, let alone undertake, such dramatic change.

Edujournalism has been for decades a harbinger of the current threats to democracy posed by, not fake news, but post-truth journalism, the sort of enduring but false claims that drive mainstream media and remain unchecked by the public.

I recently detailed eight post-truth claims about public education that have fueled over three decades of baseless and harmful education reform; we are now poised for a resurgence of school choice schemes as the next wave of more unwarranted policies unsupported by research and not grounded in credible analyses of education failures.

The paragraphs above traffic in very predictable nonsense—”innovative charter schools” and public schools and educators who actively resist change—that resonates only with those who have no real experience in public education.

This nonsense is driven by the self-proclaimed innovators, few of whom are actual educators, and embraced by the public, most of whom have been students in public schools, and thus, believe they know the system.

Let’s here, then, unpack the nonsense.

First, I can offer a perspective that includes gaining my teaching certificate in a traditional program in the early 1980s before teaching public high school English for 18 years in the rural South, a small-town high school in a moderately impoverished areas.

Significant also is that my teaching career began the same year that South Carolina’s accountability system kicked into high gear; SC was an early and eager adopter of the standards and high-stakes testing movement that has driven K-12 public schools for over three decades.

I also have now taught in higher education for the past 15 years, as a teacher educator having one foot still in public schools (and the bureaucracy that controls it) and another in a much more autonomous profession as a tenured professor.

The Great Lie about charter schools versus public schools is very complex. The lie begins with the hollow use of “innovation,” a term that means nothing except in the sort of pyramid-scheme reality now promoted by Trump and newly minted Secretary of Education DeVos.

The lie then falls apart when you unpack the claim that innovative charter schools will save public education; we must ask, if bureaucracy and mandates are crippling public schools, and freedom to be innovative is the key to charter schools, why not just release public schools from the bureaucracy and mandates so that all schools are free to innovate?

The answer reveals the circular and misleading logic of the Great Lie that is charter innovation: For decades, school choice advocates have struggled against the public remaining mostly against school choice, mostly in favor of their local public schools (even when the public holds a negative view of public schools in general). How, then, could the public be turned against public schools?

The solution has been relentless and ever-increasing mandates that guarantee the self-fulfilling prophesy of public schools.

From SOE DeVos to the EdWeek narrative above, relentless education reform has resulted in creating public schools and teachers trapped in mandates and then criticizing them for not being innovative.

If innovation is really the solution to the problem facing public schools (and I suspect it isn’t), teachers need autonomy.

Yet, education reform has systematically de-professionalized teaching, systematically made teaching and learning less effective, and systematically overwhelmed schools with impossible demands so that the public sees only a failing system, one that the innovator-propagandists can smear as resisting change, refusing to innovate, and doomed to failure—with only innovative charter schools to save the day.

When we peel back the post-truth rhetoric, evidence fails to support claims of charter school success, and five minutes in a public school reveal that schools and teachers are not incapable of “imagin[ing] dramatic change,” but are blocked from practicing their professional autonomy by the exact forces accusing them of being against reform.

Public school teachers have never had professional autonomy, and most cannot even go to the restroom when they need to.

Spitting in the face of public school teachers as the paragraphs above do is the worst of post-truth journalism.

I have now spent about the same amount of time as an educator in K-12 public schools and higher education.

The professional autonomy gulf between the two is stunning.

K-12 public schools and teachers are scapegoats in a ridiculous political charade that depends on post-truth journalism and a gullible public.

There is nothing innovative about that.


9 thoughts on “The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy: Failing Public Schools”

  1. “most traditional school districts either ignore or actively resist innovation.”

    This is BULL SHIT from Education Week. The kind of lazy BULL SHIT that boils my blood with the heat of anger.

    The ignorance of Education Week is not an excuse.

    There might be some truth to that allegation, but the explanation that they left out has to do with top-down management starting in Washington DC, and tests that rank teachers/schools and then punishes the teachers and schools that work with the most at-risk children who mostly live in poverty and/or have learning disabilities and/or come from dysfunctional homes.

    If teachers were free to work together without interference from the top-down micromanaging style that we see is the management method of our current malignant narcissist in the White House, teachers would be free to innovate and be the professionals that are not allowed to be in this country that pretends to be free.

    And I saw that happening during my early years in education. Starting in 1975, I was a public school teacher in California, and during those early years, as a teacher, I had more freedom to try different methods out in the classroom. In fact, my first few years under contract was at a middle school where the principal allowed the teachers to manage the school in teams. Each team had the responsibility to deal with different aspects of the educational process and Ralph, that principal, supported the decisions the teacher teams made. Before he became principal. that middle school was known as the worst and most dangerous school in the San Gabriel Valley with a reputation to go with it.

    That was management from the bottom up, and the results were amazing.

    The child poverty rate at Giano Intermediate was close to 100 percent and the school was in the middle of a barrio with multigenerational street gangs.

    When I arrived during Ralph’s second year, it was so dangerous outside the fence, we were warned never to leave the campus on foot or we might disappear from the face of the earth. Other schools refused to even compete on our campus in sports competitions. The fear of the danger around Giano was that high across the valley.

    But within a few years, Giano turned around and became an incredible success story. The fear of competing in sports against our teams on our campus vanished and other schools started to come on a regular basis.

    There were still plenty of challenges from the children, but the teacher teams came up with new ways to handle those challenges.

    Then President Reagan’s fraudulent and misleading “A Nation at Risk” report came out and all of that changed. District management took over and pressured Ralph’s bottom up management style to the point that it drove him to a stroke and he almost died. He retired early so he could have a longer life and escape the top-down stress. After that, there was no more bottom-up management at that school and war between teachers with support from the local union versus and administration became the norm and high stakes tests in California started years before NCLB and those tests were just as damaging to the public schools as Common Core and the other Crap from the frauds and liars that caused all this.

    If the U.S. modeled its schools after Finland, then the public schools would be free from the top-down dictators that have caused this tragedy.

  2. Seems to me the focus should be on examples of those “innovations.” As Diane Ravitch has written, charter schools began as laboratories to try out new ideas and were meant to be part of the public school system. That makes more sense than this us vs. them mentality we see now. So what about dialogue and a debate on these innovations. What works? What doesn’t? Why?

    1. Why no dialogue? Because businessmen loathe to give up anything that gives them an edge over competition. Why would I give up my recipe to my secret sauce of education?

  3. “. . . so that the public sees only a SUPPOSEDLY failing system. . . ”

    Excellent analysis, thanks Paul, with a minor addition to counteract the prevailing false meme.

  4. The piece you quoted also says this (prior to your two quoted paragraphs):

    “Many of the roughly 6,900 current charter schools do not qualify as innovation laboratories. Most states have not limited charters to those that promise to be different from traditional public schools. As a result, many are basically traditional schools on steroids, with longer hours, student uniforms, and strict discipline.”

    Before everyone goes off on a rant about Education Week, let me remind you that the piece quoted was an *opinion* piece by Ron Wolk, who’s written a lot of centrist op-eds over decades, as he is a founder of EdWeek. The NYT and Washington Post (which some folks think are lefty screeds) also print oppositional editorial pieces; it’s called journalism.

    I agree with all your arguments–frequently brilliant–re: charter schools. And it certainly would be wonderful to have a privately supported 100% pro-public ed journalistic outlet, instead of having a patchwork of small-potatoes bloggers. In the meantime, let’s direct our anger toward the real evil–not Education Week.

    1. Yes, that is journalism, and as I have posted often, mainstream journalism *is the problem*. EW is trapped, like NPR and the NYT, in horrible patterns of press-release and both-sides norms that do not serve anyone well, except those in power. Commentaries and Op-Eds must be held accountable for facts to base their opinions on. This piece is careless, and all-to-common on EW.

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