Over the past several months I have read several articles about the Global Education Reform Movement or GERM. As one who is slow to adopt any concept that smacks of a conspiracy theory, I was skeptical that there was a GLOBAL reform movement afoot, even though over the past several months I have become increasingly convinced that private businesses are promoting a corrosive privatization agenda.
TES, an English publication, recently published a lengthy article on GERM titled “Dissemination or Contamination?” that is very persuasive in making the case that a global movement DOES exist… and it is turning every education system into one modelled on our schools. The article describes the effect international tests have had on government policies in the developed world. It indicates that the advocates of the tests argue that they can be used by governments to identify “best practices” that could be replicated in their won nation thus “disseminating” ways to improve instruction. On the other hand, the author indicates that these standardized tests— like all standardized tests— prove what we already know: the effects of the parents and the culture outweigh any effects of teachers or the school. Worse, while the tests are not designed to measure school effectiveness, that is precisely how the media reports on them and precisely how politicians react to the results. So, in order to improve their standing in the eyes of the public and the politicians who provide funding, teachers teach to the test and the curriculum in “low performing schools” is narrowed as teachers strive to overcome effects.
Not to sound like a broken record… but the biggest problem with the testing mania is its inextricable link to age-based grade cohorts. We know that many children begin school with vocabulary and learning deficits because they come from homes where the parents do not communicate with their children or read to them. These children CAN learn as much as their advantaged counterparts IF they are given sufficient time and instruction that matches their ability and ways of learning. The current model of schooling, however, calls these children “failures” if they fail to learn at the same rate and test administrators insist that their test results are only valid if they are administered to students within an age cohort.
The other problems with the GERM model are described in these paragraphs:
Resistance is mounting to this “disease” among concerned educationalists from as far afield as Finland, New Zealand and Scotland. They are alarmed that its symptoms of competition, choice and constant measurements of teacher and pupil performance are leading to a homogenised, Americanised or anglicised global schools system that ignores many of the most important things in education. They argue that it has narrowed curricula, brought in an excess of testing and is making pupils’ lives a pressurised hell.
“It is like an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems through a virus,” according to Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish education official who coined the acronym Germ. “It travels with pundits, media and politicians. Education systems borrow policies from others and get infected. As a consequence, schools get ill, teachers don’t feel well and kids learn less.”
Until we break free of the lockstep approach to learning that is reinforced by the testing implicit in GERM.
In Diane Ravitch’s blog post today she responds to the question of whether public schools should rely on charity. Unfortunately, there is no clear cut yes-or-no answer to this question because there is no clear cut definition to what constitutes an “adequate education”. In an op ed piece I wrote several years ago I offered the following list of items that constitute an “adequate education”:
- Class sizes of 18-22 in the primary grades
- Class sizes of no more than 25 in intermediate grades
- Art, Music, and Physical Education at least twice per week in the elementary grades
- A media center in each school equipped with internet access
- A computer classroom in every school large enough to accommodate a class
- At least one computer in every classroom with internet access
- Opportunities for High School students to enroll in courses that prepare them for SAT II tests in all content areas
- Opportunities for High School students to enter the workforce upon graduation with pre-apprenticeship skills
- Funds for each teacher to pursue graduate level courses and/or professional growth opportunities throughout their career
- Teacher compensation levels that attract and retain talented and creative college graduates
- Clean, well maintained schools
This list DOESN’T include extra-curricular activities like athletics. It also assumes that other extra-curricular activities like drama, music, and journalism-related activities would be embedded in the academic curriculum. If schools have limited resources, it seems to me that those resources should be directed primarily if not exclusively to academics.
So… the answer to the question “should public schools rely on charity” is NO when it comes to the elements of an “adequate education”… but a qualified YES when it comes to everything else. Changing the status quo in this area, however, will be more daunting than changing the notion of age-based grade levels, for the funding of sports programs is sacred in many parts of our country.
Privatization of public education has already occurred in pre-school special education in New York…. and the results are not pretty. The title of an editorial in the Christmas day edition of the NYTimes says it all: “Fraud in Pre-School Education”. The article recounts how private pre-school operators “…stole or misspent millions of dollars, piled relatives onto the payroll, billed for no-show jobs and charged for special education services that were never provided.” And where was the State Department of Education while all of this was taking place? A recently released audit reports:
“there has been no fiscal audit oversight” of the special education service providers since 2007 and that the department, which is understaffed, has no systematic way of reviewing the hundreds of millions of dollars in charges submitted every year by the contractors. Reviews are generally cursory and almost always based on information supplied by the providers themselves.
The understaffed department is offering some recommendations… but those recommendations will require action by the legislature and, in all probability, money for regulatory oversight. Based on Albany’s record in the past and the Governor’s inclination to support privatization I don’t expect it to happen any time soon. The closing sentence of the editorial, though, does indicate that the Times editors may be having second thoughts about the virtues of privatization:
Ideally, Albany will eventually move away from the privatized system to one administered by the public schools, but interim reforms are necessary.
And ideally, the Times editors will no longer advocate moving toward privatization of public schools without the kinds of safeguards that prevent the fraudulent spending that is occurring in privatized special education pre schools.