Some warn of anti-teacher agenda on school inequities report

A new report says wide educational achievement gaps hurt our economy and need national attention. But some wonder if the report is being used to advance an anti-teacher-union agenda.

The report, produced by the McKinsey & Co. management consulting firm, is titled, “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools.”

It documents four achievement gaps: (1) between the U.S. and other nations; (2) between black and Latino students and white students; (3) between students of different income levels; and (4) between similar students in different school systems or regions.

“These educational gaps impose on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession,” the report says.

It goes on to say, “The wide variation in performance among schools serving similar students suggests that these gaps can be closed. Race and poverty are not destiny.”

Joel Klein, the controversial New York City schools chancellor, announced the report’s findings last week at a Washington press conference that was also attended by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, the Rev. Al Sharpton and others.

Klein and Sharpton are key figures in the Education Equality Project, which promotes heavily private-funded charter schools, and merit pay for teachers based on “performance.”

New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez reported April 1 that after the launching of the Education Equality Project last June, “the National Action Network, Sharpton’s organization, immediately received a $500,000 donation for its involvement in the new effort.” According to Gonzalez, “The huge infusion of cash — equal to more than a year’s payroll for Sharpton’s entire organization — was quietly provided by Plainfield Asset Management, a Connecticut-based hedge fund.”

Members of the National Action Network were on the McKinsey report’s steering committee, along with people from Klein’s and Sharpton’s Education Equality Project, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Center for American Progress, which has close ties to the Obama administration. The report’s authors say the report was not “commissioned or financially supported by any business, government, or other institution.”

Klein said the report demonstrated that the root cause of test-score disparities was not poverty or family circumstances, but inferior teachers and principals, according to a report in The New York Times.

NEA head Van Roekel, whose union represents 3.2 million teachers and other educational employees around the country, said the flawed education system — not teachers — should be blamed for the inequites shown in the report. “If we are going to bridge the divide, we’ve got to look at the entire problem and include everyone in strategizing a solution,” he said later in a press statement.

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4-million-member American Federation of Teachers, also challenged the teacher-blaming angle, saying in a statement, “The uninformed and the ideologically driven may use this report as an excuse to attack public schools and propose unproven ‘silver bullets’ to address issues that instead require thoughtful, proven and sustainable reforms.”

The report “rightly points to the possible benefits of developing national standards for what students should learn,” Weingarten said. “But it does little to advance other policies that could transform American education: better access to high-quality early childhood education; comprehensive approaches to attracting and retaining highly skilled teachers; and innovative ideas like community schools that provide wraparound services.”

“What struck me,” a longtime New York City teacher told the World, “was that no documentation is given for the claim that teachers are the cause of the problem.”

The 27-year high school history teacher, now retired and a union activist, said the gaps among New York schools are “gigantic” and obvious “just by walking into the schools,” but “Klein has held the reins here for six or seven years and takes no responsibility.”

Class size has not measurably gone down in years, this teacher said. “All the schools are under-funded, and now they are talking about new cuts.”

The McKinsey report defines “achievement” as “mastery of particular cognitive skills or concepts as measured through standardized tests” — a measure that many educators question.

In the New York school system, the teacher said, “Their only answer is to fire principals and teachers using these test scores. Everyone is being hounded, from the top down. Principals don’t have tenure, so they’re going to pressure teachers.” Students are subjected to standardized tests — “not diagnostic tests to find out what kids need” — around 10 times a year.

“It’s clear what they want,” he said. “Their game plan is to privatize the school system.”

“The charter school push is very strong,” he said. Charter schools get the same public funding as regular public schools but they also get substantial private money, many of them from churches. While unions have begun working with some charter school operators, and some teachers at charter schools have won union contracts, the bulk are nonunion.

In New York, charter schools are proliferating — there are going to be around 100 of them by September, and “there are unions maybe at six of them.” The charters are beginning to take over parts or all of public school buildings, he said.

Claiming to serve areas of greatest need, charters often focus on low-income neighborhoods — in New York, Harlem has the greatest concentration of charters. “It splits the parent movement, and makes it very difficult to organize parents,” the teacher union advocate said.

The other big ploy promoted by Klein, Sharpton and others — merit pay — is also destructive, he said. “What does it say about teachers — they’re into it for the money?” Sowing suspicion over how pay decisions are made and why one teacher is deemed “better” than another, merit pay “sets up a very divisive situation.”

Before the teachers union got started, he noted, high school teachers were paid more than other teachers. “The pay differential divided teachers.”

Today’s teachers work under overwhelming pressures, he said. “Teachers are dropping like flies because of overwork. We lose around 40 percent in the first five years.” But Klein and his managers “don’t worry about that. They just hire tons of new teachers from all over the country — mostly white — and then they’re gone in a few years.”

The union is doing a study on the declining proportion of teachers of color in New York, he said.

Patrick Crowley, assistant director of NEA Rhode Island, told the World: ‘It shouldn’t surprise anyone that people are looking for easy solutions to sticky problems; addressing poverty and broken families is hard work. But more importantly, there might not be money to be made on ending poverty. Unfortunately, there is money to be made on the privatization of schools, and one of the only obstacles to the selling out of public schools to private interests are teachers and their unions.”

“You can dress it up in whatever language you want,” Crowley said, “but Mr. Klein and the forces he represents are looking for the easiest way to make a buck. And what will their response be? ‘The unions are defending the status quo.’ Baloney. We fight against the education system in this country every day. If you really want to change the public education system, work with us, we’re the experts in fighting the system.’

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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more. Previously she taught English as a second language and did a variety of other jobs to pay the bills. She has lived in six states, and is all about motherhood, art, nature and apple pie.