Don’t Destroy Public Schools

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As a former teacher, school administrator, and educational researcher, I am concerned that a competitive business model that includes merit pay and teacher evaluations based on standardized tests will not translate into improving public schools.

First, the single most predictive factor of poor school performance is poverty. That fact trumps all other factors, including poor teaching, inadequate curriculum materials, and class size. All research supports this fact. Look at the schools that are successful. They do not subscribe to merit pay and mass firings that you endorse for inner city schools.

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Second, children from inner city schools need to have some hope that education will lead to a prosperous future. In reality, when they leave the school building, their communities have nothing to offer in the way of employment. Their economic mobility is severely limited by business practices that refuse to pay wages that would lift people above the poverty level.

Third, business needs to take some responsibility for the poverty in communities. They lobby against tax increase, leverage their influence to eliminate workers protections, refuse to pay pensions or health insurance to part time and low wage earners. Their practices created the very impoverished conditions in communities that contribute to student school failure. When business donates money to schools for projects, computers, etc. that donation is tax deductible. Thus draining the needed money from the communities that need it just to pay the electric bill or buy paper.

Fourth, charter schools are not the “magic bullet” that will save needy children. They don’t even teach all needy children. They will not serve students with moderate to severe special education needs. Some students with severe disabilities cost up to $50,000/per student to educate. How can charters justify receiving tax dollars, exclude these students, yet claim to serve the neediest students?

Fifth, teachers are not motivated by salaries to improve their practices. They aren’t real estate salesmen or stock traders who work to hide their secrets from colleagues to gain a bonus or defeat a competitor. Effective teachers and schools staffs collaborate and share information. Merit pay will not improve performance in schools or classrooms but will drive teachers to resent their colleagues and destroy collaboration.

Sixth, standardized tests are not designed to evaluate quality teaching practices. That means that the scores are invalid as a measure of instructional quality. It is analogous to evaluating an oncologist on the number of patients who die from cancer. The physician’s patient death rate does not measure treatment quality. There are too many other mitigating factors, just as there are other factors children experience in their communities, schools and classrooms. Not all students are the same just as not all cancer patients are the same.

Finally, I do not want to see public schools destroyed by: (a) draining scarce tax dollars into unsustainable charters designed on fallacious information, (b) excluding children with disabilities or those who are at the highest risk for failure, or (c) teachers demoralized by a market driven ideology that does not translate into quality instruction.

Joan C. Grim
University of Tennessee


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