Former FCPS teacher Jim Hanna takes a big swing at Kentucky's version of corporate education reform in today's Herald-Leader. Surprisingly, what he is reacting to is the donation of Bob Sexton's papers (and some of the Prichard Committee) to the UK library (where I'm sitting right now, by the way). The news apparently caused him to choke.
Say what you will about Sexton, Silberman, and the Prichard Committee's philosophies, but their impact on state education policy is undeniable and preserving Sexton's papers for scholarly study is very important...and a long way from a publicity stunt.
But an intriguing set of questions surround the issues raised in Hanna's piece - questions I have been studying for a couple of decades now. Just how did corporate education reform manifest itself in Kentucky? What drove the change? Who was doing the thinking? What deals were stuck? And whose plans were followed? Did Sexton really get the reform he envisioned? And Jim's question: Was Sexton really a shill for corporate interests?
The same set of policy confusions that saw Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush join hands around NCLB were present in Kentucky. Republicans and Democrats have been generally indistinguishable on education policy over the past decade or two. Both are present on the Prichard Committee, and that accounts for some percentage of its strength. It has only been since the Republican National Committee's defection from Common Core last April (originally a Republican idea, but the defection occurred in response to Obama's full-throated endorsement of CCSS) that has splintered the group into factions - generally along the lines of pro or anti-Obama factions. It remains to be seen how the diminishing influence of TEA Party activism in the wake of this year's government shutdown might impact the strength of that opposition.
Some of Jim's facts are a bit skewed (Kentucky has generally ranked much higher in road funding than school funding; and formative assessment is a good idea whether there is a summative assessment or not) and some of the history is twisted (such as KERA "introducing politics into the schools" - Ha! In a state where, historically, some number of people would be shot on election day over school trustee elections and the jobs that would be derived from them?) but still, he raises some interesting questions - questions mostly raised by Diane Ravitch on the national scene. And Ravitch has some delicious ironies of her own.
This from Jim Hanna in the Herald-Leader:
It's hard to grin when you're choking on your breakfast, but that's what I had to do when I read the Nov. 20 article. The news of this publicity stunt was pretty hard to swallow.
I don't mean to personally disrespect my friends on the Prichard Committee, or Stu Silberman, or the memory of Robert Sexton, whom I met only once. He seemed like a nice fellow.
But I must point out the truth.
The Prichard Committee has had a negative effect on Kentucky schools, and Sexton, in his role a director, was a shill for corporate influences which have had a deleterious role in education.
Readers will remember that, for decades, schools in Kentucky suffered under niggardly attention from the commonwealth's politicians. Underfunding, consolidation and shenanigans on the local level were chronic problems. Just like roads, bridges, sewers and such, the schools were not maintained at an adequate level.
The Kentucky Education Reform Act had a couple of laudable goals: to increase and equalize funding and to stop nepotism and corruption at the county level.
However, another facet of KERA has been counter-productive and damaging to our schools. So-called "education reform" introduced politics into schools and classrooms.
The Prichard Committee, funded by corporate interests, has pushed for an education system run by testing, platitudes and public-relations hype. This top-down, corporate model is focused on politicians and bureaucrats rather than teachers and students.
This can be seen in many ways. Standardized testing rules the day. In classrooms, even elementary school students are subject to testing pressure, such as frequent "learning checks" or "exit slips." Such things are not designed by teachers to help students, but mandated by bureaucrats and "experts" to increase scores on tests.
Somehow, the state cannot afford new textbooks, but can spend millions of Kentucky dollars on tests from out-of-state corporations.
In Fayette County, there's no money for school nurses, but we can pay to hire the superintendent of a neighboring county to try to increase test scores.
Statewide, our schools are subjected to unproven policies that are really public-attention grabs: replacing the failed KERA with Senate Bill 1, raising the dropout age, increasing graduation rates and implementing common core standards.
The ability of teachers to run their classrooms and of principals to run schools and to back up teachers, has been subverted by questionable testing and monitoring schemes implemented by the state school board in Frankfort, with complicity by the Prichard Committee and its moneyed backers.
Teacher professionalism and political strength has been undermined for the past two decades. Our high schools are becoming diploma mills (with colleges soon to follow, under similar pressure).
Teachers know that reform isn't working; parents are finding out. There is already a growing, nationwide movement against testing (an old nemesis) and common core standards (a new one).
Meanwhile, the politicians and bureaucrats act as though everything is OK. The article about the priests and acolytes of reform getting their shrine is an effort at convincing parents of this.
Parents shouldn't believe it. They should take any story about public-education reform with a large grain of salt. They should refuse to allow their children to take these standardized tests.
And they should remember, as I did with a smile, a delicious irony: The committee which has done so much to harm education while pretending to help is named for Ed Prichard, whose vote fraud conviction made him the most infamous crook in Kentucky political history.