Voters Gave Corporate Education “Reform” a Big Defeat on Election Day

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Noa Bashuk uses a tablet to follow along with her teacher in an eighth grade Spanish class at Autrey Mill Middle School in Johns Creek, Ga. on Thursday, May 9, 2013. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Major electoral contests – governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia, and wins by mayors-elect Martin Walsh in Boston and Bill de Blasio in New York City – caught progressives’ attention a week ago. Voters concerned about the future of public education, however, might want to pay more attention to what happened last week in Bridgeport, Conn. As this website and Salon both noted, that city’s school board race was among the top “under-the-radar” races to watch. Indeed, Bridgeport is a microcosm of education policy battles taking place across the country, and its activities have broad implications for many districts and states confronting similar issues.

Bridgeport is the largest school district in Connecticut – one of the nation’s wealthiest states and also the one with the largest achievement gaps – and among its lowest-performing (it ranks 159 out of 162 districts based on average student math and reading test scores). This should not be a surprise; Bridgeport was hard hit by the deindustrialization wave that swept across New England in the 1970s and 1980s and has since struggled to recover. In 2010, median household income in the racially mixed city was $34,658. In New Canaan, whose schools post the state’s highest average test scores, median household income among the town’s residents, 95 percent of whom are white, was $141,788.

Large achievement gaps in Bridgeport and other Connecticut cities led Gov. Dannel Malloy to advance a series of education policies, from substantial new investments in pre-K programs and in low-income school districts to tying teacher tenure to student test scores. The gaps have also drawn the attention of prominent self-proclaimed reformers, including NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former chancellor of the Washington, DC public schools Michelle Rhee as well as her Students First advocacy group. As such, Bridgeport has become an epicenter of increasingly heated battle over not only education policies, but also which voices should be central to the discussions about them.

After his election in 2011, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch (D) worked secretly to replace the elected local school board with one that he would appoint, a move that was overturned by the state Supreme Court. Finch also recruited Paul Vallas to be Bridgeport’s school superintendent. Many parents and teachers viewed Vallas – who had previously led the New Orleans and Philadelphia school districts – as dismissive of their input; the state National Education Association affiliate filed a complaint with the CT Department of Education on the grounds that he “shut teachers and parents out of discussions and decisions.” In 2012, Finch made a second attempt to control the school board by pushing a referendum – backed by cash from Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee – to end school board elections. Voters rejected this attempt by a 2-to-1 margin.

The changes touted by Vallas mirror those in other high-poverty urban districts: more testing, higher stakes attached to those tests, and promotion of charter schools as a solution, at the expense, parents told Salon, of “lots of cuts to services and programs that kind of make the school experience more comprehensive for students.” Among the cuts noted in a memorandum prepared by the Connecticut Working Families (CWF) party are substantial reductions in classroom supplies, special education funds, creative and elective programs, and “health and safety standards.”

“There are some classrooms right now in Bridgeport where there are 40 students and one teacher,” says Connecticut Working Families (CWF) Party executive director Lindsay Farrell. “Nobody’s learning in that classroom.” Parents in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City have voiced similar concerns. Finch’s appointment of a superintendent who lacks the administrative credentials required under state law meshes with reformers’ dismissal of traditional education experts. And his attempts to “take the politics out of” school boards to pave the way for his favored reforms echo those taken by leaders of other low-performing districts nationwide.

What makes Bridgeport different is how parents and teachers worked together to counter these attempts to stifle their voices and shut them out. The CWF party and teachers union jointly fielded candidates to oppose party-backed Democrats. In September, their three candidates beat the party’s candidates by two-to-one margins in the primaries, signaling the strength of the grass-roots effort and growing dissatisfaction with the policies of Finch and Vallas. Last week, they joined incumbent CWF school board member Sauda Baraka and Republican Joe Larcheveque to form a new, bipartisan 5-4 majority. Four days later, Vallas announced his resignation as superintendent.

Bridgeport now has the opportunity to provide a new model for both better policy and real democracy. It can join districts like Union City, New Jersey, and Montgomery County, Md., both of which are addressing poverty-related impediments to learning head-on rather than being distracted by more tests and charter schools. Union City has engaged in a slow, steady, 10-year effort involving more equitable school funding, high-quality pre-K, literacy-rich early elementary years and strong supports for teachers to boost the skills of its English-language learners. Parents are integral partners, not nuisances who stand in the way of real change. Montgomery County’s peer review-and-assistance program helps attract and retain some of the nation’s best teachers, who use in-depth data from their own assessments to improve instruction and make parents their partners in boosting achievement. Teachers are helped by the county’s smart mixed-use housing policy, health and income supports and redistribution of resources to the lowest-income schools.

Bridgeport also has a chance to refocus attention on the “public” in public education. It won the school board race by insisting that expert voices be heard. Teachers, principals and superintendents across the country agree: The past two years have produced the first-ever public letter by (NY) principals opposing state-mandated reforms at odds with parents’ and teachers’ beliefs as to what works, the first such letter by (Texas) superintendents demanding that the state stop its obsession with testing, and, most recently, a letter by Tennessee superintendents calling on their governor to stop the frontal assault on teachers by the state education commissioner (Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband, Kevin Huffman).

The win in Bridgeport highlights the power of parents and teachers joining forces. It signals real hope for a return to education policy that is bipartisan, guided by evidence and both advanced and backed by true education experts – those who work and learn in classrooms every day.

Elaine Weiss, Economic Policy Institute
Elaine Weiss is the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education (BBA), where she works with a high-level task force and coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive.
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  • Michael Lambert

    Finally, some good news. ^0^

  • Maggie

    D
    o we see school corporations trying to take over New Canaan? Problems in urban schools have not been addressed, exacerbated or ignored so that when things are beyond repair and high stakes testing “prove ” their failure, the corporations will have more than enough reason to come in. Kids are the sacrificial lambs, literally and figuratively… Newark NJ veteran of 30 years

  • Jessica Muniz-Martinez

    Hello I am a Bridgeport parent and advocate for change. My son attends the WORSE school in Bridgeport, Luis Munoz Marin School. I have been fighting for change in that school but ultimately realize with all the politics and fighting we are not getting anywhere. So I need to pull him, our of the school. I really like this article and the truth it exposes. However, there is false information being reported. The paragraph below is false in it’s entirety: After his election in 2011, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch (D) worked secretly to replace the elected local school board with one that he would appoint, a move that was overturned by the state Supreme Court. Finch also recruited Paul Vallas to be Bridgeport’s school superintendent. Many parents and teachers viewed Vallas – who had previously led the New Orleans and Philadelphia school districts – as dismissive of their input; the state National Education Association affiliate filed a complaint with the CT Department of Education on the grounds that he “shut teachers and parents out of discussions and decisions.” In 2012, Finch made a second attempt to control the school board by pushing a referendum – backed by cash from Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee – to end school board elections. Voters rejected this attempt by a 2-to-1 margin.

  • Ms_Phillips

    Interesting how Michelle Rhee’s name comes up. (I live in Sacramento, CA where our mayor Kevin Johnson is married to Michelle Rhee. She & he both receive big-time support from WalMart, and she is somehow involved w State Sen Calderon who is presently under investigation by the FBI on bribery charges.) Her educational “philosophy” is pure garbage.

  • Anonymous

    No, and we don’t see New Canaan residents demanding Teach for America volunteers in their classrooms, either.

  • Anonymous

    School boards are suppose to represent the PARENTS!. The only thing that I disagree with the everyone’s opposition to testing. I would want the students to be tested at the end of every year to see their growth. People say that teachers can teach to the test. But if it is a good test, then teaching to the test would be good. For example in reading, good tests evaluate the students’ grasp of main idea, supporting details, characterization, point of view, inferences, vocabulary in context, and maybe, objectives of the author. So if a teacher is teaching to that test, she is phenomenal. I would also want the scores as part of the teacher’s evaluation.
    I figure that if Ms Suzie’s classes are making leaps and bounds in vocabulary, she could do an informational on teaching vocabulary to the other teachers. If another teacher has her classes flying on characterization, then we have her show the others her methods. It could be win win all around.
    Seriously, in the 70′s I was substituting in one junior high where the students couldn’t remember how to carry when they added! That state was number 47 out of 50. The state put in grade standards, testing, and now the state is about 14 out of 50.
    The poorer the income of the area, the smaller the classes should be. No class should be over 20 students, especially English and reading, If I were to make other recommendations, I would suggest that they have” parent supporting student classes. “

  • Robert Dahlstet

    EVERY teacher teaches to some test, for heaven’s sake! Are those who use this phrase as a derogatory accusation suggesting that students should be given tests on subjects that haven’t been taught? Or is the complaint simply that the test is not “their” test? More to the point, have you ever met a teacher who would not want their own child to be able to show mastery of the basic skills and knowledge included on these tests?

    In fact, the real objection tends to be rooted in a deep-seated fear of accountability, which is sorely lacking throughout the educational system, especially at the highest levels. Determining whether ALL students are achieving at a satisfactory level is absolutely essential to closing the shameful learning gap that exists between advantaged and disadvantaged (mostly minority) children. Eliminating testing and avoiding much-needed accountability supports the status quo and promotes increasing inequality in our country.

  • Anonymous

    There’s testing students to monitor their progress for internal evaluation purposes, like the old Iowa Tests of Basic Skills that we took when I was a kid. No pressure, just do your best. Then there’s the No Child Left Behind Program, in which the very survival of the school and the teacher’s job depend on one test given on one day. The high stakes have given rise to various types of cheating, ranging from telling the worst students to stay home from school to actually changing answers. Administrators know that their future depends on these tests, so they pressure teachers to teach ONLY to the test, just drill-drill-drill reading and math, with no time for science, social studies, art, or any of the other courses that are enriching and interesting.
    I used to tutor street kids in a G.E.D. program. It was interesting to note that they could all sound out words. There wasn’t one of them who couldn’t. They could sound out newspaper articles and everything else. What they couldn’t always do was understand what they had read. For example, if you gave them my first paragraph to read, they would not be able to answer questions such as, “What was the name of the test that the writer took when she was a kid?” and “What do administrators pressure teachers to do?” Drilling in phonics and spelling isn’t enough, because after all, what is the purpose of reading except to gain information or to enjoy a story?
    Do you know what my ideal school would be like? It would be one in which the students loved to read, were not intimidated by math, and each had at least one genuine intellectual interest. That would be a school where real learning takes place, no matter what the test scores said.

  • Anonymous

    Nobody objects to children mastering basic skills, but No Child Left Behind is set up so that every school, even the ones in New Canaan, will eventually fail in the long run. It’s part of a policy that blames teachers for factors beyond their control, such as large classes full of children from troubled homes.

  • Robert Dahlstet

    Let’s not confuse short-comings of the educational system itself with results shown by assessments of student progress. If educators cheat on tests to obtain decent results, they are the ones at fault, not the test. If students can sound out words but cannot comprehend what they are reading, the instructional program is to blame, not the test that reveals their lack of understanding. If students need more time to learn to read and write well or to use math to solve problems, it’s the fault of insufficient educational and political systems that fail to provide the needed time and resources–not the fault of a test.
    It’s true that the Bush administration and a number of right-wing groups wanted to use No Child Left Behind to privatize public education and turn it into another profit center. But progressives are misguided to consider assessments of short-comings as a problem. To the contrary, the tests have revealed a very nasty and long-hidden truth about American education: namely, that it fails to serve millions of disadvantaged students, and that we as a country continue to leave them behind–to their continuing harm, to the elimination of equal opportunity, and to the peril of our entire society.

  • Elaine Weiss

    Jessica,
    thanks very much for your comment. Please let me know what is “false” in the article, as it needs correcting!