There is only one area in all of U.S. politics where it appears there is bipartisan agreement and cooperation: education reform.
The problem is both sides have come down on the wrong side of the issue, in favor of the corporate education reform movement. The reform movement claims that it wants to improve American education. It thinks that the following actions will improve education:
Test all students every year to make sure they are making progress.
Punish schools that don't make progress.
Evaluate teachers based on their students test scores and fire teachers whose scores don't improve.
Fire the "bottom 5% of teachers."
Take away tenure to make it easier to fire teachers; make teaching into a temporary job young people do before getting real jobs.
Standardize all curriculum to raise test scores.
Give parents school choice in the form of vouchers and charter schools.
I tend toward political neutrality, especially in my classroom, where my goal is make students think well, not think like me. That being said, I have very conservative friends and family members, and I am aware of the linchpin ideas that define conservatism. Conservatives favor the following ideals:
Smaller government and less federal intrusion into what should be local decisions.
Taxpayer money should not be wasted.
Free market solutions are the best way to solve problems in society.
Making things good for business makes things good for everyone, since businesses employ people and pump money into the economy.
In addition to those ideas, many conservatives also tend to feel a return to more traditional values and religious beliefs would benefit the country as well, and put us on a better path.
I am writing this post to challenge any of those core ideals, though many have. I am writing this post to show that education reform actually violates these ideals.
This may seem counter intuitive. Conservatives tend to be in favor of education reform because they think of public schools as "government schools." They tend to feel that we pour tax-payer money into the schools without getting a well-educated populace in return. Conservatives feel we should break up the "public school monopoly" to create a free market where parents get to chose what they want for their students, including religious education.
But consider these ideas:
Education reform does not really mean smaller government: it has resulted in an unprecedented expansion of the power and influence of the Federal Department of Education. Education reform has resulted in the Federal government interfering with local decision-making, using top-down edicts to drive what happens in districts, in schools, and in individual classrooms. No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and the Common Core State Standards (which were heavily promoted, if not used as a bribe) were all examples of federal overreach.
If taxpayer money shouldn't be wasted, keep in mind that the privatization and charter school movements have wasted plenty of money by overpaying principals and other employees, or through outright fraud. There are some good charters out there, but there have been many charters that simply close up shop in the middle of the year, take the money and run.
Within the existing public schools there is the cost of standardized testing, which reportedly is as high as 1.7 billion a year--in taxpayer dollars. Systematic research of such testing and its off-shoots like VAM (Value Added Measure) show that tests measure only a narrow set of skills and thus narrow the curriculum when teachers are forced to "teach to the test." Success on one standardized test does not translate to successful real-world skills, or even to success on other tests, because students weren't taught real thinking, reading, writing, or math skills; they were taught how to take that one test. Of course the biggest problem with the tests is that they tell us what we already know: students who live in poverty don't perform as well. Standardized tests mainly benefit the testing companies and textbook companies who create test preparation materials--and those companies are often one and the same: Pearson, for instance. Testing may be good business for testing companies, but it makes for lousy education practice in schools. Should supporting testing corporations be our priority, or should not wasting tax payer money be our priority.
Lastly, the free-market theory of education states that if only parents could choose schools for their children, we would quickly see "bad" schools close when parents took their children elsewhere, and we would soon be living in an educational utopia. First, a true free-market would not be government- funded. It would be a free market where those who could afford an education could get one, and those who couldn't afford one--well, tough luck. That's why the public schools were invented: to level the playing field at least a bit. There are still millions of children whose families already pay for private school, and many private schools offer scholarships. There are many, many home-schooled children. Choice exists already. The question, then, is whether public schools should be allowed to exist at all as one of the choices, or if they should be replaced be a whole array of private and charter schools.
This is the most difficult conservative ideal to refute on conservatives' own terms. Here is my attempt, for what it's worth. Public schools are often criticized as being full of teachers who are only there for the money, for an easy paycheck. Money is seen as being a bad motivator. Yet no one seems to question the money-making motivation of testing companies, charter schools, or for-profit private schools. The question becomes, is money the best motivation for education? Granted, without a living wage or something close to it, people can't afford to be teachers, but the best teachers, and the best schools, are not motivated by money. They are motivated by their enthusiasm for students and for learning, and by their desire to make the world a better place.
In the end, education reform that views children as nothing more than test scores and data points and schools as nothing more than test score and profit factories violates another key conservative value: the value of people as people. Standardized testing is bad science, especially when twisted into uses it was never intended for. But the whole testing-based education reform movement has dehumanized students and teachers alike. If conservatives really want to value human life, turning schools into inhuman test score factories is not the way to do it--even if it does help the free-market agenda.
In terms of what education reform does to teachers, I'll tell you. It doesn't necessarily get rid of "bad" teachers, who often love being told exactly what to do so their jobs will be easier. Education reform demoralizes and depresses the very best teachers (as I have written about here) and make them flee the classroom. Anti-teacher rhetoric disenfranchises a large part of the voting public. In my district, the school system in the biggest employer in the county. Anti-teacher scapegoating is already creating a teacher shortage.
If none of this makes conservatives reconsider their views on corporate education reform, I have one more fact that might give them pause.
Democratic politicians like corporate education reform, too. No, they love it.