Guest Editorial: In Defense Of Neighborhood Schools And Teachers

Ruthy Wexler

by Ruthy Wexler

Seven months ago, this newspaper published my article on Greenlee Elementary — the writing of which led me to interview parents and teachers — whose upset with the school board led me to start another article — But I got so involved, the result was not exactly even-handed journalism.

Do a Guest Editorial? suggested my editor.

And so I am — gladly.

What Is School Reform?

The world I entered with that Greenlee article did not resemble education as I knew it. A narrow language — schools reduced to either “high” or “low performing” — and a contest-like atmosphere prevailed. High scores on standardized tests gave teachers a raise; low scores cost them their job — or a neighborhood, its school. Imploring me to not use their names, teachers explained how DPS (Denver Public Schools) was now run according to “school reform.”

Never heard of it. So I did research. Lots.

I learned the school reform movement emerged about 30 years ago — and following a 1983 report that said our nation’s economy was threatened due to mediocre student performance, the movement said they had the solution: objective measurements to hold educators “accountable” and a competitive free market to usher in more schools. Politicians promised families “choice” — so their kids could have the best —  eyes gleaming at a whole new profit arena — sealed “reform” into law in 2001 with No Child Left Behind.

Emperor’s New Clothes

Reform does not work.

Studies — here are just a few — show 1) constant systemic change (all those schools opening, competing, closing) causes anxiety, decreasing students’ learning ability; 2) excessive emphasis on test scores produces compliant test-takers, inhibiting abstract thought; 3) the chaos-causing practice of closing schools — this just in, a 10-year study from pro-reform Center for Research on Education Outcomes) — turns out not to help after all.

I learned that Denver is nationally touted for how aggressively it has implemented reform.

There is not a shred of real evidence that Denver’s 10-year reign of reform has produced real results.

Harm, yes.

Denver now has a 22% teacher turnover.

“They leave because they can’t really teach,” says Mary Sam, retired 41-year DPS reading teacher. “Reform makes teachers stick to a script.”

The frustrations and sorrows I heard from teachers could fill a book.

One pointed me to a shocking video:

Eye-Opening Video

Clinched by a score from Schoolworks, a consulting group, the board decided to close Gilpin Montessori — whose teachers, parents and students now plead to keep it open.

“Gilpin is exactly what you say you want a school to be,” begs a bewildered teacher. “Our staff is committed. Our diverse population gets along. Our standardized test results are going up.

“And how can you close us, when Schoolworks changed our score?”

The community presents proof that Schoolworks originally gave Gilpin a passing score, then lowered it at the last minute.

The board votes to close Gilpin anyway.

Biggest Scam Ever

Why didn’t you listen to them? I asked board members — who, unfazed, showed me reams of mind-numbing data to prove that rearranging communities, hiring expensive consulting firms and spending fortunes on testing (9x more than surrounding districts) is the only way.

But I’ve got two master’s degrees. I recognize snake oil when I see it. And you don’t need a degree to realize that Schoolworks, an out-of-state business, can’t swoop in for two days with their objective rubrics and accurately measure how well 200 students learn.

The simple truth: education has become an industry, with businesses marketing their products.

The simple truth: Children learn best — they always have — in stimulating classrooms with experienced, loving teachers —  who are not under pressure.

Finally, I understood why the people in charge eschew these truths. They’ve managed to convince the public — against all common sense — that educating children is so difficult and complex, only their elite inner circle should make decisions.

Pants On Fire

Since April, I’ve been obsessed: Why does this board keep implementing reform?

Some say wilful ignorance: not one is an educator. Most — pointing to money trails, favor-webs and lucrative contracts — cite power and greed.

As we speak, millions of dollars in outside money are pouring in to keep Denver’s pro-reform board in place. Only corporate-size cash can deliver so many glossy brochures with heart-warming photos to every Denver household.

When you read that DPS listens to parents, remember that video — and how, a week later, Tom Boasberg showed me a demographic map. “See?” he said, smiling sorrowfully. “That’s why Gilpin had to close. Not enough families in the area.”

But Gilpin’s drop in enrollment was caused by the board approving two charters right nearby — though an accountability committee warned this would negatively affect Gilpin.

Vote Them Out — And Real People In

I have no skin in this game (not a teacher, kids grown). But I love education and learning too much to see them sold to the highest bidder.

Vote this school board out.

Please know, with a different board, you’ll be able to keep your present “choice.”

But you may end up choosing your neighborhood school once people with integrity are in charge.

Four candidates — Dr. Carrie Olson, an experienced, visionary educator; Robert Speth, a DPS parent who understands how to put taxpayer money back where it belongs; Tay Anderson, an amazing young leader who knows DPS from the inside; Sochi Gaytan, dedicated parent, volunteer and small business owner — promise to transfer the money currently being wasted (only 42% of per-pupil spending makes it into the classroom!) into neighborhood schools.

All promise to listen hard to communities and then — for real — improve each school.

With all my heart, I urge you to take back our highjacked public schools by voting these four individuals onto the Denver School Board in November.

For most of her adult life, Ruthy Wexler worked as an art, family and group therapist in medical settings in and around Philadelphia, PA. At 55, she became a journalist, reporting for and editing community newspapers in Philly. She’s the author of Autumn Romance: Stories and Portraits of Love after 50, a photo- essay book, published in 2010, and is currently working on a book about successful small businesses.

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