Mikel Livingston, writing for the Lafayette Journal & Courier, has an article entitled, “1,000 attend documentary premiere two years in the making” about the premiere of Rise Above the Mark; a documentary about the effect of the privatization/voucher/charter movement on public schools. I am happy to say that I was among the 1,000.
It is an effort spearheaded by the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation — an organization associated with West Lafayette School Corporation but funded separately. WLCS superintendent, Rocky Killion has been instrumental in its development. The documentary, I think, has two primary goals: start a discussion that is focused on finding the best way to develop the children who will be our citizens in the future; and to give a voice to the public schools and public school teachers who feel that they have been largely voiceless in the debates that have gone on in recent years. The pro-voucher side is well-funded, well organized, and seems to have the ear of most of the decision makers.
Relentless standardized testing is panned by this film. We spend a lot of money paying testing companies to waste a good bit of our kids’ educational time in order to provide information that the teachers and principals already knew. (The implication (not mentioned in the film) is that those advocating standardized testing don’t particularly trust public school teachers and administrators.) It also distorts the educational process; tending to produce students who lack creativity and the ability to self-direct their studies. Our democracy depends on creative, self-directed citizens far more than it relies on citizens with superior Scantron bubble filling skills.
Another primary point is that we have had 20+ years to experiment with public funding of alternative schools and, turns out, they don’t produce results that are notably better than traditional public schools. Often enough, they perform worse.
The sharpest attacks were on some of the Indiana-specific processes we have seen; particularly those having to do with former Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Bennett. The stony-hearted inflexibility, and rules-are-rules attitude, shown by the Indiana State Board of Education toward Munster High School was contrasted with the contortions and after-the-fact metric changing used to ensure that political darling, Christel House charter received an “A” instead of the “C” that the initial metrics gave it. Munster High School was apparently given a “C” for its performance. Due to the metrics in place, the difference between the school receiving an “A” instead of a “C” was one special education student who required a little extra time to graduate. Had that particular student graduated on time, the grade would have been dramatically different. Munster did not get nearly the consideration that Christel House did. The Munster principal (I believe that was his position) cynically wondered whether he could have saved Munster’s grade if he had contributed $100,000 to Bennett’s campaign the way Christel House’s founder did.
The documentary also goes abroad, looking at what countries with successful educational outcomes do that works. Finland’s model, in particular, appears to be one to emulate. Students can choose; but all of the schools are public, all are well funded, and there is not a great deal of disparity in funding. On the other hand, nowhere is a privatization model notably successful.
One thing only alluded to briefly is that money is a driving force behind the privatization movement. Having a conversation about finding the best way to educate our kids is only useful if all the people honestly agree that the best way to educate should guide our decisions. If both sides are motivated by a desire for excellent education; common ground can likely be reached. You look at the evidence about what educational models are most successful, you look at the resources, and you allocate the resources accordingly. However, if one side is (probably secretly) motivated primarily by a desire to redirect resources to friends and well-wishers; successful educational models probably aren’t going to be all that persuasive. I’m not saying that any of the people involved in this debate are nihlistic opportunists looking to mine the educational system for power and profit. I’m just saying that if such people designed an educational system, it would probably look a lot like the system we’ve been developing over the last twenty years.
It’s time to look around the world at what more school systems do to produce a highly educated, capable citizenry and discuss how to imitate those methods. Rolling the dice on our kids’ lives guided by non-evidence based ideological convictions is reckless.