Oklahomans who oppose the A to F grading system in assessing the state’s schools might draw a lesson from a contentious public school board election Tuesday in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Bridgeport voters elected a slate of school board candidates Tuesday that essentially look skeptically at the nation’s school privatization reform movement. Privatization efforts often come after the installation of draconian school-quality assessment systems, such as the A to F system now used in Oklahoma, which are overly dependent on student test scores and have little meaning.
It’s 1,500 miles away from here, and it’s just one school district, but Bridgeport has lessons for those of us here and elsewhere that want to stop the so-called school “reform” movement that’s really about busting teacher unions and privatizing public education.
For now, Bridgeport schools are managed by Paul Vallas, who has overseen schools in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Chicago. Vallas, according to critics, emphasizes too much student testing, and some class sizes in Bridgeport are now too large to enable student learning. Other critics argue Vallas is part of a larger, corporate-sponsored reform movement, which includes Michelle Rhee and Michael Bloomberg. On Tuesday, members of the Connecticut Working Families Party became a majority voting bloc on the school board, which could mean Vallas will lose his job.
I won’t go into the Bridgeport case more specifically, which has many twists and turns, because so much has been written about it. Here’s a thorough Salon.com article about the issue. Many educators believe the Bridgeport situation has national implications.
The A to F grading system for Oklahoma schools, instituted by schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, has generated a lot of its own controversy recently. Some state school superintendents think the system is flawed and have voiced their opposition to it. They are backed by a study conducted by Oklahoma State University and University of Oklahoma researchers, who found the grading system “has very little meaning and certainly cannot be used legitimately to inform high-stakes decisions.” Gov. Mary Fallin recently jumped into the debate and defended the system while trying to silence its critics.
Lost in the political squabbling and even the impeccable university research over A to F in Oklahoma are the larger implications of this new corporate-sponsored school reform movement that privileges excessive testing, rote memorization, charter schools and vouchers for private schools while attacking teacher unions. The people who support this movement are often the same people who support tax cuts that lead to the defunding of public education, which leads to fewer teachers and larger class sizes, which, in turn, lead to lower test scores and school rankings. Oklahoma has the dubious distinction of cutting funding for education on a percentage basis more than any other state since the Great Recession.
According to Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education who is a critic of the privatization movement, Bridgeport is an example in which people have successfully fought back against the so-called reformers. Her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, points out the myth of the “failing” public school system, and she criticizes radical for-profit, free-market approaches to education.
The A to F ranking system for schools is a part of the strategy for the school privatization movement: Show the so-called failure of schools, then implement privatization policies. This ulterior motive is disguised under the rhetoric of “reform” and “accountability.”
Ravitch, in response to the A to F grading system in Oklahoma, writes, “When we regain our collective common sense, we will recognize school letter grades as a truly stupid idea, concocted to set schools up for failure and privatization.”
So Bridgeport should give people here who oppose the A to F system encouragement that they can organize successfully and get their voices heard, at least at the school district level. Simply put, people should elect candidates to school boards or state offices that oppose it. Bridgeport could also mean that the privatization movement in education has lost steam, and that’s hopeful news as well.