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‘Great Ideas’ That Could Kill Our Schools

When I tell stories of teaching in a South Bronx public school that fashioned itself a model of “school reform,” most people who live anywhere but an inner city gasp in disbelief and say, “Wow! That’s terrible. But it would never happen here.”

My response? Isn’t it pretty to think so.

The outrages that I experienced, and kids, teachers and communities throughout America continue to suffer in the name of “school reform,” are not so far away from any school in today’s economic, educational and political environment.

All it takes is the constant beat of media pundits, politicians and business leaders declaring that our schools are “failing,” that we spend too much on education, and that someone must be “accountable” — or more accurately, “to blame” — for all of this.

Since teachers are the most numerous and most expensive component in the educational mix, they must be to blame, the thinking goes. An overstatement? I wish it were. Just listen to “reformers” such as Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools who has become a teacher-bashing media darling.

So, the reformers’ logic goes, if the teachers are culpable, they must loafing, and a tougher curriculum is required. Enter the brand-new Common Core Standards.

There’s no evidence that the Common Core improves performance, but it is new, it is more stringent, it is being adopted all over the country, and most teachers — especially here on Long Island — have no experience with it. All factors that have gained it favor; bizarrely so, I think.

Also, I don’t understand how a tougher curriculum is going to help students who are having a hard time in today’s classroom. It’s not like they’ve been coddled and need a Marine Corps drill sergeant with a teaching license to motivate them. It’s that they typically are kids with learning and behavior problems, kids who don’t speak English, and generally kids from poverty (at least one in 10, according to the latest federal statistics).

Don’t worry, these reforms will work, say supporters. To prove it, we’ll test, test, test. That’s already started in New York with new state-wide assessments. Never mind that some achievements (perhaps most in a real education) can’t be determined by filling in bubbles on an answer sheet. Anything that can be quantified and presented on a spreadsheet is good enough.

Of course, when it comes to numbers, good enough is never good enough. In order to boost test scores, schools will be encouraged to focus on these exams like a laser, and cut any subject, course or program that can’t be quantified with a standardized test. The code words for these cuts are “an emphasis on academic subjects.”

That’s where the school I taught in fell on the continuum of school reform. It had a distinctly “academic focus.”

The kids were called “scholars,” though they really were just test-battered adolescents who had to be scored on a ridiculous curve so that most would have any score at all. They weren’t learning much, but then, their education wasn’t costing much.

The “academic focus” meant, as in a growing number of American public schools, that our students didn’t have art. The music department consisted of a boom box, some drums and gourds covered with beads that were kept in a basement closet next to the teachers’ restroom. There was no recess. There was no school library. The sports program consisted of basketball in the gym, baseball in a nearby park, and, thanks to a grant (not taxpayer money), archery in the cafeteria after school.

Dismal? Absolutely. But increasingly common. And it can happen anywhere when we start believing that today’s schools are a “failed system,” and we fall for the lures of lower costs, more efficiency and someone to blame.

John Owens’ new book, Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education, is an eye-opening expose of the state of “school reform” and a galvanizing call to action for parents and communities. It is now available at, and booksellers everywhere.