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“Triggering” a Mutiny on the HMS Education!

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In Mutiny on the Bounty ". . . there began a fantastic series of historical events, as men, driven to desperation, plunged into the unknown – A series of events that culminated in the most famous mutiny in history" (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935).

Until now.

The assault on public education just got turned up with this weekend’s vote by hundreds of U.S. mayors in favor of so-called "parent trigger laws" which allow groups of parents to bypass elected school boards, previously negotiated teachers’ contracts, and common sense, to jump in and fire teachers and administrators and turn schools over to private management companies.

"Hundreds of mayors from across the United States this weekend called for new laws letting parents seize control of low-performing public schools and fire the teachers, oust the administrators or turn the schools over to private management" (Reuters, 18 June, 2012).

This movement has been slowly building with legislation already passed or being debated in Arizona, California, and Florida (Rotherdam, 8 March, 2012), but this latest initiative could open the floodgates for a nationwide push to scuttle the education system in favor of . . . what? Here are some of the reasons why this concept is fatally flawed.

How do parents know what a bad teacher or administrator looks like?
The idea that a group of parents, regardless of how well-intentioned, have the skills, knowledge, or expertise to determine which teachers in a failing school are "good" or "bad" is unrealistic. The only tools available for such an evaluation are anecdotal evidence from children or the results of standardized tests. These tests are inherently biased against exactly the students most likely to be attending failing schools, and they are incapable of determining the long-term success of an education.

Additionally, there are a number of other factors beside the teacher that determine if students will be successful on these tests – including parental involvement (Marquis, 24 May, 2012). The collateral damage of these itchy trigger fingers is likely to be that all teachers in a failing school will be fired regardless of whether they are good or not. This will ultimately cost the school some excellent teachers and be a detriment to the long-term educational goals of the parents initiating these changes.

What is the decision-making process?
This parental trigger law idea seems much like mob mentality, where decisions are made by a few vocal individuals who can rally support behind a vague abstract ideal without any concrete plan or evidence in support of their objectives. Entire schools and the families who rely on them could be subjected to the whim of a vocal minority who happens to have political support. The very idea that a trigger group (firing squad?) could supersede publicly elected school boards’ authority is undemocratic and undermines the principles upon which our society is built.

Who is funding the change?
A major change initiative is very expensive. The new private managers alone will charge consulting fees, evaluation fees, curriculum development fees, and talent recruitment fees, and management fees, among others. In addition to these there will be costs associated with hiring new administrators and teachers and training them. Initiatives like this could quickly turn into educational profiteering on the part of corporations (Project Censored: Media Democracy in Action). Schools are already dramatically underfunded and heaping these additional costs onto the system can only have a detrimental effect on the new teachers that are hired and the students they will inherit.

What qualifications do the private management firms have?
Another challenge to this initiative is determining what the qualifications of those in charge of the change movement are. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, there is a professional field called education that is separate from business. Having an MBA does not qualify someone to be an educator, manage an education system, or design one. Professional educators have years of education, experience, and endure a more stringent licensing standard than professionals in almost any other field (Brush, 2012). Education experts know education and are the individuals most qualified to make decisions about the institution – more so than business executives or parents.

What would it be replaced with?
Just because something is not working optimally does not mean that it should discarded and replaced with something different just for the sake of change. Yes, our education system needs to change – it is outdated and often does not align with the needs of 21st century society. However, this is a change that should be consciously made and planned for so as best to integrate all of the parts of the education system into one coherent whole from pre-k through graduate school. Teachers actually do understand this and have been arguing for it for some time (Marquis, 4 May, 2012). The problem is that we haven’t been listening to them. Politicians like to enact "right now" fixes that make them popular without any long-range plans about the overall health of the education system. That is how we ended up with failing schools in the first place.

Mutiny or Witch Hunt?
To borrow from another historical event, it seems that the Mayor’s Conference has just approved a 21st century version of the Salem Witch Trials. This is another political ploy to privatize social institutions. Look at what happened when the Stock Market crashed in 2007-2008. There had been a huge push to privatize social security through stocks prior to the crash. What would have happened if that plan had been enacted? The Social Security System would have been bankrupted and those relying on it to survive would have been put out in the streets to starve to death.

Privatizing education is one more step in allowing public money to be funneled into corporations so that they can get richer at the expense of the American (shrinking) middle class and its children. Allowing initiatives like this to pass will ultimately lead to an education system where most students receive the bare minimum, standardized education geared strictly to passing standardized measures of assessment. We will lose our ability to become innovative thinkers and probably our free will along with that. This movement is a not-so-subtle attempt to turn a majority of Americans into low wage workers who slavishly obey the commandments of big business.

Parent trigger laws are not just an assault on education, they are a calculated attack on the fundamental principles of our democracy and the bi-partisan support for them is the clearest indication yet that our politicians do not have a long-term plan for education. Those who know education best (teachers) and those who know their children best (parents), need to work together to help move education forward. Parents should be aiming to "pull the trigger" on politicians who continually cut the funding needed for teachers to do their jobs, not the teachers who are struggling to perpetually do more with less.