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America 2011: How To Bludgeon Teachers and Unions


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“America has the worst educational system and it’s the fault of the union ” they keep repeating and we nod.  Is this true?  Or is  this another one of the lies? Like  Social Security is bankrupt lie,   tax cuts create jobs,  and many other lies, that our politicians and pundits engage in to confuse us?  All the anecdotal mythology about American education, how does it stand? Who is seriously looking at how we are educating our children, and who is seriously engaged in an agenda to eliminate Free Universal Public Education with a free bonus of bashing a few unions?

Right wing America is on a full frontal attack and has been to dismantle free universal education.  Unfortunately, many on the left, Democrats and Progressives join in the attack against public education without thinking:  The praise of Charter Schools, with little or no evidence, the privatization of the public schools movement are just some of the fads.  The fads to destroy what made America achieve a highly educated middle class, our Universal Free Public Education.   (Keep repeating those words, cause they made you who you are today).

The story is that it’s failing and we have to cut it off because it’s expensive and we cannot afford the expensive teachers.  No one ever really tells us how it’s failing, we just all join in on the “public schools bad” and “private schools good”,  “tenure is bad”, “unions are bad”, “teachers are lazy”.  Never mind that the only way we can have a true democracy and a balanced society is by preserving the most egalitarian institution we have:  Universal and Free Public Education.

Take the mythology around how badly American students do in comparison of other nations.  I am not an educator nor do I have any credentials in looking at standardized testing.  This is only one test that is conducted on an International level.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD):  Basically, this is a fifty year old international organization that  promotes policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.  The basic idea is that if you compare and study economic and social indicators you can see where you public policies fall short and how you are doing in the world, or at least among the member nations.  OECD created PISA, The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an internationally standardised assessment that was jointly developed by participating economies and administered to15-year-olds in schools.  The test is taken every three years, from 2000, we have had four tests for comparison.

So, from all we hear in the media, America is on a steady decline.  An abysmal decline in standards seems to be the mythology that is spread to justify the bashing of teachers and teacher unions.  But, Bob Somerby has been following this issue in his columns and how this information is twisted .  It is twisted to create what he calls the bogus claims about education, that feed the march to obliterating Universal Free Public Education.

I finally went and read the PISA results for America, expecting some train wreck.  But, in fact the numbers are not on this purported steady decline here are just a couple of numbers:

  • U.S. 15-year-olds had an average score of 500 on the combined reading literacy scale, not measurably different from the OECD average score of 493. Among the 33 other OECD countries, 6 countries had higher average scores than the United States, 13 had lower average scores, and 14 had average scores not measurably different from the U.S. average. Among the 64 other OECD countries, non-OECD countries, and other education systems, 9 had higher average scores than the United States, 39 had lower average scores, and 16 had average scores not measurably different from the U.S. average.
  • On the reflect and evaluate reading literacy subscale, U.S. 15-year-olds had a higher average score than the OECD average. The U.S. average was lower than that of 5 OECD countries and higher than that of 23 OECD countries; it was lower than that of 8 countries and other education systems and higher than that of 51 countries and other education systems overall. On the other two subscales—access and retrieve and integrate and interpret—the U.S. average was not measurably different from the OECD average.
  • Students in public schools in which half or more of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (50 to 74.9 percent and 75 percent or more) scored, on average, below the overall OECD and U.S. average scores (table6). Students in schools in which less than 25 percent of students were FRPL-eligible (10 to 24.9 percent and less than 10 percent) scored, on average, above the overall OECD and U.S. average scores. The average scores of students in schools in which 25 to 49.9 percent were FRPL-eligible were above the overall OECD average but not measurably different from the U.S. average.

What this cluster of data tells us, that if you really see America as being two Americas, the rich mostly white nation and the “other America” poor America, the real problem is that we are not educating our poor children.  Somehow, our teachers and the unions are doing a fine job for the higher income kids, but in poorer areas not so good.  Maybe, economic inequality is the issue for driving the educational standards down?  A Harvard educational study, concluded that schools districts with Union Teachers, perform significantly better:

“… a statistically significant and positive relationship between State teacher unionization rates and State standardized test scores after controlling for potential confounding factors.” In explaining the results, the authors state that unionized schools are more likely to have a lower student-teacher ratio, higher per -capita expenditures, higher teacher salaries, better working conditions, better teacher training, and greater worker autonomy.

I am neither a journalist, nor educational researcher.  But, when I hear a drumbeat, a constant thumping and bludgeoning of teachers and teacher unions, I get suspicious.  Our Public Education system has many problems, it has stagnated and it is pulled by every political whim and fancy.  So, are we serious about educational reform?  Or are we on a path of dismantling Universal Free Public Education?  Maybe our numbers would be higher if we just compared rich America with Finland of the same socio-economic standard, wait, they are higher.

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