Edward Udel: An Olympian push on education is required

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DALTON — The Olympic Games in Rio served as a welcome two-week reprieve from ugly and disheartening national politics. The extraordinary accomplishments of our athletes are both inspirational and instructive. The practice gyms, athletic fields, pools, riding stables and tracks where these remarkable athletes honed their skills are important but secondary to the intensity of their effort and the quality of their training. It is improbable that any American could stand on the medal podium without a full and sustained commitment to training, without skilled coaching or without family support. All three are critical!

When it comes to public education, we ignore this threefold responsibility. Reforms are directed at the schools rather than the children who attend them. Mandates governing attendance, suspensions and teacher evaluations seriously erode school climate or rob teachers of critical preparation time. We expect our schools to overcome lackluster or non-existent effort by a growing number of students, many of whom begin school completely unprepared for learning, both cognitively and emotionally.

Before the age of five, when 80 percent of brain development occurs, many children rarely see books, participate in extended conversations or play games that expand their cognitive capacities. They often enter school without intellectual curiosity or basic vocabulary.

Rather than acknowledge this crisis and provide universal pre-school programs that would help to offset the absence of critical early intellectual stimulation, our reformers prefer to measure, to test and to mandate our way out of the abyss. The almost singular focus on high stakes testing over the past 20 years along with a slew of new mandates have produced better test scores and attendance, but weaker graduates. Survey responses of college instructors and the significant number of college freshmen who require remedial courses belie the false narratives of progress spun by reformers.

Most communities struggle financially to provide kindergarten programs. They cannot even consider offering pre-school education to those who are in dire need of early intervention. Yet, the pro-charter forces insist that these communities sacrifice even more money to provide funding for charter schools. In fiscal 2016, the Pittsfield public schools will lose roughly $2 million to fund BART despite the advertised claims that more money is generated for "our public schools" by the creation and expansion of charters.

There is also the worrisome linkage between the push for more charter schools and many of the mandates imposed upon traditional public schools. That linkage is the impact of the pressure exerted on school systems to curb the use of suspensions and to keep disruptive and even belligerent students in the classroom at the expense of a disciplined, well-managed learning climate. School administrators feel the heat of the state's letters warning them to comply with these restrictions or risk penalties. There is an understandable aversion to the "failing school" label.

On its face, this pressure seems logical, perhaps even noble. Who can argue against keeping children in school? However, this pressure has a dark side. Students who really want an education must accept disruption from those who don't. Their education is compromised.

When students carry stories home about these distractions, some of their parents look for other options including charter schools and school choice alternatives. Ironically, state mandates that are designed to keep more students in the classroom actually contribute to this flight. When students leave, money leaves too, making it even more difficult for struggling school systems to serve the needs of the children who remain.

When the reverse occurs and disruptive and uncooperative students attend charter schools, their time in those schools has a short shelf life. They are encouraged to leave and transfer back into traditional schools. These are transfers, not drop-outs, and they serve two valuable purposes for charter schools. They help charters control who takes the MCAS test, assuring that the student body is composed of cooperative students who can contribute positively to the school's report card. They also enable charters to claim the high ground on discipline.

Such options aren't available to traditional schools. They cannot encourage their students to leave or they will be condemned for contributing to the drop-out problem. The deck is stacked against them and a well-funded movement favoring privatization inches forward, aided and abetted by claims of charter school innovation that have no proven basis in fact. Just ask Massachusetts' Auditor Suzanne Bump who has given testimony to the state legislature about the "anecdotal" evidence that fuels the charter movement.

It is time to apply the Olympic formula for success. Our children need quality pre-school education and schools that are free to maintain disciplined, well managed classrooms. They do not need schemes to drive more money out of their districts and into the hands of false messiahs. In November, vote No on Question 2.

A long-time Berkshire educator, Edward Udel is a frequent Eagle contributor.


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