Grant programs focus on classroom reform

A $250,000 grant was awarded to Missouri’s four-year higher education institutions last week.

SAT tests, ACT tests, hours spent in classrooms, good teachers and bad—most students have gone through it all, but change could be on the way. Reform within the classroom has, within the last ten to fifteen years, become a hot topic across the nation.

A few of the reforms discussed in recent years include overhauls of standardized testing, teacher pay by performance and charter schools. Last week, a $250,000 grant was awarded to Missouri’s four-year higher education institutions from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

“About 10 years ago, the Gates Foundation decided to focus on health and education, and suddenly, big money was available for education reform,” said Center on Education Policy President Jack Jennings.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a central champion for new reforms. According to the website, their mission is “to dramatically improve education so that all young people have the opportunity to reach their full potential.”

The Gates Foundation declined to be interviewed for this article.

Universities, especially state universities in the absence of state support, have become more dependent upon donations and outside support. Private universities are also monetarily bonded to donors, board members and presidents.

Other reforms like corporate underwriting, the funding of organizations by corporations and wealthy donors, have increasingly had a stronger role in education policy. The strong bond between business and education can be seen in contemporary reforms like charter schools.

Charter schools are public schools which exchange various regulations and rules set on other public schools with promised results based on local charter demands.

University of Colorado graduate student Amy Farley said charter schools partake in “creaming”, where they pick out the best students and leave out everyone else. She said instead of helping the classroom, it just creates inequality.

Jennings said despite the rigor encouraged in charter school settings, studies have constantly proved they are not “the magic bullet”.

Charter schools often are externally funded, in addition to state money, by the same foundations and institutes who fund other reform policies.

Standardized tests are another contender for reform. The tests are designed to see national trends, but have notoriously become life-or-death determinants of students’ and teachers’ futures.

“I think most test developers would argue that the tests aren't designed to make these individual high-stake decisions,” Farley said.

Standardized tests are often used to gauge a student’s educational proficiency, are often used to weed out the “good” teachers from the “bad” ones. This encourages teachers to competitively vie for higher scores in their students.

“Teaching to the test”, where classroom curriculum is solely based on what content will be on standardized tests, is a result MU professor of history Robert Collins says is dangerous. Collins said while standardized tests are important, they can take this general knowledge amassing to an unhealthy extreme.

“In my opinion, I think it is a good idea to have standardized tests,” Jennings said. “But I don't believe entire schools should be labeled based on the results.”

Common Core State Standards, now accepted by 43 states, are a national set of standards which create a guideline to standardize what a student should learn. Currently, the standards outline English language arts, history, social studies, science, technical studies and mathematics.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush believes those against reform are not looking at education in the right perspective. He says change is necessary in the classroom, and sticking to tradition is not necessarily beneficial.

“I think the ultimate goal of protecting the system is secondary to the students themselves,” Bush said. “I don't think the current system does that. There’s no silver bullet to fix it, though.”

Other reforms, like merit pay, where teachers who get better reviews and whose students get better tests scores are given bonuses, encourage a competitive atmosphere in education.

Jennings said the competitive market atmosphere is common in business markets. He said there is definitely a business spin to many new reforms.

“I firmly believe in business,” Center for Public Education senior analyst Jim Hull said. “However, the basic underlying factor in a market in business is survival of the fittest. In education, it's not survival of the fittest.”

The advocates for this new education-business model are predominately businessmen and businesswomen themselves, and the conflict in the debate stems mainly from the difference between the business model and the classic communal educational model.

“It all has to do with excellence, improve, mediocrity and failure,” Bush said. “I don't think that's a necessarily a business-like approach. You reward improvement, recognize excellence, remediate mediocrity, and have no tolerance for failure.”

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