3rd String but Still on the Team

by Nancy Salvato

Coaches must produce winning teams or they will be terminated. Managers must make their quotas or they will not be retained. Teachers must ensure that students…oh, wait a minute. Tenured teachers will receive an increase in salary every year based on their level of education and years in the classroom.

Mike Antonucci, writing in the Education Intelligence Agency Communiqué says that, "Student enrollment in the United States will grow this school year by a total of 349,452 students (0.7 percent). The number of classroom teachers is expected to grow by 62,443 (2.0 percent)."1 This translates to, "one new teacher for every 5.5 new students."2 Although most enrollments will be at the secondary school, "49,965 more elementary school teachers (2.8 percent)," are expected to be hired in our schools.3 "That's one new K-8 teacher for every 1.8 new K-8 students".4 I’m left wondering how this can happen.

Antonucci explains that there will be significant teacher turnover in the coming years through retirement and layoff of probationary teachers. Tenured teachers, in all likelihood, won’t be affected.5 Retirements and layoffs cannot be the only way to accommodate all these new teachers. There will have to be additional ways to add more staff.

Almost five years ago, Jay Greene, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research co-wrote a piece about the effects of funding incentives on special education enrollment. What he and his colleague determined was that, "schools are increasingly diagnosing students as disabled and placing them in special education for reasons unrelated to those students’ genuine need for special education services."6 Ample evidence seems to suggest that it is financially advantageous for a school to label a child "special needs" because state and federal funding can then pay the tab – provided the school is located in a bounty system state. In other words, it is all about the money.7 "If a school provides extra reading help to students who are falling behind in reading, the school must bear that cost itself. But if the same school redefines those students as learning disabled rather than slow readers, state and federal government will help pick up the tab for those services."8 In other words, tax payers will cough up more money to support education. The bottom line, "The ever-accelerating growth of special education enrollment is becoming an urgent problem for American education, drawing off more and more billions of dollars that could otherwise be spent on better education for all students."9

Fast forward to the 2006-2007 school year. Dan Lips, an Education Analyst at the Heritage Foundation and a Goldwater Institute Senior Fellow, writes that, "Federal spending on elementary and secondary education has grown dramatically over the past six years, increasing from $27 billion to $38 billion between 2001 and 2006. According to the U.S. Department of Education, annual spending on the Title I program to assist disadvantaged children grew by 45 percent during that same period. In 2007, the department will spend 59 percent more on special education programs than it did in 2001."10

More and more federal and state money is being funneled to our public schools to help disadvantaged and special education students. How is it possible that there are so many more disadvantaged and special education students in today’s classrooms? Well, the first question is the easiest to answer. Because there are so many children from families who speak a native language other than English; whose income levels reflect below minimum wage; who enter school several grade levels behind; there are more disadvantaged students in our schools. The second question implicates the "progressive education" agenda which places "self esteem" ahead of academic achievement.

Progressive educational theory advocates prefer that students be graded subjectively; not compared to other students. This is why standardized tests are considered an anathema to good education. Students are taught to read and do math by teachers using pedagogy based on ideology, not evidence based methods. Most reading and writing in our public schools is narrative and extensively researched papers are almost non existent. This contributes to so many graduates of our public schools needing remediate courses in reading, writing, and math.

Teachers utilizing progressive teaching methods are not held accountable for ensuring that each student entering their classrooms makes a year’s academic growth. Of course, if benchmarks are subjective, it’s impossible to measure. Granted, when teachers are faced with students of radically differing ability levels, it is difficult to provide each one of them a sufficient amount of attention unless countless extra hours are put in during their planning time or after school hours to bring these kids up to speed. Even then, it depends on the diligence of the student to be willing to spend extra time in that way. At any rate, efficiency is not part of the progressive agenda.

So what do progressive schools do with the students who cannot meet subjective benchmarks of education progress, regardless of the reason? The formula for deciding if a student is eligible for special education is rather simple. There has to be a discrepancy between ability and performance. If it is significant, a child can be labeled as having a learning disability. After this occurs, the child is not expected to accomplish as much learning in a given amount of time. The standards by which this child is to be measured are, in effect, "lowered".

In a school with limited resources, instead of giving the child adequate time and attention to catch up with his or her peers, the child falls further and further behind. In a school district with adequate resources, the child is enrolled in a resource room and given additional support through one on one attention with a specialist or teacher’s aide who helps ensure that homework and tests are understood and completed under less stressful circumstances. Hopefully, as the child learns better study skills and achieves incremental successes, there will be less need for "special education." Obviously, a severely disabled child will never be able to keep up with peers.

So that’s it. As more and more students are labeled disadvantaged or special needs, the federal and state government, I mean taxpayers, will provide additional money to help ensure these students will receive the additional support necessary to achieve an "adequate" amount of learning; "adequate" being subjective. The question that must truly be considered is what is being done to ensure that these "labeled" students will become independent enough to succeed without additional resources? Can they eventually excel in the "real" world? How much and what form of knowledge should be accessible after 12 years of public education? What are the "real" world expectations of these children?

Meanwhile, progressive schools of education continue to churn out more and more teachers to meet their bottom line. The students aren’t the only ones hurt by this. Although some "Newbies" will leave school prepared to teach in shortage areas of Math, Science and Special Education, many will enter a market which will not be nice to them. Some will be hired as classroom aides. In effect, they will intern for a few years at salaries which require them to work additional jobs to make ends meet.

Others will find jobs, but come to realize that after spending all that tuition money for a specialized education, they really do not care for their chosen profession. Still, more will be bounced around between schools as enrollments wane and they suddenly find themselves without contracts to teach. Too much accumulated experience will make them too expensive to hire. A fortunate few will take positions in schools which offer them tenure. An even smaller amount of them will end up at schools at which they love to work and also be granted tenure.

How can this situation be reconciled? One way is to change schools of education to reflect the standards used by medical and law schools. Another way is to make schools compete for taxpayer dollars in a free market. A third possibility is to alter teacher contracts to compensate teacher’s based on students achieving standardized benchmarks, not based on tenure or subjective evaluations. But that is proving an almost impossible row to hoe.

Unions benefit the most when substantial numbers of teachers are employed; teachers utilizing them as their sole bargaining agents and paying the requisite union dues to be used to further a progressive political agenda. Therefore, unions benefit from smaller class sizes designed to make it a little easier to manage a heterogeneously grouped classroom and which require more teachers. They benefit when contracts limit instructional time with students and require more teachers. They benefit from a progressive education agenda which emphasizes feelings more than successful teaching strategies; in which kids are expected to learn in cooperative groups and in heterogeneous classrooms. Progressive education virtually guarantees that more students will be labeled "special education" and additional teachers will be needed in non traditional or specialized capacities in order to meet individual student’s learning needs.

Therefore, unions will continue to deliver the vote to school board members that implement ideologically based teaching methodology which ensures that many children will never reach their full academic potential. For those not convinced, consider this: a progressive agenda is supposed to be about self esteem; dictating that ability grouping and competition is bad. If that is truly the case, how much worse it must be to be labeled a "special needs" student. At least if you are 3rd string, you are still on the team.


6-9 Effects of Funding Incentives on Special Education Enrollment http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_32.htm

10 Strings Attached http://www.goldwaterinstitute.org/aboutus/ArticleView.aspx?id=1203

1-5 The Education Intelligence Agency COMMUNIQUÉ – November 20, 2006 http://www.eiaonline.com

Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2006

Nancy Salvato works as a Head Start teacher in Illinois. She is the President of The Basics Project, (www.Basicsproject.org) a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy.

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