In an appearance in a D.C. classroom, Arne Duncan called: "... education the civil rights issue of the 21st century." The occasion was surprising D.C. Teacher of the Year Stephanie Day in her charter school classroom; Ms Day, in turn, appraising her move from a bachelor's degree in sociology to teacher courtesy of Teach for America, noted that originally she: "... never intended to use the classroom to fight social injustice."
Education Implies Learning?
Let's be clear. The whole complex of U.S. education, from early childhood exposure through our collegiate institutions, then beyond via adult education and development, has the mission of equipping the nation to make good choices across the spectrum of life’s decisions; and yes, to strive for some optimal patterns of social justice by providing minimum delivery of learning opportunity. The issues are, does that happen in quick time, in a simplistic even bone-headed conception of classroom cause-effect, is it a matter of memorizing de facto trivia, can it be mandated, or can it be installed by adopting and making bubble testing its delivery mechanism? Education may be a necessary ingredient for normative social justice, but is it sufficient?
Is the true overarching purpose of the present aggressive and test-based alleged reform of public K-12 as it is being imposed, erasing perceived social injustice rather than addressing composite national learning deficits, and is that what is driving the present tactics being imposed by the Obama Administration and Mr. Duncan's diligent, even prosecutorial fanaticism?
It doesn't take rocket science to infer there are major flaws in the isolated or even primary use of K-12 schools and standardized testing as tactical instruments to erase U.S. social injustice, if erase can ever be used as a descriptor of changing inevitability in any complex society short of Aristophanes' utopian “Cloud Cuckoo Land.”
Testing is the Fix?
As of today, the nation manifests domestic social injustice, in no particular order, in: Racial profiling and deaths in Florida and Oklahoma, ALEC, corporations that allegedly "are people" but deny the responsibilities of citizenship, Citizens United's Super PAC sequela, strip searches, subjugation of women, TSA, Ryan’s budget, branding structurally and still cyclically unemployed workers irresponsible while chopping training dollars, non-regulated financial markets, dogmatic climate change deniers, viral political partisanship, voting in Minnesota, Wisconsin's Scott Walker, widespread voting roadblocks for blacks, religious overreach, Arizona, lack of immigration reform, Detroit, healthcare overall, Indiana and Mitch Daniels' "misplaced" one-half billion dollars, the values of "the 1%," Augusta National, SCOTUS when it is in session, the present U.S. Congress even when it’s not in session, and the list goes on.
Given the above as perspective, targeting a public K-12 education system of approximately one-hundred thousand schools and 3.5 million teachers, that was still passably working – though in need of housecleaning and repair – with dystopian testing as the centerpiece of tactical eradication of social injustice, connotes shallow to vacuous educational understanding and public policy incompetence. Indeed, viewed from any distance, it suggests severe liberal perceptual distortion – the anti-Ayn Rand, and as chimerical as its reciprocal fiction – or a monstrous political vendetta against public education, or ironically both?
Systemic – Which Word is Misunderstood?
As a process, K-12 education is a broad and slow-acting variable in inducing changes in social status, income generation, acting out civic responsibilities, and delivering a quality of life. If any variable impacting a society could ever be classified as strategic, education certainly qualifies. By the same token, the changes in any education complex as massive as the U.S., and as diverse, are going to have to be multidimensional, systemic, and evolutionary.
It may be ego satisfying and propaganda to waltz into selected inner-city systems and wave the magic wand of Teach for America, or apply the standardized test and VAM hammer to a classroom, or hang out thousands of teachers to twist in the wind based on flawed testing projecting that the bottom of the barrel might opt out, but that is not how large-scale systems or processes work or achieve excellence.
It may come as a surprise to Washington's education establishment that America’s K-12 issues aren’t limited to inner-city schools or challenged sub-cultures, and don’t disappear when you add money. Some of the most intellectually mediocre schools in the nation are in our heartland, many even flush with levy dollars, but populated by poorly trained or programmed teachers, ignorant or worse administrators, with mixed board oversight, doing more indoctrination than education, using sports as a community narcotic, and powered by last century’s knowledge and rubrics. Present standardized testing won't change those conditions, and now even rewards such systems because of cheating on that testing.
Drilling deeper, children receiving less than optimal educational product in culturally challenged and low income population clusters, generally receive that performance because of cluster poverty. Charters or firing teachers in those classrooms may mitigate a few of the social factors that ripple though those sub-populations and impede childhood learning, but the fundamentals of systems hamstrung by poverty, school funding, and local control won't be nudged by ad hoc fixes and tests.
The separation of control of K-12 education from national goals is not news, nor are the funding constraints introduced by state and city spending priorities, just national conversation not politically correct because of beliefs and partisanship. Finland’s school success isn’t magic; it is the product of a national view and policy, not impeded by 50 states with varying fiscal values, education mismanagement, political manipulation, bizarre belief sets that deny science and intellectual achievement, and willing to follow a Federal mandate off a cliff for dollars.
Tactics Versus Cognition
Lastly, the downright asinine: Tactically attacking the wrong end of the K-12 learning model with corporately devised standardized tests of material that falls short of real learning and knowledge, in the surreal belief that precipitating failing schools and teachers, and threatening them with extinction or replacement will ignite changes in schools’ and teachers’ sustainable performances – or suddenly erase social injustice. The model is the opposite of all views of the genesis of useful human behavior, of every managerial view of organizational behavior that works, denies the definitions of true learning and knowledge creation, and fails every test of how sustainable societal changes are achieved.
Thus far the “K-12 reform" fielded has primarily created multiple forms of cheating by schools, corporate profits and test manipulation, profiteering and failing charters, defamed quality teachers, promoted intellectually qualified but nascent teachers not ready for prime time, rewarded drill and memorization over cognition, catalyzed a bizarre NGA-based parody of common curricula, is accruing a huge national opportunity cost, and has alienated an entire profession by bureaucratic imposition while dispatching little social injustice, perhaps creating some. The reform/testing defender usually responds with the “testing versus atrophy,” or "don't you want teachers accountable" arguments, distortion qua simplistic thinking, and asserts that misreads of domestic issues can’t happen at this level because of the intellect and wisdom of national leadership.
Can anyone decode “GSA?” The question has to be asked: Where is the Obama Administration actually going with the present reform tactics, what is the end game, is there any strategy at all, for it isn't improving U.S. K-12 learning per the overwhelming majority of legitimate K-12 education scholars and professionals? Challenging “judicial activism” while perpetrating destructive “educational activism” adds to the hypocrisy already surrounding present K-12 reform rhetoric from above.
Good job, Arne!
Mr. Duncan’s fanaticism, inability to think or move beyond tracked talking points, repetitive hypocrisy, misunderstanding of either systems’ behavior, or human behavior, or of managerial concepts that produce solid performance and creativity, and ties to Gates and others seeking privatization of American K-12 education or pursuing personal agendas, strongly suggest he be replaced as Secretary of Education and the Department's missions reassessed.