Monday, November 12, 2012

SQUINTS -- Election 2012: Public K-12 Fallout

Although the subject of US K-12 public education seldom surfaced with any real effect in the presidential race – save a witless quote from Anne Romney suggesting that a “proper education” requires “throwing out the [public education] system" – there were and will be outcomes.

The Indiana Effect

Perhaps the most noxious result came in Indiana, where a majority of Indiana’s voters booted its prominent K-12 corporate reform advocate and Republican superintendent of education, for an experienced teacher who opposes the testing and related form of change Tony Bennett has been heavy-handedly imposing on its K-12 public schools.  Stung, present Governor Mitch Daniels in a rare breakdown in damage control, and Governor-Elect Mike Pence – far more an ideologue than Daniels – went despotic in rejecting the majority voters’ dislike for those reform tactics, stating in effect that they would just ignore the voters.  You jest, right; this is America, not the term coined by William Sydney Porter, a “banana republic?” 

The arrogance, and contempt for democratic process demonstrated may be just temporal political sour grapes, but it should also worry Indiana’s citizens.  Apparently those officials’ reasoning is that Indiana managed simultaneously and paradoxically to elect a Republican super-majority to its legislature, giving them the power to just ignore the electorate.  

Press Delusions

Almost as disquieting was Bloomington, IN’s Herald-Times, burying the story even though it went almost immediately to appearing in the The Washington Post.  The major press in a supposedly liberal and education-driven community, home base of Indiana University, the H-T’s editorial brain trust has consistently been in denial about the K-12 reform movement, and sycophant to its local school system.  That large scale system, representative of many that are good but not great, is being managed to produce defensible bureaucratic control of all the traditional mechanics of education.  All the right buttons are being pushed by its retro leadership to avoid being publicly vulnerable to criticism.  After its fifth superintendent in a decade, the system is back on track to turn out overall kids who have all the currently right answers to the questions on the state's testing.  What it may never turn out, except for those who do it on their own or led by their parents' wisdom, is overall kids who will ever creatively, and with intellectual courage, figure out those future right questions.  This is a pattern of denial and mediocrity that appears almost epidemic in some of this nation’s rural and suburban bubbles.

Erosion of Public Education

The jury as of this writing is still out on Washington State’s nth attempt to permit charter K-12 schools.  Defeated four prior times, this election cycle’s effort -- which will likely succeed -- was pushed by the dollars of billionaires targeting public education, including the nation’s gift to reform self-righteousness and educational naïveté, Bill Gates.  There is likely a large component of this nation that wishes Mr. Gates would finally get bored with K-12 education, and find a new hobby.

In the South, Georgia voters with greater enthusiasm approved the advance of their charters.  Hard to comment without researching the trajectory of public education’s effectiveness there, but the overall countervailing results suggest the continuing unfolding of a national division on attacks on public education; not a comforting thought at all given that the unsettling effects of reform efforts, including school-to-school migrations, may negate any gains from standardized testing even in narrow forced learning results.

The Most Egregious

Demonstrating the same prescience, not, about the election’s outcome, many of our media are now with equal alacrity claiming Mr. Obama in this re-election gained “a mandate.”  Not quite.

Even in achieving victory by grass roots effort, President Obama has seemingly failed to hear the education hoof beats, or reflect on the two basically failed and costly prior Federal programs (NCLB and RttT).  Hypocritically, he has repetitively acknowledged the need for real learning and developing critical thought, but seems ready to endorse the continuing challenge of US public schools and the testing orgy by retaining Arne Duncan, his Secretary of Education, who needs one.  Raises a question:  Is a basketball net thicker than a neural net?

While revolts are finally breaking out around the nation, promising to add to national divisiveness, but at least challenging the testing, VAM, vouchers and charters, America’s majority of Republican governors continues attempted destruction of public education.  The intellectual deficits in these attacks are breathtaking in their crude reasoning, even leaving in their wake corrupted systems and ersatz grading schemes, and in denial of just about every legitimate educational scholar’s warnings of the strategic learning risks. 

There are competent educational thought leaders in the US who could restore sanity to the US Department of Education (including Stanford’s Darling-Hammond, who parenthetically was Obama’s 2008 advisor on K-12, dumped in favor of a politically correct Duncan, or Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of Education and one of our most knowledgeable and articulate advocates of multidimensional K-12 learning, and there are likely many more) and still push the mission of achieving K-12 learning gains among minorities and the economically and culturally challenged.  Mr. Duncan seriously needs to become unemployed (though we suspect that period of unemployment would be brief indeed, until he resurfaces in the executive ranks of one of America’s corporate testing vultures, or some corporate reform think tank, or another politically influenced education slot).

Trying to fathom the justification for the delusional belief that public education needs to be thrown out, however, is not the mystery many of our K-12 bureaucracy might believe.  A just published article, about Washington State’s referendum and the charter movement in The Atlantic magazine, routinely notes in its concluding paragraph what equally delusional public K-12 administrators just dismiss:  Advocates for the schools, many of whom acknowledge the imperfection of the charter system, seem to agree on one thing: Public education in this country isn't adequate to its task, and it will take some trial and error to fix it. If nothing else, charter schools may be valuable experiments in how to teach.”

Why the Brouhaha Is a Quandary

Of all of the education miscues being recorded across the US, the ones of greatest portent and that have undercut many of this last decades’ attempts to grow and improve American K-12 are:  The ignorant and simplistic view that tomorrow’s effects of today’s decisions really don’t count (myopia); that our problems are just a matter of finding a silver bullet (the single-cause syndrome); and that we can restore 20th century society on the premise it was more efficacious than where we now live (Pollyanna syndrome)?  Just a sidebar for the latter, if many Americans had learned any real US history in K-12, they would likely be running hell-bent in the opposite direction.

At the risk of repetition, both public education as we know it – because of decades of self-righteousness, arrogance, methods myopia, paranoia, along with the decline of collegiate schools of education – and a reform movement that is driven by political and the most simplistic market ideologies (whether it emanates from the White House or US financial/corporate silos), are equally the major causes of present K-12 conflict and potential damage.  Restoring learning that can sustain the nation over the next couple of contentious decades is not a zero-sum game.

Propagating in this reactionary neck of the US woods, and even in places like Bloomington, IN, or a Columbus with an OSU, and on, K-12 public systems exist in a delusional construction of K-12, an error that will eventually come home to roost.  Creativity, cutting edge changing the game, demanding ethical choices, adoption of real learning technologies rather than just their artifacts, even discovering budgeting and cost-benefit models, and putting ahead of state subservience the absolute responsibility and courage to support teachers who have a better grasp than most retro administrators of what the classroom can do, have more frequently been trashed than adopted.  Our public systems’ alleged leaders and most school boards have tumbled down Alice’s “rabbit hole,” fanning the belief that levies can be approved forever, that sports and parading fictional excellence in the form of test scores are more important than learning, and that parents can be and will stay suckered forever.

Truth or Consequences

With all the votes in, this election unfortunately sorted little that promises to materially ease the attacks on US public K-12.

In turn, why public K-12 is getting mauled by a so-called reform movement is hardly a mystery, except to the strata of educational bureaucracy that have gifted our equally flawed “reformers” the opportunity and temporary credibility to try to destroy US public education.  When history records this sad period in American history, its epitaph may be that both sides shot themselves in a vital place in a war that should never have occurred.  But as in most contemporary wars, the principal victims are still the non-combatants, children, and a society’s future viability, in this war because of the cheapening of learning in a nation that will need to master explosive knowledge growth and oncoming choices still being defined.

Major elections are alleged to trigger reflection, or should.  A great irony of current American life is that our Founders relied on the philosophies of The Enlightenment to fashion a nation that was supposed to get beyond the legacies of hundreds of years of European mysticism, social/economic stratification, and suppression of individual rights.  In turn, American history records a century of success in building compulsory education for all, along with a once stable public system of learning infrastructure.  Its evolutionary retreat from its creative roots, petrified pedagogy, and diminished education for education sees America stumbling into a 21st century that will demand every neural net we can train.  Instead, our education wars now seem punctuated by a quote, circa 1546, attributed to English writer John Heywood:  "There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.” 

Election 2012 has left American public K-12 well off course from a vector for achieving real learning in an unforgiving and accelerating knowledge environment, that won’t be assuaged by throwing bubble tests and/or computer tablets at the learners, or turning K-12 education infrastructure into a parody of the financial derivatives markets.

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