There is little bipartisanship in the present debates about school reform, and even less straight talk. The rhetoric is expansive, claims and counterclaims; data fragments that are contradictory reference the recent excellent post by “Sheet” regular, Carol Burris, on remedial college work. But millions of words have carefully stepped around our public systems’ home truths.
Present reform is failing because, targeting variables that are not the cause of the disease, it was impotent before advocates launched it where ideology or emotion trumped wits. Its conceptual mechanisms violate contemporary principles of human behavior; its tactics violate contemporary organizational and managerial thought.
Consider some gut explanations, not circling or politically correct, that puncture America’s feel good delusions; these propositions explain a lot:
One, scissors cuts paper, but repeatable empirical findings on paper about the variables effecting the entire spectrum of K-12 learning, from credible places, would go a long way toward clearing the fog of present reform. None of the testing terrorism being used to beat up students, or to simplistically assess teacher performance, or to grade systems, or to claim success, has a critical mass of legitimate research behind their face. Indeed, we don’t know enough about our real public schools beyond NCER’s boiler plate to even form hypotheses.
Two, the structured testing now inundating alleged reform, along with psychometric methods employed, have a legitimate application for certain types of learning. A naive conception of and compulsion for “metrics,” and a primitive testing model have virtually no utility in measuring successful higher order thought, integrative problem solving, or footing creative thinking. Standardized testing overuse and misuse is being sustained because of the improper influence of a handful of testing corporations with inordinate and inappropriate power over a public good and system, and cowardice or witless dogmatism that permeates entire institutional strata.
Three, public K-12 schools, and their unions, and the bureaucracies supporting and lobbying for them, are as directly responsible for present school reform as the alleged "corporate" impetus in current depictions of reform morphology. Decades ago our public schools ossified, introduced their own ideological overreach, and failed to retool – that is what invited private sector reform initiatives starting in 1980. But while some corporate players may have disproportionately promoted public school attacks even before ANAR, contemporary management as practiced in 21st century businesses is not so stupid as to employ present methodologies. The game is now being prosecuted by a motley assortment of ideologues with their own agendas, and of course, by a profoundly misguided White House perspective.
Four, the vast majority of public schools are dully to dogmatically managed by overwhelmed, or untutored, or incompetent, or downright unethical administration, overseen by inept BOE. Their genre can be seen if you lift the lid on real schools: What you will see is too frequently a circle-the-wagons mentality, hypocrisy and self-interest, dogmatic belief in obsolete school of education nostrums, lack of contemporary managerial concepts, cynical tactical initiatives to conform to test and VAM mandates but resist core change, and aggressiveness only to protect the funding of fiefdoms created and block system transparency to the public. Creativity has been cut out of their thesaurus because it entails risk. As a class, our nation's public school superintendents likely represent a level of magnitude greater need for assessment and remediation than our teachers yet they are being tolerated. In parallel, the organizational model for K-12 schools is obsolete and needs to go back to the drawing board.
Five, the number of public school teachers who are "Mr. Chips" is vastly outnumbered by the number who may have those committed learning values, but are broadly ignorant of contemporary learning, or lack the subject matter competence to teach assigned venues, both because they were poorly educated out of the gate. This is matched by systems that will fight tooth and nail for a grander football stadium, or award unearned teacher salaries to buy teacher pacifism, but allocate not a cent for teacher development.
Six, the traditional BOE is a major cause of our schools’ failures to perform, has been for decades, and change there is both a necessary and sufficient factor in ever truly improving public school performance. BOE upgrades have been advocated for decades by the leading national association of school boards, but ignored or suppressed by our states. Try to electorally recall an unethical board.
Seven, and close to being the rotten core of the proverbial apple, are our retro schools of education, dogmatically wedded by arrogance and ignorance to the deductive models of last century, and simply permitted by higher education leadership reactive to reform to continue unchallenged. Throw in a century of disconnect, and lack of empathy or even contempt for each other, by both public education and higher education. How much of demanded post-secondary remediation is attributable to the knowledge mission and process information misconceptions between the two systems?
Eight, and hardly the end of the list but causal, our electorate; so totally ignorant of what constitutes genuine primary and secondary learning, and splitting into partisan camps. So gullible in absorbing propaganda locally, and from both reformers and reform opponents, that the public’s one real control mechanism -- putting some intellectually competent control of local schools in place via legislature and BOE choices -- is a crater.
Our prolific commentators on our public schools’ challenges are fond of the bromide, "there is no silver bullet for reform." Unfortunately, rarely do our rapporteurs dig below that banality and show the courage to call out where real roadblocks are dominant. Mr. Obama's delusions, Arne Duncan's demagoguery, our testing companies' greed and social irresponsibility, our schools themselves and an entire education bureaucracy in need of renewal, a self-righteous Gates and Rhee, ideological monsters such as ALEC and inbred state government education cabals, are the generic problems and the reasons that present reform hammering symptoms has become a slow motion train wreck.
Prophetically, on the Fourth, symbolic of political change, Arne Duncan’s reign was addressed: “Delegates of the National Education Association adopted a business item July 4 at its annual convention in Denver that called for his resignation.” Duncan characteristically dismissed the vote, offering more than a hint of the historical penchant for performance scaling from myopic to despotic. For the sake of argument, assume that Mr. Duncan is justifiably routed, triggering a turning point in present reform. But as reform has failed, because our public systems are as resistant to meaningful change as present reform is in delivering it, where does that leave the mission of materially improving American public K-12 learning performance?
American public K-12 seems to be suspended between Sir Winston Churchill's lament on the odyssey of our nation eventually getting anything right, and an apparent societal incapacity to handle simultaneously more than one critical social issue. Until there is finally education system and change agent self-realization, critical thought, multiplexing, and application of creativity on causes of public school mediocrity and relevant reform strategies, the classic line of ground-breaking TV comedian Flip Wilson’s alter ego, “Geraldine,” seems apropos: "What you sees is what you gets."