Edunationredux has been silent for some time, witnessing the unrelenting push — even in the face of demonstrations it has failed — to reform public education by brute force, and punitive application of standardized testing and flawed value-added teacher assessment. After a material hiatus it seemed timely to reflect on the shifts that have occurred in so-called corporate reform of our U.S. public schools over the last year or so.
What follows is an attempt to backfill without whitewash the current reporting with some realities that framed the onset of current testing excesses, value-added assessment of teachers, the rise and decline of the alleged common core, and the same-o, same-o by players such as Mr. Obama and his obsession with testing, Mr. Gates with his obsession with playing amateur and ignorant education advocate, with our profiteering testing companies, and lastly with our real public systems still defensively dug in or in denial they are under attack.
Let’s be clear and direct on a couple of issues: No one legitimately aware of K-12 education is rejecting or has rejected the need for school testing, a common rhetorical device injected by our testing vultures — the issue has always been whether the right stuff is being tested, and who bears the design responsibility for test creation and use of insights therefrom; and few legitimate educators dispute the need for some common knowledge components to be the backbone for all learning K-12 — here the issue is whether the right human resources, for the right reasons, and with the right research backdrop created a viable knowledge and tools core. Gathering evidence suggests both issues have been fumbled in current reform, some of that fumbling incompetence, some ideology replacing critical thought, some self-righteousness, some outright corrupt action.
In the 21st Century, “spare the rod and spoil the child” once seemed too bizarre to contemplate as civilized public policy. Companies profiting from that testing have dug in, becoming ever more bold in simply ignoring critique, and doubling down on installing untested products to extract public dollars. The following observations are prompted by two core beliefs: One, that only a broader electorate can now exert the force to mediate present trends; and two, on balance that electorate, most parents, and even the public resources who signed on to at least nominally serve public schools, are either confused by the reform lenaean hydra poisoning public education, or blissfully unaware of what it is costing the nation in futures.
Genesis of the Reform Movement
From many sources, and over a great span of time our society has assessed how words matter. If you research the most destructive words in our language there is a proliferation of negative syntax. But oft quoted: "The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’"
I want to contest that conclusion in a brief essay dealing with the current sturm und drang surrounding America's public schools — the argument is in essence that the most dangerous words for our society are the words that are never spoken, the truths preferred unsaid. Public education has been a prime inheritor of the condition. The words won't issue even from the prolific anti-testing press advocate, WaPo’s "The Answer Sheet:" Public school systems in the U.S. over the last half century have reaped, by failing in multiple ways, the punitive, test-based, alleged "corporate reform” currently being endured.
Let's do a bit of reality testing. Did this alleged reform movement just fall like a random shower? Was there no activating causal sequence? Did the notion that our public schools were failing to prepare tomorrow's decision makers just pop into some executive’s head during a Starbucks break? Were our schools wth low variance equally equipping America's children? Was our private sector seeing its employees (and customers) outclass the rest of the world? Was it seeing in new hires critical thinking, creativity, and capacities for both excellence and innovation? Were our local public schools the recipients of the best and brightest in our society as oversight, our famous or infamous system of boards of education accessible by popular vote to even school dropouts? As any complex system evolves and creates deep roots, and breeds defenders, did the public systems remain humble, rejecting entitlement, and resisting the temptation to socially engineer the embryonic society they obviously footed from pre-K through the end of high school? Did the players in those schools resist the temptation to demand more of the nation's resources because they could tax, or their personal returns were outstripped by alternative professions? Did our public schools, presciently recognizing advancing digital technology, become the leaders in related education? Unless you believe in the tooth fairy, one or more of these or ones left unsaid will resonate as 21st Century public K-12 system failure modes.
The list goes on, but quickly, for public educators long protected by society to have absolved every source of critique would have been the persona of saints. For all of the credit public system teachers deserve for persevering there was and still is massive resistance to change in most public schools, resistance to upgrading obsolete texts and knowledge proffered, resistance to and ignorance of technology rolling out in the private sector, and the latter as will be seen a key factor in launching an attack on those systems. Couple this with most collegiate schools of education to this day as retro as most local systems. Local systems have regularly allowed poorly equipped and trained school administration, compounded by incompetent BOE oversight of that management. You have the nucleus of rebellion by the market-based segment of society dependent on that education. And there was a first shot fired.
That event was the 1983 National Governors Association (NGA) meeting, dominated by a speech and proposals by the CEO of IBM, Lou Gerstner. At the time still America's preeminent technology company, the POV expressed by its representative was the genesis of attacks on public education. That speech was followed by comparable rhetoric about America's public system mediocrity at The Business Roundtable, a consortium of the CEOs of America's largest corporations. In turn the NGA's staff dealing with education, already conservatively oriented by Republican governor dominance, became populated by MBAs from U.S. B-schools — not educators, not even the better education gurus. Then the perceived need for major change migrated to the Bush White House. The anthem became, “aggressive, no excuses K-12 discipline to get tough when the going gets tough.” The result was NCLB (No Child Left Behind) which in fact had some rational and egalitarian roots, though short on human resources genuinely knowledgeable about learning just beginning to be understood as neuroscience. (Dr. Diane Ravitch, then Assistant Secretary of Education, championed the reforms of NCLB based on testing, but subsequently witnessing their downsides became that testing's most aggressive opponent.) Then, in the vernacular, all hell broke loose.
It is this next phase of alleged reform evolution that was and still is not recognized by most of our states, by virtually any local BOE, and arguably by few public school administrators and even teachers. Once the metaphorical public education reform toothpaste was out of the tube it not only couldn't be returned to the source, it stuck like plaque. All of the diverse special interest critics of public education entered the emerging battle, but lacking any coherent composite position on what it was. (Subsequently, reform created such disparate odd fellows as the Obama Administration at least tacitly joining hands with the most vehement advocates of charters and public school replacement.)
At this juncture, actually pre-NCLB, both our collegiate schools of education and America's public systems had a chance to intercept what has since occurred — both populations reflexively retreated into defensive positions, BOE and schools’ leaderships in denial, teachers leaning on unions for a buffer or just retreating to foxholes. The moment, when leadership within the education establishment might have deflected corporate reform attack, was lost.
I would interject a brief personal experience that reinforces the above observation. In the early 1990s, the retiring dean of my doctoral alma mater's school of education created a program named, Center for Excellence in Education. Its purpose to research and bring related seminars to public school superintendents in that state. Its faculty consisted of a half dozen of the brightest scholars I had witnessed, none the product of a traditional school of education. They assembled cutting edge tools for school administrators, and offered these in seminars for the small number of public school resources who perceived the need and opportunity. Although long off of that institution's faculty, I was serving as a consultant to the university's vice president for research and graduate studies, and prevailed on that resource to enroll me in the CEE summer program. A quarter century ago, what was being taught and advocated are some of the tools just emerging in our most contemporary (irony) public schools. The point of the story, however, is the ultimate fate of that program — the literal day that former dean finally left the education school the traditionally-bent replacement started to dismantle the program. It was never replaced.
Our broader public education establishment has been its own worst enemy in the reform wars.
Uncontrolled Fragmentation of School Warfare
At this point in history the previously referenced wave of public school criticism experienced the arguably predictable, but never predicted sequel — that population of critics fragmented, uncontrolled, into aggressive splinters of public school attackers, all pretty much on their own wavelength, but all in the common spectrum that envisioned evisceration of the universal public system to its complete replacement. Each faction created its own weapons, and many of the splinters quickly became candidly quite corrupt in the quests. It became open-season on public schools. The players were diverse, either in purpose or in methods, but the target was the same. Many of the players, in large measure many of our unprepared or naive state departments of education, became more pawns than activists, the political tail wagging the education dog.
An incomplete but telling list of the enemy: Right wing ideologues who saw this corporate rebellion against what they saw as a retro, liberal public education monopoly, to be a chance to dismantle at least part of it via "charters;" migration of that political force into the Bush Department of Education, finally resulting in ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), popularly known as NCLB as its promotional tag; via the NGA, creation of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council -- sounds noble, right) a right wing organization that created legislation for conservative-dominated state legislatures incompetent to write their own laws, pushing standardized testing (and subsequently the alleged "common core”); the rise of the corporate testing cabal, that saw this as a naive new market worth billions of dollars with little need for development expenditures, and no ethical prerogative to do needed research; the creation of a then (and still mostly) anonymous group of primarily non-educators (instead of the professionals who guard the quality of their area of knowledge), chaired by the CEO of a testing company, that produced "the common core," now increasingly proving to be a terribly flawed effort (being rejected by states and schools, just branded as misguided, and torpedoed by sensible work like Marion Brady's approaches to learning); "Teach for America" was created on the premise that modest discipline expertise and five weeks of education training would save the public schools, then and now failing; enter the misdirected dollars of a Bill Gates to push standardized testing, with the same lame understanding of creativity and managerial excellence installed at Microsoft; and last, but devastating, the Obama Administration's venal endorsement and deepened installation of the testing mentality, arguably prompted by the belief that forcing some idealistic equilibration of education for minorities — aware it risked partially destroying public schools — was worth that cost (this policy in the opinion of many is as bad as the worst abuses of power and bigotry issuing from the current Republican Congress).
The enemy within has been equally devastating: Ignorant, to fearful, to lazy, to self-righteous, to duplicitous BOE; sports obsessions and idiocy vamping learning priorities; school administration almost universally poorly trained to supply managerial excellence; compounded by the failed vetting of leadership hires that has produced school leaders ranging from simply educationally retro or incompetent, through the fraudulent, to superintendents' out right arrogant pursuit of power and corrupt practice; obsolete curricular thinking; naive substitution of usually already or near obsolete technology hardware for needed digital logic preparation; and slavish adoption of even the most obviously retro or insane directives from state education departments (branding tweaked secondary teachers as college professors certainly ranks high on the list of Ohio stupidity, and based on performances since CC+’s [College Credit+] launch has become a quality issue).
Welcome to U.S. public education, 2016 style.
With candor uncommon in the present venue of squeamish or gutless public school spokespeople, it was said well in a recent WaPo/TAS post: “Civil rights icon James Meredith: ‘We are in a dark age of American public education.’” Perhaps the greatest insult to the American public, and its children, has been the refusal of any of the above list of culprits for the current education train wreck, to either do the research or listen to legitimate research showing they are wrong, or even acknowledging the publicly-visible failures of their various tactics. U.S. public systems and their oversight have in turn generally simply gone deeper into denial of a need for unforced change, and misguided by both incredibly lame state education departments and the usual BOE performances, have not only not created contemporary fixes, but reinvested in those that failed.
Can Local Control Save Public Education?
The rewrite of ESEA (now ESSA, "Every Student Succeeds Act") under Lamar Alexander was alleged to reduce the standardized testing binge, and restore more public school local control. Actual text of the revised Act did that; however, four major impediments stand in the way of a healthier educational outcome. First, the Obama Administration has already abused that spirit by its appointment of John King as Secretary (having failed in New York State), and demonstrated that it has learned nothing from present reform’s failures. Two, the moronic push powered by Bill Gates’ legacy dollars continues, with that cabal even taking the wrong message away from the repetitive failures that effort has produced. Three, most school policy is still either crafted at the state level or has to survive that gatekeeping, so to actually assert some intelligent local control means finding paths through frequent state education incompetence or ideology — witness the corrupt and massively politically inspired fumbling of Ohio’s Department of Education, and of its State Board of Education, courtesy of political cronyism by Ohio’s current Governor. Four, lastly, local control means having BOE with the intelligence and professionalism to not simply rubber stamp school administrative action, but summon the courage to do independent homework and innovate. Both capacities are notably absent in two local school systems.
James Meredith is right, an educational "dark age" has descended on American public education, and there appears no clear vector to a renaissance. The best chance of system change in the current chaotic political environment is local parental and taxpayer emerging awareness that their school system is shortchanging a community’s children. The fix is not complicated, but historically by tradition has been very difficult: Recognition of their children’s vulnerability to ‘good enough’ education and specious inspirational nostrums; awareness that BOE have been products of electing resources who are an umpteenth cousin, or happen to belong to the local Rotary, or have been manipulatively positioned by a dominant private sector, or are cherry-picked by a school because they are considered harmless and unlikely to challenge administration despotism; then demanding competition and voting for professional competence on a BOE. A last factor in Ohio; a BOE member can’t be recalled, so unless they can be removed by the court for commission of a felony or gross violation of sworn oath, "what you sees is what you gets.” That currently in this neck of the woods is dysfunctional.
There is no fully satisfactory way to exit this national crisis. Smaller countries, with less diverse populations (e. g., Finland) have addressed the equivalent of K-12 with greater creativity and even greater rigor than the U.S., and have succeeded. The occasional education voice in the wilderness, e. g., an accomplished lifelong educator and guru, Dr. Marion Brady, has offered ways to update classroom thinking. Dr. Diane Ravitch has authored best-selling books on the damage to sustainable learning being inflicted by excessive and misdirected standardized testing. A genuine neural science of learning is finally emerging, contradicting just about every aspect of present reform. Parental instinctive awareness of the cost of specious reform has produced the highest level ever in refusals to have their children so tested. Congress remains tone deaf, as are most state education departments and legislatures slavishly following the conservative party line. The testing companies long ago ceased to be good corporate citizens with awareness of public responsibility.
The dispersion of power in a republic is and has been a point of American exceptionalism. It can also when things go off the rails be an impediment to timely repair or redirection. Lacking the combination of social responsibility and selflessness as the governing principles for school change moderation, by seemingly all parties, this reform lenaean hydra of mythology will continue to strike and poison U.S. public school systems. Any vector for reform of the reform appears at this point a mirage.