Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Something no doubt is happening; but it may not be education (Livingstone, 1943)

It seldom ceases to amaze me how often I come across arguments against some of the most damaging features in our education system today, but that were made many decades ago. This would include one of the works by British scholar Sir Richard Livingstone (1880-1960) written and published in the throes of World War II. In two small books, The Future in Education (1941) and Education for a World Adrift (1943), Livingstone took exception to a lack of education and tried to challenge his countrymen to look ahead towards a better system of learning.

In the latter publication, he challenged the growing use of what he calls “examinations” as a driving force that in effect was steering education in the wrong direction. These so-called examinations would be similar to our narrow state-mandated “achievement” tests. The excerpts that follow were his key concerns addressed in a chapter appropriately titled, “Two Dragons in the Road” (italics indicate direct quotations):

“The examination system is both an opiate and a poison. It is an opiate because it lulls us into believing that all is well when most is ill.”

On the surface, the public gets an impression from test scores and graduation rates that “something is clearly happening; the school is doing its job.”

“Something no doubt is happening; but it may not be education; it may be the administration of a poison which paralyses or at least slows down the natural activities of the healthy mind. The healthy human being, finding himself a creature of unknown capacities in an unknown world, wants to learn what the world is like, and what he should be and do in it. To help him in answering these questions is the one and only purpose of education.”

“But that is not the prime aim of the ordinary pupil…for whom the examination becomes much more important than seeing ‘visions of greatness,’ and ‘getting through’ excuses all shortcomings and disguises all omissions.”

He speaks here and throughout about the “external examinations” or those required by the state, not the assessments conducted by the school or teacher as “tests of progress, which are useful and necessary.”

“Examinations are harmless when the examinee is indifferent to their result, but as soon as they matter, they begin to distort his attitude to education and conceal its purpose. The more depends on them, the worse their effect.”

He claims that the child who is behind or may have a learning disability “suffers most, since preparing for the ordeal occupies more of its time and mind.” But also, for even the student who is achieving at a higher level, “examinations become an obsession.”

“It is not only the pupil but -- and this is far more serious -- the teacher, who finds his energies and attention drawn from education to examination needs. No doubt there are schools and teachers which resist the insidious pressure, teach their subject for its interest and for nothing else and burn no incense on the examination altar. But the pressure is hard. Most people judge a school by its examination results. Its reputation, however well-established, is affected by them; and a school with a name to make or competitors to face has an overpowering temptation to commend itself to the world,” by striving towards the highest test results and graduation rates.

“The teacher is tempted to show his competence by securing a big list of awards, the headmaster is tempted to demand them in the interest of the school.”

“Any evils that might follow from the disappearance of examinations are nothing to the harm they do. They are in fact a refined form of the old and now universally condemned system of ‘payment by results:’ … tak(ing) the form of prestige to the school and to the pupil.”

The examination system and its system of awards and punishments “restrict(s) the field of education by causing schools to concentrate on ‘profitable’ subjects….They procure ‘far to frequently mechanical results….Subjects can have meaning only as they are treated as aspects of active and living experience….It is as impossible to examine in the most vital parts of education as to anatomize life on a dissecting table, and therefore the pressure of examinations continually pushes them into the background or out of sight. Further, it tends to restrict education to the subjects of the examination in question…”

“Unfortunately there is a risk of the importance of examinations increasing….And if so, education becomes a savage competitive system. It ceases to be education and (simply) becomes a road to a career.”

Thursday, March 9, 2017

How Market Forces and Non-Professional Reformers are Destroying Public Education

Today, politicians in thrall to neoliberal ideology seek to subordinate the democratic mission of public education to a theory of market-driven economic development and social organization.  Policy deliberations are now dominated by of econometric modeling and production function research.  This modeling and research is often used, inappropriately, to make decisions about the value of education reforms.  The mathematical models used by researchers are made to “work” only by assuming away much of the real world in which people live and students learn. The phantasmagorical belief in neutral “scientific” expertise as the primary basis for policymaking has, therefore, profoundly antihuman as well as antidemocratic implications — a topic Sheila Dow takes up in “People Have Had Enough of Experts.”[5] 
The major education reforms of the past 35 years — education vouchers, charter schools, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts — all seek to remove public schools from the control of elected bodies; to subject them to the “laws” of the “market”; and to put them at the service of the economic elite. The world being called into existence is based on the belief that anyone, but not everyone, can succeed—a world of winners and losers, each of whom has earned his or her fate.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

With both hands tied behind our backs: How the state contributes to the failure of public education

They want Michigan to be a top 10 state in 10 years, but what they want and what they do are out of sync.

What follows is just some of the insanity behind our governor and state legislators' efforts over time to weaken and destroy public education. I have to state it this way because if it isn't purposeful, then you have to conclude that they are all either idiots or at the very least ignorant in education policy and practice.

What they want in Michigan:

  • Every child, regardless of circumstances, to progress through K-8 in lock-step form and then graduate from high school within four years of entering fully "ready" for college and career.
  • All children, again regardless of circumstances, reading at the exact same level by the time they are 9 years old.
  • All high school students, regardless of circumstances or personal desire, completing a one-size-fits-all high school curriculum and course credits within four years of entering.
  • All teachers, regardless of circumstances, preparation or experience, performing at the same level of effectiveness producing consistent end-results as measured by tests.
  • All schools, regardless of circumstances, ranked at the top of the top-to-bottom lists despite the fact this is statistically impossible.
  • All children and parents, regardless of circumstances, able to choose any school they desire for their child despite the fact it is physically impossible to provide enough personalized options for the entire student population of the United States.
  • Year-round, balanced calendars for schools, particularly in low-achieving, high-poverty areas.
But what they do in Michigan:
  • Annually appropriate an inadequate level of funding for classrooms and children that continues to decline each year when inflation is factored in.
  • Continue to support a substantially inadequate classroom funding system where wealthier districts are provided with greater levels of funding, and funding is not based on the needs of students or communities.
  • Continue to deny that greater funding levels are needed for public schools basing their arguments on a single conservative-leaning study over fifty years old and ignoring the mountains of more recent research that supports significantly greater funding due to greater student needs and higher-level standards.
  • Refuse to relinquish education control back to communities that want to remove the one-size-fits-all mandates and provide more flexible and personal learning options for each and every student.
  • Allow for the growth of less-regulated charter schools, with the highest percentage of non-transparent, for-profit entities in the country, causing chaos and disintegration of community-based school districts that are then singled out for the resulting low achievement and potential closure.
  • Weaken the teacher and education administration professions by refusing to provide adequate funding to support competitive salaries, reducing take-home-pay by forcing greater out-of-pocket expenditures for benefits originally mandated by the state, and erosion of the ability of school districts to provide flexible on-going professional learning because of funding reductions and elimination of the 38-hour per year professional development time.
  • Restrict schools from beginning the school-year until after Labor Day despite lacking any valid, comprehensive evidence that this restriction is an economic boon that outweighs the needs of students.
  • Continue to underfund higher education placing the burden on students' backs despite the fact state policies virtually steer every child in the direction of college enrollment.
There's much more to add to both of these categories, but the point is to highlight the insanity of our state education policymaking that on the one hand wants greater outcomes, but on the other hand expects those better results despite weakening the one critical institution that will ensure all kids have an equitable chance -- public education.

And now comes Betsy DeVos in Washington who will surely pour more gasoline on the fire.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

When are we going to get to the WHY, the HOW and the WHAT of public school debate?

In all of the Congressional ballyhoo over the Betsy DeVos nomination for Education Secretary, when mentioning "failing public schools" no one brought up WHY? nor did they approach the topics of HOW we change that and WHAT is needed to ensure equity of resources to do so. 

Instead, folks on Mrs. DeVos' side of politics simply want to continue eliminating public schools and substituting what's already proven not to be working any better, while those on the other side of the debate have little power to improve support for public schools or even change the debate towards a much more productive solution.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Recalling wisdom from an earlier time

I consider myself fortunate to have had a very interesting math professor while working on my undergraduate degree at Grand Valley State University (Colleges back then) in the '70s. My wife, although not a math major, also had him for a math survey course.

Professor Preston C. Hammer, who pretty much ran the computer lab at Los Alamos after World War II during the development of the hydrogen bomb, published a number of books and papers on a variety of math and computer topics. He was very interested in a relatively new discipline called mathematical systems theory and in the introduction to his 1969 textbook on that topic, he wrote:
These times are among the most challenging and the most depressing in the history of man. On the one hand, we begin to glimpse the possibilities of really improving the human condition through strategic use of information being accumulated and through the ability to adapt materials and energy to a variety of needs. On the other hand, never before has there been available so much destructive power -- and the power to destroy has not been matched by an equally noticeable increase in wisdom.
Professor Hammer could see the future based on what he knew about man, and while he believed that the development of computers and atomic energy had great potential for good, man might likely subvert both for his own desires. He once told Penny's math survey class that (paraphrased) computers will likely create whole new ways to commit crime. Fortunately, atomic energy hasn't -- yet.