Sunday, October 17, 2010

When did America decide to follow instead of lead?

There's a troubling reality in today's push (in the wrong direction) for education reform. 


There's something happening here

What it is ain't exactly clear...


When did America decide that in educating millions of our children, it's better to follow instead of lead? We have always, at least until now, prided ourselves as a unique experiment in democracy and human spirit. While the social fabric of older European and Asian nations settled into a static sense of “living for the now,” Americans forged on exploring new lands and pioneering new technologies for the future. Our educational system, born out of the one room schoolhouse not too far removed from “Little House on the Prairie,” evolved to equip and encourage our curiosity and entrepreneurial sense of adventure. A.S. Draper, then commissioner of education in New York, summed it up by declaring, “The educational purpose of America is sharply distinguished from that of other lands. The essential difference comes through our democracy.” (American Education, 1909) Several years earlier, a commission of distinguished educators from Great Britain had descended on our schools and declared that, “The types of men that the educational methods of America have developed appear to me to be entirely different from what we produce at home.” (Reports of the Mosely Educational Commission to the United States, 1904)


There's battle lines being drawn

Nobody's right if everybody's wrong...


Then came Sputnik. Then A Nation at Risk. Then NCLB. Then Race to the Top. For the first one-hundred-and-fifty years of our nation's existence, we provided the educational system everyone else coveted. Focused on developing a culture centered on personal accomplishment, pioneering, and fierce independence, we demonstrated through the development of a manufacturing system second to none, victory in two world wars, great medical advances, birth of the computer age, and landing a man on the moon that our educational system, void of the incessant need for national or even state-wide testing, was capable of producing great leaders, thinkers, scientists, business adventurists, and a nation whose strength rested with the growth in the middle class. Until that point in our short history, America didn't look to other cultures and say, “We need to be more like them.” Instead, for centuries people have been coming to our shores trying to escape the very things many in the past fifty years, especially those who are not in the education profession, now want us to emulate in our public schools: A nationalized educational system, built on the belief that annual testing of every student in reading and math in place of developing the skills and individual abilities that made our nation great. This is precisely what many other countries are trying to get away from! But meanwhile we ignore the warnings and march on, dragging our public schools through the mud, firing teachers, narrowing our curriculum to only what will be tested, and essentially creating factory-like schools filled with children who can regurgitate what they learn only by filling in a bubble answer sheet, in the quest for what other nations such as China no longer want:


Through No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top, the US has been working on increasing the power and frequency of testing, standardizing and narrowing the curriculum, simplifying teacher and school evaluation, centralizing education decision making, and reducing the definition of achievement and success to test scores.


"In essence, what China wants is what the U.S. has and is eager to throw away, while what the US wants is what has and is eager to cast away." Yong Zhao, Who Will Invent the Next Google or Apple?, 2010


What a field-day for the heat

A thousand people in the street...


Education Nation and Waiting for Superman. We came to this fork in the road, not through common sense or learned decisions but rather through political power struggles, boy-billionaires seeking to create a legacy for themselves, and media sensationalists spurred on by panic sustained through twenty-four hour cable news cycles. Couple this with inappropriate use of data from international tests and “cherry-picking” comparisons of educational systems around the world, and you've created the perfect storm for unrest in the streets. Actually, we don't even bother much to look beyond our shores anymore for the comparisons; we've created a hodge-podge of charter schools and school systems – some successful, many not – and we use them for our favorite sport of comparing apples-to-oranges in the compulsive quest for uncovering failures in our public school system. The elite politicians, media personalities, and business leaders, most of which got to where they are because of our public school system and not in spite of it, incite the general public with one-sided views and control of the traditional media outlets. If you agree with them, you are invited onto the national stage. If you do not go along with their point of view, you are marginalized, often brutalized, and mostly shut out. Even if you agree that we need to make changes in our public education system, a point of view many professionals in the education arena agree with, but you disagree that it can only be accomplished by firing the teachers and providing more choice through charters, you are forced to sit in the corner and portrayed as the classroom dunce.


Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep...


The state of our current economy, arguably in worse shape since possibly the economic disasters of the 1870's and promising to get worse before it gets better, isn't helping educators attempting to get out their message that while changes are needed, destruction of the system that played a central role in the building of our nation is not necessary. Nor is it wise! There's a growing concern that the chasm between rich and poor is growing ever wider and the middle class is disappearing, in large part due to the decline in our manufacturing base and loss of millions of jobs during the first decade of this century. While in the past, industry leaders and capitalists have born the brunt of the blame for economic predicaments, a new pattern appears to be emerging: the capitalists and the industry leaders are using their tremendous wealth to stir up paranoia and point the finger of blame at public schools. They have spent the past ten years trying to convince the American public that the loss of our traditional industries and the lack of job opportunities is due in large part to our so-called failing school system. It's as if they are trying to convince Joe-citizen that if we just had better schools, you'd have more jobs. It's the school's fault, not ours. Never mind that we are the ones who moved our manufacturing plants to Mexico and China. That's not important! What is important is that we fire all the public school teachers, destroy the teacher's unions, and send all of our kids to charter schools. Period. Only then will America be great again and only then will you avoid foreclosure on your house and enjoy the security of a good job.


It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound

Everybody look what's going down...


It's all about giving up our leadership role and following others such as communist China or socialist Finland. If we were just more like them – nationalized and centralized control over everything, including public education which has been one of the bedrocks of our republican form of government centered on local control and diffusion of political power – we'd solve all our problems. As far back as 1909, Commissioner A.S. Draper was naïve enough to believe that power rested with the states and local governments, including school boards, when he made the statement, “The United States is powerless to control and does not assume to manage the educational interests of the people; the states have full authority to do so.” (American Education, emphasis in original). Now we are on the verge of a nationalized curriculum in the guise of the Common Core, designed purposely by using a back-door that avoids conflict with federal law precluding the establishment of national curriculum standards. Through Race to the Top, we are also nearing the imposition of standardized evaluation systems for teachers and principals, merit pay to replace traditional salary systems, the end of tenure, and pointing all of the blame for failing students on individual teachers by tracking achievement test results and pinning it on them. But the reality is that nothing in this paragraph has anything to do with improving student achievement. Simply changing the structure, or even the rules by which a structure such as a public education operates, is not proven to produce better results. We've already tried this with charter schools and the results are mixed at best. So while we spend all of our waking hours and resources on changing the institution, we waste valuable time and opportunity to band together to improve teaching and learning.


For better or worse, here are my recommendations for doing just that:


  • Completely eliminate the federal role in education and restore the responsibility back to the states. There is no evidence to suggest that since the establishment of the original Department of Health, Education and Welfare at the federal level in the early 1950's, our educational system has improved as a result. In fact, one could make the argument that the increase in federal meddling has actually helped with any perceived decline. To lessen the impact of a sudden loss of revenue which has led to a socialistic dependency in states and local districts, federal funding could be phased out over a pre-set time period.


  • State governments should limit their roles to establishing learning standards (aka, graduation requirements and teacher certification standards) coupled with providing fair and equitable funding for all schools, including accessibility to the latest technology, provision of Internet access for all students, and the ability of local school systems to provide every student with an education in World Languages. Curriculum selection, instructional methods, assessment of learning, and evaluation of teaching are to be left to local school boards with monitoring and assistance from county or regional-level, intermediate districts. Put the responsibility of operating public schools back in the hands of the local public and help by reducing the overwhelming burden of needless regulation.


  • Local, regional and state colleges and universities should be compelled to completely revamp their teacher preparation programs and be required to partner with local school districts in providing for a more robust internship and mentorship period for new teachers. In addition, higher education institutions should be required to create panels of instructors and deans who meet regularly with K-12 teachers and administrators to establish K-16 curriculum alignment, reviewing and revising as necessary.


These are just a start on the road to restoring America's desire to lead in public education. Enough has been said regarding the concerns and it's high time we end this senseless hype. Start by bringing the educational professionals onto the stage, enabling them to participate fully in identifying the real problems and solutions, and then provide them with the backing necessary to implement changes that serve the needs of kids.


But most of all, let's stop looking to be like everyone else. That's not what America was built on and that won't serve our future generations well.


Ours is a purposeful nation. It has always faced the east. It has always planned for the future.” A.S. Draper




Lyrics: For What It's Worth, by Buffalo Springfield, 1967

Written by Stephen Stills

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