Four steps to better education reform (Introduction to MEGA)

This will be the first installment of several in a “Better Education Reform” series. As I continue, I will be linking to associated definitions and explanations between installments, and at the end will include a glossary for some of the more colloquial-type terms I use. I try to tone it down a little, but hey-I can only water it down so much.

Introduction:

America needs to be better at educating its citizens. I say this for a couple of reasons. Mainly, the disparity in outcomes in our population is concerning-especially when that disparity is linked to race, gender and socioeconomic status.  It suggests either systemic ineffectiveness, intent, and possibly both. Secondly, the political mechanisms that drive this disparity are almost wholly owned and operated by the most privileged class and their nearly as privileged agents. This has led to a situation where the vehicle we call democracy is like some eyesore the losers next door park on the lawn and tear up and down the street in at all hours. We can’t really deny democracy exists, I mean it’s parked right there. But it’s right to wonder if it works, worry about how safe it is and what might happen to us, our property and our children with those losers behind the wheel. Seriously- all they ever do is a crappy touch-up with some spray cans and tint the windows so you can’t see what the $#%& is going on inside of it!

Donald Trump is that eyesore. Who the hell knows what goes on in his head? And our “elected” leaders and the system preserving them are driving him around. But guess what? Trump is the president. That doesn’t happen absent a decline in the character, practical intelligence, and moral commitment in the citizenry and the system. And those things-character, practical intelligence, depend on an effective comprehensive education. A real education.

That’s quite different than schooling, which uses the sterile and dehumanizing language of industry (e.g. standards, tests, achievement, proficiency…) and is focused on the task-mastering of academic skills-an approach that supports control of the masses below by the few above. Real education reform should be an honest effort, and provide much more in terms of a foundation of soft skills and a content of character that allow a person to pursue, communicate, exercise their civic duties and responsibilities, connect effectively with the world, achieve, adapt, cooperate…Basically, education imparts the qualities that shape the person who applies the academic skills acquired through schooling.

By acknowledging, legislating and working through this more comprehensive approach to education, and a more shared accountability for the components that are required, the nation can improve outcomes for traditionally underachieving groups.

Part 1: the four steps

One of the primary roadblocks to better outcomes is the bipartisan cooperation in refusing to do what is right. In other words there is a lack of the political will to do right in our leaders. I will get more deeply into practical intelligence, quality, comprehensive education, and political will in just a bit. I’ll also address the concepts of systemic ineffectiveness and intent-“intent” meaning that some of the ineffectiveness might be purposeful and used by those in power to suppress those with less in order to preserve an inequitable system.

But first things first.

The key to better education reform, more equitable outcomes and reaching for that effective, comprehensive education is informing, preparing and activating the citizenry. Once that happens, education and reform can be freed from the tightly defined box constructed by and for the wealthy and powerful establishment who ironically use it as a tool of suppression. That paradigm of suppression has led to stagnant or unimpressive societal and academic improvements. Changing the paradigm and making education great again (that’s MEGA, folks- I’ll trademark it and begin making the red hats soon) won’t be easy, but here are the four things I suggest to get us moving in the MEGA direction towards improving outcomes:

Four steps to MEGA:

1) Admit that accountability is shared for education outcomes, between policymakers, community, families and schools. Have mechanisms for measurement, evaluation and accountability that are collaboratively created by these stakeholders and keep all stakeholders involved and accountable.

2) Apply electoral and non-electoral leverage strategically to affect policy and distribute resources based  on needs. That means targeting policymakers, communities, families, and schools with transparency, honesty and a purpose that is learner and future-focused.

3) Shift the stale paradigm for how schooling works and how outcomes are defined, and provide real opportunities to pursue both collective priorities (public education should serve the public, the same way public spaces, utilities and services do) and individual goals. This is a shift from the current impersonal demands for a standardized version of “proficiency”.

4) Effectively advocate not just for the literal lives of children, but their quality of life as well. The key word being “effectively”.

Next, “The four steps explained”.

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Holding Schools Accountable

While sorting through some old, old stuff, I came across a hard copy of this. I think it predated flash drives, I’m not really sure. Thank god I have a beautiful young typist that will ask for little more than a burger and maybe a few bucks. About 16 years ago, I think it was, and yet it could be today. 

 

National Standards:

Holding Schools Accountable

by

Daniel McConnell, Jr.

State University of New York

Cortland, 2002

 

Introduction

            While on the surface educational standards appear to be merely a logical move to provide cohesive instruction, the forces behind their origin and the pairing of standards with a call for “accountability” reveal other motives. Historically, the United States has taken great efforts to achieve and maintain a dominant world presence, much through advances in military technology (which are closely linked to the math and science fields). Most notably since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, when the former USSR beat the United States into space, policy makers have demanded that schools prepare students to be an active part in the US- led future. When “A Nation At Risk” was published in 1983, warning of pending failure in the competitive world market, the cry for school reform was renewed with a focus on curriculum standards, and accountability for schools not demonstrating student achievement of those standards. While doing this, policy makers ignore their own accountability in helping to nurture capable students and productive future citizens.

Background

            “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” (A Nation At Risk, 1983)

After a brief statement of educational philosophy, A Nation At Risk begins with this ominous warning. It does not warn against a pending invasion by a foreign power, or a nuclear attack, or even an anonymous biological threat. The threat, it seems, is economic: based on the ability of the US to compete and profit (to a greater degree than other nations of the world) in the global market. But the insinuation, if it could even be considered as subtle as that, is that the threat is just as dire: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” (p.1). The tone of A Nation demonstrates a shift in perspective regarding the nature of America’s “world leader” role, and the responsibilities of schools to support that role. Once in the business of promoting the rights of citizens by educating those citizens to exercise them in a responsible manner, schools have gradually found their role shifting from responsibility to protect the nation from tyranny to supporting the near-tyrannical forces of a corporate driven system. This system places monetary profit and domination of the world market high on the priority list, while subjugating the needs and desires of present and future citizens (i.e. the students themselves). With current US policy funded, advised and driven largely by leaders in the corporate world, legislation tends to favor the already wealthy and powerful minority at the cost of the less wealthy majority of Americans. This legislation includes the educational standards, and the standards-based reform movement that began largely as a result of A Nation At Risk. While staying competitive in the fields of math and science (which are cornerstones of the tech market and essential in maintaining military dominance) is important for the economic health of the nation, current efforts to impose standards and high-stakes standardized tests should be closely evaluated to determine whose needs they truly serve.

The History of Reform: Sputnik and the Science Scare

“Unless future generations appreciate the role of science in modern society and understand the conditions under which science thrives”, he (Dr. Elmer Hutchisson, Director of the American Institute of Physics) said, “our way of life is, I am certain, doomed to rapid extinction.” (New York Times, Oct. 8, 1957)

America’s public school system has, since its inception, been a source of hope and a focus of criticism. It has been given the responsibility for shaping society at times, blamed for not doing so (or doing so in a misguided fashion) at other times. One time from our not so distant history that many believed revealed a weakness in our education system was in 1957, the year Russia launched the first space vehicle, Sputnik. At a time when the nations of the world were just beginning to consider the possibilities of space exploration, and most believed that the US would lead the way with its Vanguard program, the Soviets caught the world off guard when it launched a satellite weighing eight times that of the one the US intended to launch. The possibility that the Soviets had outmatched the United States in its ability to not only launch a satellite, but to launch a significantly heavier one gave rise to two fears: 1) the capitalist beacon of hope that was the US was technologically inferior to the other world power- the communist threat that was the USSR, and 2) If the Soviets could launch a satellite into space, they could launch a nuclear missile that could reach the United States.

Dr. Elmer Hutchisson, director of the American Institute of Physics at the time Sputnik was launched, gave the statement at the beginning of this section. In addition to the accusations from others that the Eisenhower administration was under-funding satellite research, Dr. Hutchisson added a warning about the science education students were receiving

 ..the United States must distinguish carefully between ‘highly accumulative’             scientific knowledge that can be taught by rigorous discipline and the namby-                pamby kind of learning’ that seeks to protect children against inhibition of their              individuality or their laziness

According to James Rutherford, former director of Project 2061, the American Association for Advancement of Science’s program for revamping K-12 science education, the efforts to improve science curriculum and training throughout the educational system began shortly after Sputnik, but then halted after the United States put the first man on the moon (Harvard Educational Letter: Research Online, Sept/Oct, 1998).

Not surprisingly, this article states, results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, 1997) showed that US students scored lower than half of the students in other developed countries by the eighth grade, and “dead last” by the final year of secondary school. Despite the call for creation of standards across subject areas by the first President Bush in 1989, America’s schools are still having difficulty meeting the high expectations implicit in the new standardized assessments.

The Confounds Regarding Success in Reaching the Standards

“The average grade for all the standards he [L. Lerner] appraised is C-minus…In fact, we can only be confident from this analysis that six of our fifty states have first-rate science standards.” (The Fordham Foundation, 1998)

While students are apparently not performing as well as those calling for standards and accountability suggest they should, other influences confounding those goals exist. Once source blocking student success is the standards themselves. Vague and/or poorly written for many states, teachers with standards that are not clear are left unsure of what to teach and how best to teach it. Another source of poor student performance is the “baggage” that students bring to school with them. An issue highly stressed in the current reform movement is the “achievement gap” between the high and low socioeconomic groups.

Schools have been called upon to reduce this gap, with the hope that it can be eliminated, but research shows what teachers know: students that come from stable, nurturing and supporting homes are more likely to succeed academically (Pianta, 2002). Instead of pushing policy that would enable lower class families to lead more enriched lives, devoting more time to bestowing the school readiness skills that are associated with future success for students, policy makers choose to make schools the repair shops- charged with fixing the damage done to the family unit by corporate-centered policy.

That the standards themselves need fixing is an ongoing issue. With individual states being responsible for their own, variance in style and quality of those standards is to be expected, and so then is variance in what is taught and how students perform. The Fordham Foundation is one organization involved in the education reform movement, and in 1998 they published a report on the progress states were making in their effort to write science standards. An excerpt from that report reads like a scolding:

            “Among the thirty-six jurisdictions with elementary/secondary science standards fit  for appraisal, he found six that deserve “A” grades and seven that earn “B’s”. Good grades for more than a third of the states! Yet that sounds good mostly because our expectations in such matters have fallen so low. Here’s another way to look at the  results: Dr. Lerner conferred nine failing grades and seven “D’s”: three more than won honors. Seven states earned “C’s.” (New York was among the “C’s”)”

This repost goes through each of the thirty-six states evaluated and thoroughly analyzes the quality and substance of the standards the state has developed for science, as well as the examples of properly achieving them. Without arguing the foundation’s qualifications to do so, one could suggest that the nation’s leaders have given little support for this monumental task, merely directives. If, after all, a standardized result were the expectation, then a more centralized and standard approach would be the best from the beginning. Rather than having fifty different sets of standards and exemplars with the hopes of reaching a similar achievement goal, one set for all to follow would be a more sensible approach.

In addition to standards that provide little help in reaching lofty new goals, administration officials have lumped in a healthy scoop of criticism- as well as a call for “accountability”. Unfortunately, they overlook their own accountability in helping students reach their true potential, and fail to notice that very early in A Nation At Risk, the authors admit as much:

            “That we have compromised this commitment is, upon reflecting, hardly surprising, given the multitude of often conflicting demands we have placed on our nation’s schools and  colleges. They are routinely called on to provide solutions to personal, social, and political problems that the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve. We must understand that these demands on our schools and colleges often exact an educational cost as well as a financial one.” (p.6)

Rather  than overhaul policy that has served the desires of the wealthy few (campaign finance, corporate reform, foreign trade initiatives) at the expense of working families, the finger has been pointed in another direction. More recently, the attack has turned ugly: Following in his father’s school reform footsteps, President George W. Bush has lent his straightforward approach to the reform movement. Consider his words as he addresses the audience at the signing of the Education Bill in Hamilton, Ohio (Jan. 8, 2002):

            “If we’ve learned anything over the last generations, money alone doesn’t make a good  school. It certainly helps. But as John mentioned, we’ve spent billions of dollars with lousy results. So now it’s time to spend billions of dollars and get good results.

The message from The White House seems clear (if not unsettling): a lot of money has been wasted, and now it’s time to all the public school system to the carpet and make it do its job. But what does the president mean by “lousy results” and “billions of dollars”? The “No Child Left Behind Act” fact sheet released by The White House on the day of its signing by the President conveniently arranges the reform position in a problem/solution format. In regards to money spent and the results that have gone unrealized, it says:

 -Since the original Elementary and Early Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was                    signed into law in 1965, the federal government has spent more than $130 billion               to improve public schools.

 -Unfortunately, this investment in education has not reduced the achievement                     gap between the well-off and lower-income students or between minority and                     non-minority students (p.2).

The evidence is neatly laid out, but goes unexamined. Although $130 billion sounds like a lot of money, if you do the math and divide it across the years it was spent, it comes to a mere pittance when matched against other national budgeting priorities. Thirty-seven years passed while that $130 billion was spent, which raised two interesting questions: 1) If The White House wants to insist that this amount of money spent on the public school system should have been sufficient to close the achievement gap between the well-off and lower-income students, then why have they failed to consider some other source for failure in closing this gap other than schools- mainly, some function of the inequitable class system which creates “well-off” and “lower-income” students? And 2) With military spending far outpacing any developed country in the world many times greater than the money allocated to public schools (not to mention the hundreds of billions being allocated into new “homeland security” measures) how can the White House justify this indignant attitude of having spent “billions of dollars with lousy results”? If the future of our country was to truly be invested in and protected, it would be reflected in a national budget that better funded schools, and made it possible for struggling families to spend more time at home building the skills and experiences that foster school success.

The Issue Of Accountability

“You know, a huge percentage of children in poverty can’t read at grade level. That’s not right in America.” (George W. Bush)

According to New York University’s Edward Wolff, and expert on the wealth gap, a wealth tax starting at one-twentieth of one percent on net worths of $1 million, and rising to one percent on the super rich, would yield about $50 billion per year. Imagine earmarking this for, say, the education of poor kids.

As a teacher, I can accept that I am responsible for helping my students achieve the educational standards set for my students. It is, after all, my job. I resent, though, the treatment of my profession as if it were some magical machine that can turn the star-bellied sneeches and the ones with no stars upon thars (apologies to Dr. Seuss) into standardized products with equal potential and opportunity. Children come to my classroom from vastly different homes and those differences manifest themselves in all sorts of measures of behavior and achievement. It is a difficult thing to do, and has historically come with its own drawbacks, but I think the best way is to treat children as individuals- helping children meet their own goals to the best of their abilities. True, a sound set of standards that reinforce necessary basic skills is needed. But we have to avoid turning students into numbers within a statistical framework, and expect them to become “standardized”. Human beings, with their wide variety in desires, abilities and learning styles- not to mention home environments, just don’t work that way. Children are coming to school every morning from all sorts of family situations and it is reflected in what they are ready to do. At the end of the day, they go back to that home again. The connections are logical, even without hard evidence. More stable homes generally display stability across economic resources and family configuration. Families with two parents making a decent living wage have more time to be involved and supportive, have some history with and/or appreciation for education, and pass these values on to their children. They often are less stressed by the demands felt by lower income families who may not have the time to spend fostering the “readiness” skills (mostly communication, listening, and language skills). which are valuable to students (and the teachers who have them in their classes). Despite this, teachers must accept the responsibility for helping all children meet tough academic goals, with the expectations and demands continually rising.

Conclusion

While teachers, on the one hand, must accept accountability for their results, there is only avoidance of accountability from those imposing standards upon schools and students. District report cards outlining in detail how schools perform on high-stakes standardized tests appear in huge spreads in local newspapers. How our elected officials are voting on specific legislation and specifically whose agenda is being forwarded on Capitol Hill is information that requires extensive searching and investigation to uncover. Having clearly acknowledged the achievement gap between classes, our elected officials have chosen to avoid the issue of inequity in wealth and resources (including a parents’ ability to spend quality time with their children) between the classes. Instead, “leaders” have chosen to subject the public schools to accountability for making up for this inequity. But if a standardized product is expected, then the materials that go into making that product must be standardized, as well.

The demand for standardization needs to be turned around and slid back across the table to the policy makers of America. If they will spend the time and resources to close the gap between the classes, they may see the achievement gap start to close, as well.

References

Harvard Educational Letter: Research Online (Sept/Oct, 1998). From Sputnik to TIMSS: Reforms in Science Education Make Headway Despite Setbacks. More time is needed for widespread classroom changes, By Naomi Freundlich. (http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/1998-so/sputnik.shtml)

Lawrence S. Lerner (March, 1998) An appraisal of science standards in 36 states. Fordham Report; Vol 2, 4

National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A nation at risk: The imperatives for educational reform. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education

Pianta, Robert (2002). School readiness: A focus on children, families, communities and schools. Educational Research Service, Arlington, VA.

Schmeck, Harlold M. (October, 1957). Nation is warned to stress science. Times looks back: Sputnik. The New York Times learning network. (http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/specials/sputnik/sput-15.html)

The White House (January 8, 2002). Remarks by the president at education bill signing. Office of the Press Secretary (Boston, Massachusetts). Hamilton High School Hamilton, OH.

The White House (April 4, 2002). Fact sheet: No child left behind. (On-line). (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020108.html)

“Soft Skills” Part I : Teachers Go Far Above and Beyond Gates

To reformers, the well-being of children is just not the point.

But it never really was. Early on, the financial crisis was used as an opportunity for a political maneuver, an education-reform launch; an opportunity to pull a bait-and-switch, except this one was a Gates and switch. In 2009Bill Gates, billionaire and default oracle on anything he throws his money at, spoke to the National Conference of State Legislatures and first described the crisis and sets up the problem:

“These are not ordinary times. We’re in a severe economic downturn—and you, as state legislators, may have a more complete picture of the impact of this recession than anyone else in the country. You are forced to balance your budgets, even as the recession increases your expenditures and cuts your revenues.”

On some level, he clearly got what was going on financially-for policymakers anyway. But he avoided the institutionalized avarice of the financial sector and the policies serving to protect it, regardless of the damage to working-class families being done, and instead he skips to describing that damage:

“Your constituents are losing their jobs, their savings, and their homes—and everywhere you go, people are asking you to make it better. This is a painful time.”

Now about here is where a person with a soul and a backbone would say something like:

“This nation is infected with some very powerful, influential and wealthy maggots eager to feed on what little is left of the very people, your constituents, who made this nation great. This has to stop and the way we stop it is with some social, economic and political reforms that will truly make America great again. Whoa- can someone write that down? I may want to put that on a bright red hat or something!”

But Gates didn’t say any of that. Well, maybe he had something to do with the hat, but he definitely didn’t point the finger or give the finger in the direction it was needed. Instead, this is where the switch followed the bait. Like the manufactured “crisis” in education that the Chicken Littles of the post Sputnik year lamented, and the diversion that the alarmist Reagan-era Nation at Risk was going for, Gates decided to make public education the enemy:

“We’ve been in an economic crisis for a year or so. But we’ve been in an education crisis for decades. As a country, our performance at every level—primary and secondary school achievement, high school graduation, college entry, college completion—is dropping against the rest of the world.”

In less than five years after saying this he would be predicting that many jobs would be lost to technology and automation. Today you can see that happening as cashiers disappear only to be replaced by computers that help you do your checking and bagging yourself; touchscreens take your order and your credit card payment at fast food restaurants, so no teenagers saving up for their first cars needed; ATM’s to take and deliver your money from and to your bank-so no teller needed! Rest afraid that it will continue to happen,  and that as time goes by this dehumanization of the labor force and increasing intrusion of technology into our daily existence will have impacts on our students.

But Gates avoided, in his mission to educate the nation, the consistently high correlation between economic stability within communities and families (likely to be eroded with an eroding jobs market) associated with student level of  academic achievement and life outcomes. At the same time, he jumped fully on board with pushing more “products” into schools and a data-driven high expectations, test-and-punish, “common core” mentality that insists all students should perform the way the top 1/3 or so have historically performed. Why would Gates choose to implicate and scapegoat public education, or suggest that more private market philosophy imposed on the public commons was the way to go?

While I can read minds (I do it in classrooms every day- every good teacher does), you don’t really need to in this case. Gates is an open book. Let’s boomerang back to that NCSL speech he gave about how to do a proper rich white-guy gentrification of public education, eviscerate the teaching profession and bend and shape poor children of color to his specifications:

When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better. Imagine having the people who create electrifying video games applying their intelligence to online tools that pull kids in and make algebra fun.

Ohhhhh…so there’s a market! There’s products to be developed and sold and money to be made for some people to come up with things to make other people’s kids do. If you didn’t get the tingles of excitement just reading that, imagine how it has felt being a victim of what that money has bought for the years between then and now. Or a parent watching what was being done to your child and his/her school in the name of “reform”

“But misuse of assessments by politicians isn’t about my kids, really. It’s about the ever-increasing number of those left behind in the economic competition model of public education. More and more kids are coming to school tired, hungry, emotionally and economically insecure, with school and academics low on their list of priorities. Children can’t eat tests and tests can’t hug children.” (Me, April 2015)

Or better yet, imagine if you were a corporation just waiting to crank out some of those “products that can help every kid learn”.

All the PR and promotion you can stand, with little reflection

Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-Gates. I am just anti wealth-backed elitist narrow-minded BS “philanthropy”. Oh-and the ability of a lot of money to pay politicians to force poor people into indentured servitude and  intelligent people to chase that gravy train and continually defend negative PR campaigns and undeservedly hyped reputations and resumes. I almost forgot that last part. Thank God for notes-huh?

“She gleefully assumes the mantle of arch-reformer from a long line of disruptors like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, John King, Wendy Kopp, John Deasy, the first generation of charter school founders…” 

That quote was from an article written by Peter Cunningham. In it he describes how Eva Moskowitz descended from the clouds carried on the backs of a dozen winged (say that “wing-ed” like its two syllables) cherubs playing golden harps. Spoiler alert: a heavenly golden aura magically frames her benevolent and at the same time grimly determined and unafraid visage, she sheds a tear of mercy, and then makes a self-sacrificial vow to open the doors of a new school of miracles to all who would come.

Okay, so I’m kidding.

It is a good read, though, primarily as a specimen of the craft of shameless promotion, and for the inclusion of the names in that “long line of destructors”. They are tremendous. Everybody knows it. They do school better than anyone, believe me. Believe me. I’m being wise, so let me dial it back and say A) disruptors not “destructors” (Freudian slip) and B) Peter is one of the more reasonable people in the “reform camp” I’ve communicated with. I just don’t care for the deflections of Moskowitz herself or the lack of honesty in the promotion of her school or others that operate like it.

You see, data, tests, formulas and educator evaluations based on all that are sucking the life, purpose and honesty out education and the debates regarding reform and what “choice” should really mean. Schools that engineer a student body through filtering enrollment and unreasonably strict disciplinary practices in order to manufacture stats should be a “choice” available, but can’t be represented with chin-held-high as “better than” truly public, open-doors schools because of their manufactured better stats. If you really want to, and you manage to get your child into a school like that, then kudos to you. But this is the type of education system, one that ignores what the neediest really need and who can best to define and provide it, that is supported by those disconnected and elite destructors…I mean distractors…no-wait disruptors.

Be patient, I’ll get it eventually

But I don’t want to stretch this out too long. I am going to save some for my next installment where I get to the “soft skills” that employers demand, teachers provide, and reformers so desperately want you to ignore.