Familiarity breeds contempt, or so the old aphorism goes. Virtually all Americans have had the benefit of a K-12 education at public expense, but unlike exposure to other experiences, an extraordinary number feel having had that experience makes them education experts. They’ve been exposed to teaching, and some of their teachers made it look pretty easy, so how hard could it be? They firmly believe everyone is entitled to their opinion.
Such a person is one Jim Schutze, writing for The Dallas Observer, an indignant, angry essay to set things right:
When do we start calling the anti-accountability lobby in public education by its true name — the mediocrity lobby? When do we begin to talk about the fact that poor and minority children are not held down half so much by mean rich people as by glad-handing mediocrats who earn their livings off the bones of failed childhoods?
What? You don’t give a damn? It’s not your kids who fail in life? Oh, believe me, even if they’re not your kids now, you will own every one of them by the time they grow up. You’re the one who will put a roof over all their heads and three squares on the table. That all goes on your credit card.
In the last 30 years, the amount nationally that state and local governments spend keeping people locked up for crime has increased at three times the rate of increase for spending on elementary and secondary education. Two-thirds of prison inmates in this country lack high school diplomas.
All black men between the ages of 20 and 24 have a greater chance of being locked up than of having a job.
If, gentle readers, you’re thinking Mr. Schutze sounds like a standard issue, OD green, one-each leftist, you’re on the right track, for he pretty much identifies himself as such. From his opening, one can conclude he’s writing about education, but he takes a scattershot approach, raising a variety of social issues.
We begin by learning those opposed to “accountability”—mandatory, enormously expensive high-stakes testing—are actually advocating for mediocrity and in so doing, horribly abusing children and destroying their lives. This is interesting in that leftists are normally not for accountability, which is mostly a conservative/statist article of faith. Oh yes, conservatives can be statists too, and when they step outside traditional conservative principles, that’s what they often become. That’s when they get into arguments like this: “I’m against big government, except in this case, because this is really important…”
They’re also responsible for putting people in prison, apparently young black men, mostly, and denying them high school diplomas. Mr. Schutze presents this as an unquestionable evil, but neglects to mention whether those people deserve to be in prison, or what part their individual choices, such as failing to attend school, failing to pay attention, being disruptive, using drugs, and violating the law had to play in their current place of residence.
Money is neutral. It depends on how you spend it. And as soon as you get into that question, then of course you are talking about achievement and accountability. Why spend a nickel unless you can demonstrate that your nickel can make things better?
As Mr. Schutze suggests, it’s important money be spent wisely in education, which is where we get to the point of Mr. Schutze’s essay:
The Texas Education Agency is rolling out a trial version of a new letter-grade system for schools based on a whole matrix of measurements. But it’s also based on copious research showing that there are specific things public schools can do, no matter how rich or poor their students, to improve performance.
One of the key elements in the experimental letter-grade system is a measurement of just that — improvement. The letter-grade system looks not just at what the kids know on the day they take a state test but also at how much they have improved their academic performance over a given period.
The Texas Education Agency—TEA–for those not familiar with it, is an enormous, powerful, lavishly funded and aggressive bureaucracy the envy of educrats everywhere. The letter-grade system just foisted on Texas schools is creating much concern, but not due to the straw men Schutze constructs and pummels. He attacks, among others, George W. Bush—that’s obligatory; he is solely responsible for all the evil in the world—yet he also seems to take a rather conservative approach to at least some of his argument:
To my own everlasting dismay, it has always been all the people I know, my own friends, the people I tend to identify with politically on the left, who always have a story about how it’s mean and unfair and even brutal to hold poor kids to the same standard as rich kids.
But, there’s only one standard. You read, or you don’t read. You do math, or you can’t do math. You understand the world around you through your knowledge of history and politics, or you don’t understand it. That doesn’t change based on whether you’re rich or poor.
And then pause for just one moment, please, and ponder what I said a second ago about young black men, incarceration and employment. We should not take young black men simply as a marker for all poor young people. It’s worse for them, yes, but life is not good for any poor uneducated kid. This world is extremely unforgiving in its treatment of young people who can’t read, can’t do math and are ignorant.
Also true, but then:
What explains the consistently conservative and often Republican pressure, then, to improve the academic performance of poor children? The answer from many of the people I know is that all efforts to achieve accountability and productivity in public schools are parts of a Trojan horse agenda to destroy public education.
“Destroy public education?” How, pray tell?
In suburban DeSoto, an experimental beta-release version of the state’s new letter-grade rating system for schools gave the district ‘F’ or failing grades in student performance and preparation of students for life. Dr. David Harris, DeSoto’s superintendent, fired off an angry letter to DeSoto parents in which he said, among other things,’ ‘… this continued attack on public schools, your DeSoto public schools, is an attack on the foundation of our country. The government ‘ranking’ and comparing schools, feeds the agenda of those claiming our schools are failing and vouchers are the answer. Meanwhile, public schools tend to be underfunded and over mandated by the state and federal governments.’
I can think of a different answer. It seems to me Dr. Harris could have said this, instead:
Even this tentative and experimental version of the new letter-grade ranking system is a devastating body-blow for DeSoto schools. It tells us that we are doing a terrible job preparing your children for the world.
Ah! Perhaps, if the TEA’s latest school rating scheme is reasonable and actually provides reliable information about what it purports to measure at realistic cost.
I don’t mean to pick on DeSoto alone. Public school administrators all over Texas have been howling ever since the tentative letter-grades went out last week. Richardson ISD Superintendent Jeannie Stone also sent a statement to parents, in which she said, ‘Assigning a letter grade, based substantially on the outcome of a standardized test taken on one day of the year, simply can’t capture the year-long efforts of students, teachers, principals and everyone who supports teaching and learning.
Well, yes. Mr. Schutze disagrees:
By the way, that’s a completely dishonest version of how the letter-grade system will work. Far from based on a single test alone, the grades will reflect a complicated matrix of factors. The precise formula is a work in progress, and part of the purpose in releasing the beta version last week was to solicit suggestions for improvement.
No, it’s not dishonest. STAAR test results are a substantial portion of any state evaluation of schools. How could it be otherwise? The state spends not millions, not tens of millions, but hundreds of millions on these tests, real money, even in a state the size of Texas. Much of what is done in education in Texas is driven by the testing regime. More dishonest is Schutze’s suggestion that school superintendents, in objecting to this latest TEA rejiggering of education are being dishonest and merely trying to defend their high salaries. Worse is this little bit of nastiness and misdirection:
and if a report comes out showing that you are preparing a substantial number of your students for prison, then I think it behooves you to show a bit of modesty and gravitas.
If a person is pulling down a salary comfortably in the six-figure range, and if that person can’t be bothered to meet tougher standards, then he or she is what I call a mediocrat, defensively fending off all criticism while failing to accomplish a sacrosanct goal.
Schutze calls for school “reform,” which is a lazy way to suggest all schools are incompetent, whatever he’s advocating is not only correct, but mandatory and will fix all ills. Schutze, of course, is not the only person arguing for “reform,” but he’s one of many who believe he has the answers without doing his homework.
I’ve dealt with the problems with high-stakes testing in substantial detail in the past. My Tyranny of Testing series is available here:
But for the purposes of this article, I’ll keep it short and simple. Once a state decides to impose testing, everything changes, and not for the better. In order to force students, parents and schools to take the tests seriously, they must be tied to graduation, and schools too must be graded. Tens, even hundreds of millions are required to buy and administer not only the tests, but the bureaucracy necessary to handle all of the related rules, regulations and paperwork revolving around them.
The careers of teachers, principals and administrators immediately become governed by student test scores, and school building scores, and those building scores are taken, in large part, from student test scores. Immediately 1/3 to ½ of every school year—in some places, even more—is dedicated to test drills to ensure the highest possible test scores. That’s 1/3 to ½ of the curriculum in the core classes—those are the subjects tested—is lost, gone forever. One year students get the benefit of a complete curriculum. The next, they get mostly what is going to be tested. Part of this loss of curriculum—and the invaluable and irreplaceable neural development lost with it—is due to “benchmark” testing. Schools inevitably devolve to giving tests before the test in the hope, often vain, they won’t be surprised by low scores.
And now we get to Mr. Schutze’s complaint. The mandatory tests are constantly being revised, despite the fact their producers and the state educrats claim whatever current iteration is in use is absolutely state of the art, absolutely perfect. Such revisions are, of course, very expensive, and often full of mistakes, however, they’re vital because they must be calibrated, which is not something publicized. If a new series of tests is given and too many of a state’s youngsters are failing, there are only two possibilities: there’s something wrong with the test, or all of the teachers and students in the state suddenly got stupid. Educrats and “reformers” tend to blame teachers, and secondarily students, but they revise the tests as necessary so that only an acceptable number fail. As in Lake Woebegone, everyone must be above average.
The same thing happens with school accountability ratings. Whatever the criteria are for school ratings determines what the schools do to maintain those ratings. Education is almost entirely fad driven. A new fad that is supposed to transform education sweeps a state, or the nation, as with the current accountability movement, and as its enormous shortcomings become obvious, is eventually, quietly abandoned as a new fad replaces it. But in the meantime, great damage is done to students, teachers and public confidence in education.
The new Texas school accountability system with letter grades assigned is a case in point. Schools that were at the top of the charts in excellence are suddenly finding themselves wanting, not because they’re poor schools or because they’ve begun to fail, but because the goalposts have suddenly, and quite arbitrarily, been moved. The TEA came up with the newest fad, and every school in the state is going to have to adapt, fast. This is why superintendents are complaining. It’s impossible to plan ahead, to deliver the best educational opportunity possible, when one never knows how they’ll be evaluated from year to year, and when much of their time is devoted to deal with that evaluation rather than teaching and learning.
The simple truth is human beings learn in exactly the same ways they did in the time of Aristotle. There is no magic, no brilliant new test, new evaluation system, new lesson planning method that is going to make the slightest difference. What works is good teachers, given the resources and support they need, coupled with students that understand they have the responsibility for their educations, and parents willing to keep them focused when their attention or dedication flag. The finest teachers in the world can accomplish one thing only: provided the best learning opportunity their abilities and resources allow. They cannot force anyone to learn. They cannot force anyone to care, to do their homework, to think, to believe education is important. To be sure, teachers can encourage students in all of these areas, but at some point, students must do the guided practice that builds bigger, better brains.
When students refuse to attend school, when they refuse to do their work, when they disrupt the learning of others–or placidly do nothing–no brilliant test, evaluation program or magic new fad will accomplish anything. The same is true when parents are uninformed or uninvolved, when they do not demand their children do what is good for them.
But how can parents and anyone else know how the schools are doing? They can get out of their chairs and visit their schools. They can speak with their children’s teachers. They can review their child’s schoolwork and growth. They can be involved in their communities. Educrats in a state capital don’t care about individual children. Some will, of course, claim to be deeply concerned about the welfare of every child, which is why they do what they do, but this is nonsense. They care–they can only care–about policy, not people. Government has no conscience. It cannot care for any individual, and tends to see individuals, particularly those that disagree with it, as subversive and dangerous.
The responsibility for running schools belongs in local communities, where school board elections can be won by a single vote, where parents can chat with school board members, teachers and principals in the driveway or over the backyard fence, where people are far more likely to know the students–and parents–involved in education debates, and actually care about them rather than the collection of data.
Money must be taken from enormously expensive state mandates and put where it will be put to proper use: in the schools. Let school be about teaching and learning rather than a laboratory for profit-making educational theories that ignore human nature, which hasn’t changed in thousands of years.
Maybe, just maybe, that’s why superintendents, principals and teachers are upset at yet another expensive fad. It makes their jobs much harder, and provides no benefit for the public.