The primary reason for the existence of schools is old-fashioned, direct and simple: providing the best educational opportunity possible.
Certainly, schools also have a mission to socialize children, to teach them to appreciate their nation and to learn the rules, written and unwritten, of participation in a representative republic. If schools fail in their secondary duty to teach kids to understand the value of the Constitution, of liberty, and to understand that Thomas Jefferson was absolutely right when he observed the tree of liberty must be regularly refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants, America, and the opportunity to educate oneself in a free, professional environment, can be lost in a single generation.
With this in mind, I’ve updated a series I first wrote in 2012 on education problems and solutions. The first five articles are:
In Article 4 of this series I spoke about shifting responsibilities where they not only don’t belong, but where they do great harm (all of the 2017 articles in this series are in the SMM Education archive). I also spoke of the damage that occurs when the primary mission of any school—providing the best possible educational opportunity for students—is forgotten or diluted. Perhaps the greatest harm occurs when schools are forced to shift their focus toward competing with each other, or when education becomes about bureaucratic empire building and the production and collection of data rather than holding school. These days, education is focused on grading buildings, bulletin boards, adherence to the latest fad, any other than teaching and grading students.
This is an inevitable consequence of the “accountability” movement.
The reasoning—such as it is—behind such things is schools should be graded so parents, educrats and politicians can compare them. This will theoretically force schools to improve. This is accomplished in a variety of ways, usually by means of state laws, commonly with substantial overbearing federal “encouragement.” The Common Core–which under the Trump Administration is fading in influence–was very much part and parcel of this kind of non-thinking. Establishing “standards” to which every school in the nation must adhere makes it much easier to grade buildings, but does nothing for kids.
Local Schools must daily document an ever-increasing and bewildering variety of minutia, federal and state, including attendance rates, the proportion of kids taking advantage of reduced cost and free lunches, data on race, gender, national origin, test scores, graduation rates, and a blinding array of other data. Virtually all of this is gathered, analyzed and reported by race.
Historically, Blacks and Hispanics have lagged behind their Caucasian peers in common academic measures. Asians, however, have tended to do better than the average student of the Caucasian persuasion, which tends to cause the politically correct considerable cognitive dissonance because it directly suggests culture does play a role in such things, a factor the Left takes great, and frequently angry, pains to deny where Blacks, and to a lesser degree, Hispanics, are concerned. As a result, Asians are often not separately tracked but are merely turned—for statistical purposes—into Caucasians.
Wouldn’t lumping high-performing Asians in with White kids tend to artificially–and wrongly–make white achievement statistics increase, making the performance gap between them and, say, blacks, widen? Why yes it would! But aren’t our federal, and to a lesser degree, state educational elite masters determined to narrow that gap? Why would they do anything to make it look wider when it’s actually not?
In determining a school’s “grade,” mandatory high stakes test scores also play a prominent role. There are a variety of types of terminology employed, but many states use a four-tiered terminology, such as: “Academically Unacceptable,” “Academically Acceptable,” “Accomplished,” and “Outstanding.” The difference between tiers in a given school can be as tiny as a single minority student failing a mandatory high stakes test, or a single student dropping out of high school. Unlike rational education theory which dismisses the inevitability of the Bell Curve (the idea that academic performance/grades for a given group plotted on a chart will always resemble a bell because a few will fail, most will be average and only a few will be exceptional), such systems routinely embrace it, more or less arbitrarily deciding that only a tiny percent of all schools will ever be “outstanding,” and writing their regulations and data management policies to fulfill that prophesy.
The primary “benefit” and product of such mandates is the production of data, massive amounts of data, reams and reams of data. And who is the primary beneficiary of this data? Educrats and their bureaucracies, which constantly expand so as to crunch the ever-larger amounts of data their ever-increasing mandates require. This tends to greatly the numbers–and salaries–of non-instructional staff. The primary consumer of their data-analysis product is higher ranking educrats and politicians, who use that data to write more laws requiring the collection of even greater amounts of picky data, and who disburse funds based on that data.
Such data is essentially meaningless to all but those with a financial or educratic stake in its production or crunching. If a community is truly so disengaged and clueless they need the state to tell them their schools are terrible and their children aren’t learning, data suggesting the terrible status of their schools is unlikely indeed to prod them to positive action. Individual teachers know far more about the academic abilities and needs of their students within the first few weeks of any school year than any data set based on a single test or similar measures can tell them. Often, they find state data sets at odds with reality, but at best, they tell teachers only when they already know, and know with much greater detail and insight without the data.
Another particularly cynical and destructive trend is fads. Competent teachers have no use for such things. They know people learn in precisely the same ways and for the same reasons as the students of Aristotle. But educrats, looking to make a name for themselves, buy expensive fads with all the trimmings, including highly paid “consultants” and demand the schools under their control implement them without regard for the damage such things will inevitably do. Once implemented, they cannot be undone, because educrats, having spent huge sums of taxpayer dollars can’t admit error. Eventually, one fad will fade quietly away to make way for the newest fad, all of which are usually old, failed concepts given new acronyms, accompanied by shiny new books, CDs, DVDs, and other materials. Thus, in a writing program fad sold across the nation, have “details” in essays become golden bricks.” I’m sure, gentle readers, you can see how that would make all the difference, at least in lining the pockets of the companies selling that transformational idea.
When, in 2013, State of Texas educrats were beaten into backing down from mandating 15 separate tests for merely graduating from high school to a paltry five, it was very conservatively estimated that the state saved $2.5 million dollars for each test not forced on kids. That was $25 millions dollars for that year alone, and the actual cost was surely far, far greater, as estimates at the time for five years of tests and their related goods and services were just under a half billions dollars.
Of what value is it to a parent to learn the school district–or the local high school–in a nearby town scored 5% better—or worse–than their school district or their high school on state assessments? Should they abruptly pack up their family and move to that supposedly better performing district? Should they assume that their children’s teachers who have always appeared to be highly competent, caring role models, are suddenly diminished somehow? Is their ability to judge human nature so faulty and the ability of state and federal educrats to quantify all that matters in life so great?
An additional problem that has become much more common in recent years is entire school districts embracing Leftist, social justice propagandizing and indoctrination above all else. Katherine Kersten reports on the nearly incalculable damage that has done, and continues to do, in Edina, MN. Edina is far from alone.
Here’s a brief rundown of the problems produced when what matters in local schools is no longer Johnny and Suzie’s responsibility for their educations and how they–and their parents–discharge that responsibility, but their school’s desperation to score big points in state rankings:
Administrators: In order to promote “buy-in” to lunatic, wasteful mandates, most states include draconian penalties, including taking over schools, entire districts, and firing everyone and their dog should ratings drop too low for too long. As a result, Administrators come to see their primary responsibility as getting the highest test and other scores possible. For competent districts and honest people, this is commonly manifested in teaching to the test on a grand scale, and to hyper-attention to detail in every aspect of record keeping and data production. Rules and policies are also written with an eye toward proper data production rather than genuine need, their effectiveness, utility or unintended consequences.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how Administrators worried about their jobs and careers at the hands of school boards and the public become a bit paranoid with the addition of state and federal overseers also looking over their shoulders. Instead of assuming their proper role in seeing that their subordinates have the funding, support and facilities they need to accomplish the primary mission of education, they focus instead on appearances, slogans, slavish devotion to every state and federal initiative, and ruthlessly hectoring their subordinates to ensure the timely production of the highest possible test scores and all related data.
On the worst end of the scale, incompetent districts and dishonest people do what one might imagine: they cheat. They cheat with varying degrees of success and élan, but they cheat. A school district where I worked for a short time (realizing I’d surely eventually end up suing my principal, I fled for saner pastures) e-mailed a list of absent students to the faculty every school day. Despite the fact that list commonly represented 10-20% of the student body, when the time came to send attendance data to the state, miraculously, less than 2% of the student body had ever been absent! To my knowledge, this—and other subterfuge—has never been uncovered.
Perhaps the greatest disaster for educational opportunity occurs when administrators mandate constant test preparation. There are many schools across the nation that do little every year but drill children in the narrow, highly specific skills necessary to pass mandatory tests. I see the results of this kind of insanity in sophomores and juniors who honestly don’t know the difference between a noun or a verb, and who are unfamiliar with commonly understood words and concepts such as “self deception.”
Principals: Ideally, a building principal should be focused on seeing his teachers have what they need to fulfill the mission. He or she should be out in the classrooms on a daily basis, fully engaged in talking about and improving instruction and encouraging everyone to new levels of excellence. They should be focused on maintaining strong and reasonable discipline, and on dealing with parents to make it possible for every child to have the opportunity to do well.
Unfortunately, principals find themselves focusing on the grades of their buildings rather than the improvement of each student. Some can even come to see teachers as impediments to the promotion of their building or themselves. Their time is taken up not by dealing with people to the benefit of all, but to mountains of paperwork and minute attention to racially-oriented data that will determine the grade of their building and thus, their future employment and career prospects. And of course, they are frequently out of their buildings at the administrative offices for meetings and training sessions necessary to introduce the latest policy, mandate or “new idea” that will transform education.
Forced to not only accept, but to cheerlead for policies, curricular “innovations,” and programs they know are not only wasteful but ineffective, they become ever more cynical and find themselves caring less about people and more about compliance, because all that truly matters is that the data they collect and send to their administrators and the state will produce the correct grade for their school—and themselves—at the end of the year.
Teachers: Like principals, teachers find themselves more and more frustrated by the reality that they are losing more and more instructional time, and what is replacing real education is nothing more than fads, teaching to useless tests and collecting and producing data about things that mean nothing at all to the process of educating young human beings.
For good teachers, nothing is more frustrating that being prevented from doing the mission, from teaching as well as possible. They fret over the loss of minutes of their time. They worry they’re not doing all they can or should for their students, and try to determine how to do better next week, next semester and next year. Knowing they must waste time on things that will not further the mission, that will deny their students the best possible educational opportunity, wears on them. Sadly, the best teachers tend to push back against such things and do whatever is necessary to fulfill the mission. In doing this, they tend to catch the attention of principals and administrators who will tend to see them as trouble, so too many of the best move on to other endeavors.
The average, people who see teaching more or less as a job, tend to do well under such circumstances. For those not predisposed to see teaching as a calling and sacred public trust, filling out forms and collecting data is, in many ways, easier than actual teaching and preparing for teaching. It’s not difficult for such people to appear to be entirely on board with whatever is currently required, regardless of its relation to the mission. Cheerleading is easier than teaching too, and as long as they’re competent enough to produce at least acceptable test scores, they—and their principals and administrators–are happy as clams.
The great tragedy is that in order to achieve the highest scores–is such things were measured honestly–schools need the best teachers, yet the entire accountability culture serves primarily to limit their effectiveness and drive them out.
Students: The best students will thrive almost anywhere. Their family culture and personal drive is such they’ll do whatever is necessary to make up for the failings of their schools to make up the difference in their educations, for they, and their parents, know they are primarily responsible for educating themselves and do their best to take advantage of the opportunity. It is the rest that suffer most; ironically, they may care little or not at all—if they recognize the problem.
The best teachers bring out the best in students, and the best students bring out the best in the best teachers. When such people work together toward the primary mission, students will build bigger and better brains to the maximum extent possible. Kids are smart. They know when people are just going through the motions. They know when the work they’re doing is busy work as opposed to something meaningful. They know the difference between drilling for a meaningless test and actually learning something worthwhile. They have no more time for idiotic fads than teachers do, and like dogs, they know who really likes them and who merely tolerates them.
Kids are tested unto death. They know how to game the system, so they learn what is required to achieve acceptable test scores—commonly the lowest levels of academic skill and application—and because they have so little time for things like literature, never develop the habit of reading and thinking about what they read—apart that is, from the ability to read a brief literary excerpt and spit back a formulaic answer in truncated form.
Testing vendors/drones claim their tests are so brilliantly conceived that it’s impossible for kids to produce formulaic answers and pass. They must use high-level thinking and reasoning skills! Of course, the moment kids fail to produce the specific types of answers required by the tests–when they don’t use the current non-formula formula–they fail.
Because tracking failure rates is also a large part of virtually all school rating systems, particularly for minority groups, kids quickly learn to take advantage of already lax grading systems established to minimize failure. In many schools, kids can fail for much of the year, simply refuse to do many assignments, yet still pass.
For such students—and their schools—the mission of education is completely lost. It becomes a game, and the acquisition of knowledge, skill, growth and the development of the personal habits necessary for individual survival, success and responsible citizenship are, at best, a secondary concern. Such foolish and destructive policies can be implemented even without an accountability culture to be sure, but they are the unintended consequences of that culture. Some, no doubt, see such consequences as features rather than bugs.
Parents: It is deceptively easy for parents to be lulled into thinking the accountability culture is actually reflective of the quality and depth of educational opportunity their children’s schools provide. Reading the data periodically published or sent out with report cards, seeing “Outstanding” banners plastered on schools, or listening to self-serving pronouncements by administrators and politicians can convince parents their children are in the best of hands. Too often, they aren’t.
Even in the best of schools, an enormous amount of time is lost to the tedious and trivial, time that could and should be spent on the profound and productive. Schools are not just about the up and downloading of information, but the development of productive habits and strong character. We must be very careful indeed about the lessons we teach, intended and unintended.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that the accountability culture does little or nothing to fix the worst schools. Data collection and production and test taking can’t fire corrupt school boards and incompetent administrators, principals and teachers. It can’t transform the destructive, failed political culture of entire communities. It can’t build healthy families, correct faulty state and federal policies, or restore broken homes.
In the final article of this series, I’ll propose some simple solutions to the problems I’ve identified. These solutions won’t cost a penny. In fact, they’ll save enormous amounts of money. Above all, they’ll seem familiar to those of us that, like me, attended high school in the 1400’s. See you next Monday!