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credit: offbeatoregon.com

As I’ve often written, contemporary K12 education is all about adopting trendy fads, brilliant new ideas that, while utterly ignoring human nature, will transcend it, elevating humanity to a new, exalted state of being.  Once any such fad is adopted on the local, state or federal level, it becomes nearly eternal.  Fad boosters can never forthrightly abandon one lest they look like the credulous fools they are.  The fads continue, wasting billions, building ever bigger and more powerful educational bureaucracies, and all but destroying the educational opportunities of the very children they are supposed to so brilliantly transform.

Often, after a decade or so, a given fad is allowed to quietly die.  Everyone pretends it never really existed and the billions wasted weren’t really spent and certainly not wasted.  As socialists would say, it’s not spending; it’s an investment!  Both always drain taxpayer’s bank accounts.  Rather than admitting their mistakes, educrats merely adopt a new, even more brilliant, transformational fad.  They never learn from their mistakes because they can never admit making them, being, by nature of their educational credentials, limitless self-esteem, and high paying jobs, incapable of error.

There is, however, something rarer than unobtanium: an educrat who actually learned something, and admitted their mistakes, as The Washington Post—a former newspaper—reports:

Diane Ravitch
credit: dianeravitch.com

Diane Ravitch has been the titular leader of the grass-roots movement against corporate school reform since 2010, when her book ‘The Death and Life of the Great American School System’ was published and quickly became a bestseller. (In fact, readers of the the pro-reform journal Education Next named it the most important book of the first decade of the 2000s.) In the book, she explained why she dropped her support for No Child Left Behind, the chief education initiative of former president George W. Bush and standardized test-based school reform. Now she has updated the book and explained why she has again changed her view on at least one important issue. This post is a Q&A I had with Ravitch about her book and the state of the public education.

The reason Ravitch’s change of position mattered was because of her position in the education world. A well-respected education historian and author, she worked from 1991 to 1993 as assistant secretary in charge of research and improvement in the Education Department of President George H.W. Bush and served as counsel to then-Education Secretary Lamar Alexander (who is now the chairman of the Senate education committee). She was a supporter of No Child Left Behind, the chief education initiative of President George W. Bush, and was at the White House as part of a select group when Bush first outlined No Child Left Behind, a moment that at the time made her “excited and optimistic” about the future of public education.

But her opinion changed as NCLB was implemented, and she heard from teachers about the negative effects it was having on teaching and learning. She began to research the law’s effects and concluded that it had led to a serious narrowing of curriculum that reduced or eliminated science, the arts and other subjects; an obsession with test prep and testing; and plunging morale among teachers. In 2013, she formed an advocacy group called the Network for Public Education as a counter to Michelle Rhee’s then-influential StudentsFirst and like-minded organizations that were pushing the privatization of public education and test-based ‘accountability.

What’s fascinating about this is any competent teacher could have told her about those “negative effects” before billions were wasted by the self-imagined educational elite.  But at least she was open to admitting mistakes, something rarely seen among educrats.

Your book was a blockbuster when it came out. What effect do you think it had on the school reform debate then, and why did you decide to update it now?

When the book first appeared, it created a sensation because I had been an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration and was supportive of such Republican policies as testing, choice, competition, and accountability. I was also a member of conservative think tanks, and I had long been known as a supporter of No Child Left Behind and charter schools. The book was immediately hailed and reviled because I renounced my support for high-stakes testing and charter schools. People in public life these days are not known for saying ‘I was wrong.’ I did.

As time passed, I realized that there was one key point in the book that I found embarrassing. In the final chapter, I reiterated my long-standing support for national standards and a national curriculum. Occasionally, I got letters from readers asking how I could justify that position. I couldn’t.

The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that national standards and a national curriculum was another truly bad idea.

Lest anyone think NCLB a purely Republican initiative, remember that Ted Kennedy, the drunken, women-molesting, murderous “Lion of the Senate,” was instrumental in its establishment.  He was, and Democrats in general are, skilled at bamboozling Republicans.  Why anyone would believe, even for a time, federal control of education a good idea, demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of, or willful blindness about, the nature of government.

I quite bluntly admit in the book that the pursuit of national standards, national curriculum and national tests is a dead-end. There seems to be an assumption that if every child is exposed to exactly the same material at the same time, achievement gaps between children from rich homes and poor homes will close. If the curriculum is over the heads of the students, and if the tests are made harder, achievement will rise. I now think all of this is nonsense.

Even in states that have the same standards and tests, there are achievement gaps, reflecting wealth and poverty. Politicians continue to claim that making tests harder will make students smarter. But tests are not an instructional method; they are a measure. The athlete who can’t jump over a 5′ bar won’t jump higher if you raise it to 6′.

What we now know, because of the failure of the Common Core, is that increasing the difficulty of the material to be learned and the rigor of the tests widen the achievement gaps. Children who are already struggling to keep up will fall farther behind.

Ravitch is correct—partially.  Economics absolutely play a part, but they are a symptom, not the cause.  Children growing up in poor families are commonly poor because of the poor choices of their parents.  In many cases, the male sperm donor involved is uninvolved in actual child rearing.  There are no books in the home—such as it is—and little interest in education.  Children without beds, with few changes of clothing, who often go hungry, aren’t in ideal circumstances for learning.  Nurture matters.

Another major factor is some people are simply smarter than others, a fact well known to competent teachers, but ignored by oblivious educrats. On a state level, mandatory, high stakes tests are clamed to be rigorous.  Every child is supposed to be able to pass them, so brilliant are the fads/processes of the educrats.  In reality, they are relentlessly dumbed down so a sufficiently large portion of the student population can pass them.    If too many fail, it’s embarrassing to infallible educrats, and it threatens corporate profit margins.  Lake Woebegon is fictional.  Not every child can be above average.  Not every child can pass a given test, yet states demand every child do just that in the name of “accountability.”

When we speak of standards-based education, you raise the question of whether there is value in making sure that every student learns the same material at the same pace. I no longer see any value in that approach. What makes most sense to me is a child-centered education, where knowledgeable and experienced teachers set the pace based on their understanding of the children they teach. Children have different needs. They are not little cookie-cutter people. Some learn quickly and are ready to learn more, and they should be encouraged to do so. Others have trouble reading, and they should get the help they need when they need it.

Teachers know this.  Educrats must ignore it in support of their current fad.  What about state standards?

The most appropriate ‘standards’ are actually guidelines, determined to avoid unnecessary duplication of courses. State standards can reasonably require, for example, that state history should be taught in fourth grade or that U.S. history will be taught in certain grades and world history in others. But state standards should not go into close detail about what to teach or how to teach it. There should be standards for new teachers, for example, they should have a degree in the subject they plan to teach, and they should have a master’s degree that demonstrates their knowledge of pedagogy, child psychology, and other aspects of education/or a master’s degree in their subject. They should have certification to teach. They should pass a state test of their literacy and numeracy. Once they are admitted into the profession, they should have the autonomy to design their courses, if they wish, or to introduce different methods. Autonomy, within professional limits, is part of the definition of a professional.

Yes.  Ravitch also speaks of a slightly different form of educrat, the “anti-corporate reformer.”  These are essentially educrats who pretend that the very corporations that form their powerbase and make billions on the fads they embrace are bad. Education corporations know these educrats are winking at them, and merely adopt a slightly lower public profile as their profits continually increase at the expense of children.  I don’t blame businesses for making an honest profit.  The fault lies with those charged with educating children.  Ravitch again:

Some of the high-profile names in the so-called reform movement have left the stage. Tony Bennett of Indiana, once called ‘the reformiest of the reformers,’ is gone, after the embarrassment of a grade-fixing scandal to benefit a charter owner who contributed to his campaign. Michelle Rhee, once the face of the movement, is in seclusion. Joel Klein, the scourge of teachers, is now in the online health-care business. The much-vaunted Tennessee Achievement School District (which promised to raise the lowest 5 percent of schools in the state to the top 25 percent) failed. The ‘Waiting for Superman’ propaganda campaign has fizzled. [skip]

Our biggest failure to date is that we have not been able to break through to government officials. Neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton showed that they understood the widespread parent opposition to high-stakes testing or the dangers of privatization.

Yes.  Raise the lowest 5%?  Those kids are there for a reason: either they aren’t intellectually capable of doing well in school, they don’t care to do so, or some combination of both.  That’s a prime example of ignoring human nature.  Keep in mind this article was originally posted in 2016:

If you could sit down and speak with President Obama, what would you want to tell him about education policy?

President Obama, I wish I could have talked to you back in 2008 or 2009. I will never understand why you decided to align your education policy with that of George W. Bush. I still remember the times you said the right things about teachers (respect them) and testing (there are too many and they take too much time away from learning), but your policies emphasized the very things that you denounced rhetorically. I wish you had started early on with a program that rewarded states that developed actionable plans for desegregating districts. If you had, we would be a very different nation today. I wish you had never put forth Race to the Top. I wish you understood the damage that standardized testing does to children, especially children of color. Standardized tests are normed on a bell curve. Bell curves never close. There is always a top half and a bottom half, and the most advantaged kids always cluster at the top. What if we awarded drivers’ licenses on a bell curve? Half the people in this country would never qualify to drive.

Imagine that:  Barack Obama’s “soaring rhetoric” not matching his actions.  Who coulda thunk it?

In the article, Ravitch was not kind to Donald Trump, who had not yet been elected POTUS, yet his economic efforts have dramatically changed the fortunes of the disadvantaged, and his general policy of eliminating unnecessary regulations and always unnecessary governmental overreach, has benefitted actual educators, though much remains to be undone.

There is so much wrong with public education, yet the solutions are simple, and can begin with eliminating all federal control of education, and relegating state education bureaucracies to one primary function: maintaining teacher certification records.  On the school district level, return to actually operating schools rather than engaging in social experimentation and running corporate profit mills and data production factories.

Accountability is to be found in outcomes, measured, child by child, as they spend 12 years in school.  As long as they have the proper, professional opportunity to educate themselves, the rest is up to them, and their parents.  Kids aren’t hard drives.  Teachers can’t download information for later retrieval.  Some will take advantage of that opportunity, some will not.  It has always been thus, and the transformational fads of educrats don’t help; they hurt.

Prior to mandatory, high stakes testing, prior to every brilliant, transformational education fad, prior to the advent of “technology,” which will supposedly transform education and mankind, American schools educated the most prosperous, technologically advanced society in history.  It’s time to return to the methods, and values, that accomplished that feat.  As Ravitch notes, that’s a job for parents across America.