Thursday, March 1, 2012

Presidential Lip Service: Ed Reform Then and Now

I was sorting through my plastic storage bins a few weeks ago, looking for stuff to throw away, when I ran across an opinion piece I sent to the Sacramento Bee in the spring of 1991, during the presidency of George H. W. Bush. It’s a relic of my time in grad school at the University of California, Davis.

Reading it now, I can't say the Bee was wrong to reject the piece. I'm just sorry I didn't rework it and keep submitting until it got published somewhere. Instead, it was buried and forgotten.

More than two decades later I vaguely remember composing it on a Kaypro II and printing it out on my rackety Daisywriter. Technology has improved a bit since then, but what about schemes to improve American education? With all the recent hoopla, have they improved?

When I reread the piece, my ideas still sounded better to me than the first President Bush’s did back then. So I decided to correct a few typos and reprint it here.

National Testing: Bush’s Great Lip Backward

The Bush administration has mastered the art of lip service. Simply name a national need and the president has a canned response at the ready--with an empty policy to back it up.

     He’s the Conservation President who opposes tougher pollution controls, the Energy President who knows neither conservation nor alternative sources, the Free Speech President who grumbles angrily when the courts reaffirm symbolic speech.

     Now George Bush is the Education President who proposes to revamp the nation’s schools, rejuvenate the teaching profession, and hike student achievement in one fell swoop--without spending an additional federal dime.

     The rationale for not spending more on education is the tired Republican slogan “You don’t solve problems by throwing money at them.” (Note that some of these same sloganeers favored hurling indigestible sums at the Pentagon during Ronald Reagan’s massive defense buildup.) The slogan, however, does not square with the looming reality that education problems are economic problems, that expenditures on education, wisely applied, are in fact investments in the nation’s economic future. (Defense outlays, by contrast, are largely nonproductive and siphon an unhealthy share of brainpower and capital away from private industry.)

     Such economists as Robert B. Reich and Lester Thurow have recently argued on national television that America must increase its investment in education and training. Otherwise, our economy will fail to thrive in an increasingly competitive world marketplace. What’s more, the increased investment must be measured in “real dollar” terms, representing an increased percentage of GNP. Yet instead of allocating more federal money to education, President Bush insists on funding such costly and questionable programs as the Stealth Bomber and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

     But meager investment isn’t the only weakness among the current proposals. The keystone of the president’s plan is a backward idea indeed--a national testing program. Its purpose, it would appear, is to make students, teachers, and school systems more accountable for achieving educational goals. Trouble is, there’s little evidence that standardized tests are effective as a tool for improving student or teacher performance. Further, of the strategic skills America will need to survive in the new international economy--critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaborative research methods, and so on--none is truly adaptable to standardized testing.

     While greater accountability for teachers, an expanded knowledge base for students, and improved evaluation of school systems are important goals, the Bush testing proposal misses them by a mile. Research and experience have shown that when devised at the highest administrative levels and imposed upon the frontline practitioners (in this case, the principals and teachers), such programs are doomed to mediocrity if not outright failure. They are the educational equivalent of an old style Soviet agricultural plan. Better to hand out small grants to schools so principals and teachers can cultivate homegrown improvement plans.

     If the proposed testing program (because irrelevant to true educational improvement and impractical in its top-down implementation) is a waste of money, how should the money then be spent? I propose a Teachers and Principals Thinktank (TAPT) composed of a hardy band of innovative practitioners--from all grade levels and all parts of the nation, professionals whose talents have yet to be tapped on a national scale. Working without an agenda, TAPT would organize itself and establish its own mission and ground rules. Eventually it would help write legislation to allocate funds for research, advanced teacher training, demonstration projects, and program evaluation in the areas deemed most urgent. TAPT, by its very nature, would be forced to use just those critical, creative, and collaborative skills we must teach our children if they are to survive, let alone thrive, in the new global economy.

     Such a grassroots quest for educational funding priorities would no doubt underscore the connections between schooling and a host of related social problems. A government assessment of how domestic violence, drug abuse, malnutrition, inadequate medical care, and other deprivations impinge on learning is long overdue. But a report alone won’t guarantee the required investment.

     For that, we need a real Education President. Someone who will move us ahead, toward creative solutions, instead of backward, to old-fashioned testing. Someone who’ll pay attention to the schools, instead of paying the same old lip service.

How do you like that? Way back in ‘91, I was already thinking along the lines of two of my current heroes, Diane Ravitch and Stephen Denning. I believed that investment in public education was a national imperative but that high stakes testing was a bad idea, well before Ms. Ravitch said that and more in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. And I was arguing in favor of self-organizing teams and against top-down coercion nearly two decades before Mr. Denning wrote The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management. But then, my ideas never saw the light of day.

After a year-and-a-half residency at UC Davis in pursuit of a creative writing degree, it was back to Illinois, where I taught high school English for another fourteen years. My career as an activist was over before it started. But even if my two cents had gained currency, the nightmare of "No Child Left Behind" wouldn’t have been prevented. I don't think most teachers had any idea what lay in store when the law was passed. We were too busy teaching. Once the misguided accountability trap was sprung, there was no escape.

Some ten years later, coercive, punitive, unsubstantiated “reform” is still the order of the day. In fact, many politicians and moneyed campaigners are clamoring for more.

If I were to rewrite that old opinion piece today, I would try to smooth out the rough edges, but I’d keep the main points. I would change the title, with its flip allusion to The Great Leap Forward (a horrifically misguided reform movement if ever there was one). I’d place a bit less emphasis on educating children to compete in the global economy, and I’d sharpen my criticism of testing.

After all, do standardized test results offer a valid measure of true student achievement? Not likely. Does high stakes testing promote the qualities of curiosity and resilience children need to become lifelong learners? No, it tends to undermine those qualities. Should conventional achievement be the main goal of schooling? I don’t think so, nor should the ability to win at the imagined zero-sum game of global economics.

I agree with Steve Denning that inspiring students to learn should be the main goal—learning for its own sake and for a host of other worthy purposes, none of which include scoring high on a multiple choice test. Global competition might be a given, but global cooperation is now crucial to our survival. And more achievable then ever with the advent of new collaborative tools.

In fact, if I were rewriting the piece, I would remind the reader that today’s technologies—barely dreamed of in the days of the Kaypro II—have the power to amplify the voices of those frontline practitioners I mentioned earlier. They’ve always deserved a say. In 2012 there's no excuse for keeping them out of the policy conversation.

But instead of a national “Teacher and Principal Thinktank,” I’d call for a federally-assisted, decentralized network of teachers and administrators, each of whom could address key issues from a more personal perspective. This would allow homegrown solutions to crop up all over the country. If taken seriously, their work would help chart a new course for the Department of Education, one that would allow more leeway for local innovation.

New models for sharing personal and local insights have already emerged, in social media and elsewhere. With no federal help that I’m aware of, a cluster of teacher-initiated, self-organized educational “unconferences” known as Edcamps has sprung up. If nothing else, the Edcamp movement offers interested teachers a chance to learn new things. Let’s hope the state and federal policymakers are listening in, and let’s hope that they, too, are eager to learn (not just dictate).

Professor Ravitch has been doing her best to get the attention of policymakers and practitioners alike. Her recently revised book, her speeches and interviews, and her blog posts and Twitter activity all deserve a wider audience. In a world where the bogus acumen of semi-retired plutocrats is valorized and a mountain of legitimate research is willfully ignored, her voice is invaluable.

With this in mind, I might change the name of my proposed decentralized thinktank from TAPT to TAPAS (Teachers and Principals and Scholars). The most enlightened education professors, largely shunned by the media and dismissed by the edu-philanthropists, have plenty to offer. Tapas does sound pretty good to me these days. I’d certainly choose an educational tapas bar over the fare being offered up by the Department of Education. To me, sampling a big assortment of fresh, lovingly crafted small-plate protocols sounds better than having the whole federally mandated menu crammed down one’s throat. (Yes, I’m against the new Common Core Standards, for many sound reasons.)

Compared to the school improvement initiatives of the past decade, the proposals of President George H. W. Bush seem benign, if benighted. Recent “reform” efforts have depended on the unrelentingly unfair devaluation of teachers and public schools. While I think it’s a good thing that American education—especially urban education—is receiving more attention than it did twenty years ago, it’s a shame that our public discourse has been tainted by the dubious claims of opportunistic politicians, wealthy “reformers,” and charitable foundations that favor privatizing public schools.

If I were to rewrite my opinion piece, I would wonder out loud if some of these groups have a vested interest in spreading unfounded ideas. Whatever the motives, their far-flung improvement schemes are sure to do more harm than good, while siphoning funds from the institutions that need it most. Actual reform makes things better for the public at large, not just for the schemers.

Now, is President Obama the real Education President, the one I yearned for at the end of the piece? He may yet turn out to be, but so far, no. For one thing, his Secretary of Education knows a great deal about education that isn’t true. Secretary Duncan is a poster child for the top-down management style, and his “racing” and “raising the bar” metaphors just don’t make sense as education policy. For another thing, the President himself has jumped on the teacher-attack bandwagon, even taking a left-handed swipe at them in his recent State of the Union speech. And while he denounces “teaching to the test,” he endorses policies that promote just that. Lip service is still the operative term.

If I were to do a thorough rewrite of my opinion piece today, considering what’s happened in public education since 1991, I’d have to turn 703 words into a book. Not that I'm up to the task, but I'm pretty sure the Bee wouldn’t have room for it.

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