What the so-call ed Education Reform is all about
The goal of No Child Left behind and all the so-called allied state education reform is to bring all of public education under corporate control. This is not a conspiracy. It is clear, straight-forward and unabashed. Every president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama has endorsed it. President Obama heralds "We must ensure that our students will be able to compete in the global economy" almost every time he talks about education. All such endeavors to undermine democracy begins by scaring the shit out of us
This one began with a corporate created presidency- the now exalted Ronald Reagan. Reagan, as you may remember appointed a commission - The Commission on Educational Excellence - and that Commission issued a report, A Nation at Risk, That report, in its second paragraph evoked terrifying images associated with McCarthyism.
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. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even
squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge.
Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those
gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral
Overblown, pompous, ridiculous, But this is America and stupidity sells. Especially if pitched here, there and everywhere.
David Berlinger and Bruce Biddle, two highly regarded scholars, responded with the careful and measured The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools. (1994). They acknowledged weaknesses and needs to improve in US public school, but in the main they attacked the report for its sloppy research and over the top criticisms and thus missed the point completely. What has to be understood is that the entire premise is pure unadulterated bullshit.
What is fraudulent is the notion that US workers compete with Japanese, Chinese, Finnish or any designated others someplace or somehow in that misty and mysterious global economy. There, they are supposed to square off as George W Bush's challenged his father, "mano a mano." Such competition has never ever existed. Nor is it likely to. What such palpable nonsense does is deflect attention away from the real problems in the economy (and also in education). It is not "mediocre educational performance"
that caused the 30 year depression of wages through a never ending loss of decent jobs replaced with an even larger number of poverty jobs –minimum wage with no opportunity for upward advancement – creating the illusion the economy was doing just fine. What Democrat doesn't proudly exalt over the 22 million jobs created during the Clinton administration, either omitting or not knowing that more than half of those jobs were "lousy" jobs and were plunging the country along the path leading to its collapse.
Today, when hundreds of thousands of jobs are being lost every month, one company, Walmart currently employing well over 1 percent of everyone who works in the United States has a work force that is growing while almost all other firms and public agencies are going in the opposite direction. However, it should be noted that very, very few people can raise a family from what they earn at Walmart. It is the Walmarts (MacDonalds, Holiday Inns, et al.) phenomenon that brought about this recession/depression. We collapsed because more and more families unable to live on what they made were forced to rely on an ever accelerating debt, When the housing market came tumbling down Jack, Jill and a lot of other folks were no longer able to refinance to go further in debt to buy what they did and didn’t need. That meant stores couldn't sell and the spiral characteristic of a depression began. Pretty simple. Far too complicated for the likes of Ann Coulter. But then, what isn’t.
Back to the corporate takeover of education which is really an integral part of the corporate takeover of the entire political economy. The goal of those in control is to concentrate wealth in ever fewer hands at the expense of everyone else. What had to be denied and not given any opportunity to gain credibility was the idea that such concentration of wealth in so few had negative consequences for the many. That concentrating wealth in so few is toxic - toxic for the environment, toxic for the economy, toxic for politics, toxic for a democracy - had to be kept from the public. It was not that the emperor had no clothes. He had plenty as well as jewelry, and automobiles and yachts, and lots of houses and all kinds of whatevers. The more than amply clothed emperor was poisoning the well, but that could not be told, And if attempted, a plethora of loud mouth buffoons spewed the airways with ignorance and bigotry to overwhelm truth. The very same people who could say, in response to a puny effort to limit wages of CEOs receiving government bailout money that "$500,000 is not much money" also could say in actions louder than words 'a livable wage for all striving to meet adult responsibility is far too much.' What they don't want to have said is that it is impossible to concentrate so much money in so few hands without destroying the viability of the economy. This is even more powerfully true if the economy and the environment are to be reconciled.
What this has to do with education should be quite clear. The last thing in the world the corporate dominated economic and political process could tolerate would be an independent public school in which students would be encouraged to learn how the world really works. However, to say out "Mama don't allow no thinking done in here (public schools)" would generate a huge outcry and who knows what else, Keep in mind that Gallop after Gallop poll revealed that a great majority of parents were satisfied with the education their children received and there are a lot of those parents. Fifty million children go to public schools everyday. Imagine what would happen if these 50 million (and their parents) understood democracy, economics and the principles of organizing. That could not be permitted to happen. Indicators of that possibility surfaced in the 1960s. The civil rights movement energized students. Martin Luther King Jr. was moving to extend his movement in the direction of peace and the elimination of poverty. There was threat, vague and not yet fully organized or even conceptualized, but a threat nonetheless. No better way to nip it in the bud and recapture the initiative than to find a way to takeover a school system that was generally well accepted and for a great many actually appreciated.
To do that it was necessary to connect to some deep seated fear. What better way than to scream to the heavens that our teachers had conspired against us. Dark forces had taken over school systems. Big bad unions were in control and were undermining competence. What could be more frightening than raising the specter that the people in control of our schools to whom we entrusted our most precious resource, our children, were stealthily undermining America. When we were not watching they had managed to replace our wonderful school system with a “mediocre” one, so terrible that as a consequence our economy, that which sustains our good life is being destroyed. The Attack of the Treasonous Teachers was worse even than the Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Much worse, our whole future was endangered. By God. this “mediocre” education is “an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament” implying that everyone else is arming and we are ‘naked before our, if not enemies, certainly our competitors.’ Good cold war talk. Always works. The attack on education was not based on any real threat from abroad or anywhere else. But one had to be concocted if schools were to be brought under corporate control. The same kind of corporate control now established over media and to a very large extent over the political process.
To provide a basis for concern there needed to be a focus and mathematics (and to a slightly less extent science) provided that focus. Mathematics became the hysterical element in this advertised reform, more accurately, the hostile right-wing deform of education – that is what I called it in its infancy when I was on the Santa Cruz School Board. That is what is was in the 1980s and that is what it is today as it has gathered more and more momentum and given enthusiastic support from those who should know better. It was not “The British are coming.” But ”Our kids don’t know algebra!” “Our kids don’t know algebra!”
Why math? For one thing it is easier to measure mathematic competence than say English. Hell, would you believe some countries don’t even speak English (And we should certainly do something about that). Science has problems. A lot of anti-science sentiment percolates among political allies. No one was against algebra. It wasn’t like evolution or even global warming. God was okay with it. Liberty University teaches it. And we would hardly want to begin to probe into social studies, particularly if we are truly interested in preparing docile workers rather than informed and engaged citizens. In the 1960s when students started to get engaged in citizenship they had to be shot down. This is a lot less messy.
So it came down to math. WE ARE LOSING IN MATH. Year after year students in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, even Finland, especially Finland, beat up US students in math. It was implied that just about everybody of importance is humiliating us. Do you realize what that means? Before long all of those countries will be lording it over us, just because we don’t know our algebra.
That does seem serious. We are losing in algebra. We are losing in an algebra that 90 percent of us will never use at work or anywhere else. Such an indignity is something we really need to get worked up about. I mean lets get real here. If we don’t take a stand here it won’t be too long until countries like Japan and Cuba will beat us in the “American Past Time” - baseball. They do? Just goes to show you. However, if math is that important how come we don’t making passing algebra a requirement for holding public office? Or for making a comment on Fox news? Already I like the idea better.
How bad is it really? Just where do we stand in the world? To find out we go to TIMSS which stands for Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and it, “provides data about trends in mathematics and science achievement over time.” So lets look at how our 8th graders did in 2007 in math, more than 50% of which was devoted to algebra and geometry.
At the eighth grade, the average U.S. mathematics score was higher than those of students in 37 of the 47 other countries, lower than those in 5 countries (all of them located in Asia and not measurably different than those in 5 countries.
Well that certainly proves we are in big trouble.. The five countries whupping us were Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. No China because China doesn’t do TIMSS. The ones not much different from us were Hungary, England, Russia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic. We were well ahead of Australia, Sweden, Norway and Israel. Finland apparently sat this one out. And before getting all excited and concluding this pretty good showing demonstrates the benefits of the deform movement. Sorry to disappoint. In 1995, although a bit lower we were pretty much in the same position. Beaten by the usual suspects - the Asians - and holding our own with everyone else. Hungary, Sweden and the Czech republic were superior in 1995 but all dropped significantly since then. Must be all those “mediocre” teachers we sent over on exchange programs.
We are losing in Math to the same kind of kids that are beating us here. Check out the scores of Japanese youth whose ancestors immigrated here and compare them with those that stayed at home and see what you get. Same with Chinese except as previously mentioned China doesn’t let its students do TIMSS. However, Taiwan, Hong Kong (which is now part of China) and Singapore (which is essentially a Chinese City) do. When comparing the students there and their relatives here we find they beat us with their education there and with our education here. So our education is only “mediocre” for some of our students. Go figure
Does that mean our students do not need math? Of course not! But the math they don’t need is the math that is crammed down their throats with no emphasis on utility and organized for a work world in which fewer than 10 percent will ever use. They don’t need an externally developed proscriptive curriculum imposed on teachers and students. They don’t need the math presented as a series of topics with insufficient time for any understanding. They don’t need exponential function one week, permutations and combinations the next, measures of central tendency the next, quadratic equations the week after. After which come the tests and the suffering the consequences. This is called, by those expert in deception, “Standards”and “Accountability.” Do as demanded or be denied graduation or access to the credential society. And as more and more students failed, the answer was to add more courses, rather than examine why it is that students were rejecting the math they were being taught.
The mathematics scare is a big con game - the excuse to put public schools into a straitjacket. The real purpose is control from afar by reducing teachers to robots and shriveling the intellect of students. Stripped of its deceptive rhetoric the intent of a corporate controlled education is to produce docile, unthinking workers by denying students the true benefits of an education that would focus on cognitive development and on a rich and nuanced understanding of how the world works. A world, regardless of math courses passed and SAT test scores, the vast majority, merely by reaching 18, will assume responsibility for its stewardship. In fact, what those students know and probably, more appropriately what they don’t know will determine whether we as a species survive. Unless, of course you believe that a corporate controlled government is capable of solving species threatening problems and producing a sustainable society with, to coin a phrase, ‘liberty and justice for all.’ If you do, there is a bridge I would like to sell you. Oh, you already bought it.
An education that prepares informed and responsible citizens engages students in deep and penetrating conversations, has them: conduct meaningful research, discover rather than being told and utilize rather than store learning Such an education has students work cooperatively in projects designed to produce a public good. Such an education encourages every student to become an independent thinker while at the same time helps the student understand that change in a democratic society requires collective action. Such an education teaches students democracy by having them experience democracy in classrooms organized according to fundamental democratic principles. Such an education prepares informed democratic citizens by having students practice citizenship in their classrooms. Such an education has its goal not only a rich understanding of the complicated multifaceted rapidly changing world that the students live in, but also, the intellectual wherewithal to be effective agents of change. Such an education, the diametrical opposite of the corporate controlled education designed to produce docility, empowers students, all students. And knowing math is vital if one is to not only understand the world but also be prepared to be a significant player in shaping its future. One learns that math (and science, and language proficiency, and history and philosophy, and the arts, and how to make responsible personal decisions) while engaged in research, discussion and debates, and by analyzing proposed solutions to pressing problems.
National and state standards must be rejected for such an education. And while local control is no panacea, there is a much better chance to build a democracy from bottom up than from top down. As anyone who has spent time in classrooms knows that democratic control, if it is ever to be achieved, will occur when responsibility is located in the classroom teacher. That is where education, if it is to occur, takes place. And there is where true reform begins. The issue is teaching. Teaching under current reform is compromised and constipated, restricted to conform to prescriptive curriculum Teaching, unfortunately would not be much better if suddenly liberated. Simply put the wrong people are teaching. Wrong because they received a teacher preparation that was designed for the 19th century. Wrong, because teachers are drawn from a much too small and restricted pool.
President Obama got applause at ther NAACP Annual Meeting when he said some teachers should be fired. The problem is, if he was doing the firing, the wrong teachers would be fired. He would fire the teachers resisting corporate domination. He would be impressed with teachers whose students get high test scores, who are reducing the achievement gap. He doesn’t seem to understand that better test scores and moving closer but still remaining behind doesn’t affect either life conditions or life prospects. Needed are teachers who enable students to change the world, become truly empowered, possess the attributes needed to be knowledgeable and responsible citizens - the last thing teaching for a corporate dominated world will tolerate.
Teachers are doing wrong things because they are locked into the 19th century. The goal of such an education is prepare students to fit into a stable world. For much of the 20th century the goal was to direct students to different stations in life. In the last 40 years there has been lip service to encourage all students to same level of success, ergo, No Child Left Behind. However really intended is to leave all children behind and leave the driving, i.e., the change making, to the captains of industry. Not only does teacher education not provide students with the courses and experiences to become vigorous proponents for change, but persons recruited to become teachers are probably by temperament and background experiences least likely for such roles. In a world of ever accelerating change students are either prepared to be substantial players in the invention of the future or, they are being prepared to be the victims of those who will do the inventing. This is the truth that the deforming of education was designed to obscure. If students are to become informed and responsible citizens they must have teachers that will not only talk that talk but also model it - walk that walk, Such teaching is the one thing that will prevent the corporate takeover of public education. And save democracy.
The states and the national government will still have important responsibilities in a decentralized free from corporate control public education. The state would provide resources, doing what was necessary to level the playing field and would make available ‘low stakes” test scores. In the 13 years I served on a school board I found valuable tests results that indicated where our schools stood in relation to other schools. The state can provide consultants and should intervene when schools fail to act responsibly. And should be available to resolve student and teacher grievances. The federal government has an important role to play. The federal government has at its disposal the majority of tax dollars some of which should e used to help poor districts and to reduce classroom size. A White House conference on the state of education every ten years could be helpful. Providing funds for important research has been and should continue to be a federal responsibility if that research is not tainted by political considerations. Unfortunately both the states and the federal government have been active promoters for corporate controlled education. No surprise considering the corporate influence over both state and federal governments.
Schools have been going in the antidemocratic direction for a long time. As many critical observers noted the goal of schooling at least for the past hundred years was “social reproduction” – the maintaining of both the existing economic hierarchy and the ideology that supports such a hierarchy. As previously mentioned serious questioning and efforts at true reform occurred in the 1960s. I was fortunate to be included in much of that effort. I was an invited speaker to the first and it turned out the only White House Conference on Teaching the Disadvantaged in 1966, followed by membership and chair of the National Institute for Teaching of the Disadvantaged in 1967 to 69. The Institute initiated some exciting efforts at reform, e.g., the TTT, Teachers of Teachers of Teachers. a series of experiments that brought university faculty in various disciplines to teach in k-12 ghetto schools. The Institute also attempted to venture into reform of teacher education sponsoring a book, Teachers for the Real World. I was listed as a co-author with B. O. Smith, however in truth it was his book and my contribution was the first chapter. In that chapter I tried to suggest that education should be directed more clearly to prepare students to deal with real world problems. I enlarged that idea with a book of my own, The Atrocity of Education. I stressed then what is even more apparent now, that students, and often teachers, were appallingly ignorant about the world. I introduced the book with:
[In which I explain that the mess in education is attributable to a
failure to identify goals that are relevant to the last third of the
2oth century. I insist that the way out must start with precisely defining
reachable goals; and continue with specifying procedures to implement these goals.
failure to identify goals that are relevant to the last third of the
2oth century. I insist that the way out must start with precisely defining
reachable goals; and continue with specifying procedures to implement these goals.
In the book I focused specifically on the need to focus on developing aware and responsive citizens. I called for greater understanding of economics and employment policies. The ignorance of which has led to where we are now. I discussed the need to discus race and gender where notions of superiority appeared to be resistant to efforts at eradication. Despite my presence in important national events, The book had no impact. My most significant contribution to meaningful reform was the book, New Careers for the Poor that I wrote with Frank Riessman. It became the basis for a spate of bills, the largest of which was The Career Opportunity Program that brought 18,000 poor people, mostly women of color, into teaching. The fundamental concept applicable to all professions was to reverse the idea that one got an education first and then a job to one got a job and then an education. This was done by reconstructing professions into a four or five step ladder; the initial rung – the aide - open to all with no education, experience or training prerequisites. The next rung – assistant – would have the equivalent of two years in college but the credit would come from learning on the job, courses specifically designed for problems encountered on the job and liberal arts courses at an institution for higher learning. The next rung –associate- would be the equivalent of 4 years in a college or university, the fourth, or fifth rung would be the credential. Such a program would combine the best features of an apprenticeship and a university education. Despite rigidity in institutions of higher education and the far too many sites (132 sites with 18,000 participants in 3000 schools enrolled in 272 colleges and universities), the program, underevaluated and insufficiently documented as it was, nevertheless appeared to be very successful. Thousands from underrepresented populations received teaching degrees, but almost despite rather than because of the program. Local districts made little effort to develop a career ladder with different knowledges and responsibilites required for each rung of the ladder. Teacher education programs made no effort to alter pedagogy or curriculum for different rungs of the ladder. A similar program instituted in California in the 1990s had similar problems and similar successes.
A 21st century democratic education (or at least one rescued from corporate control) would need a rival and updated career ladder approach. In this collapsing economy a career ladder beginning with a rung requiring no education, training or experience prerequisites would open the system to all. As part of the economic stimulus every class could be reduced to no more than 15 students per person in a teaching role creating close to 7000,0000 jobs. Every poor community would derive benefits. Perhaps, most importantly, the door would be opened to a new form of teacher education. To not repeat the mistakes of the 60s and 90s no school district should receive funds for this kind of classroom size reduction without first indicating in precise terms the responsibilities for each rung of the ladder and the expected skills and knowledges for each rung. No teacher preparation program should receive funds without a clear indication of how those funds would be used to prepare for each rung of the ladder.
That would not e enough. But it would be a very good beginning. Ultimately teacher education will have to be totally reconstructed. Preparing a teacher that will lead students in changing the world is a far different teacher than one preparing students to fit into it. What that would look like will be in some future blog.