The cries for reform of education have become rituals to reproach the poor academic performance of America’s public schools and their students. The responses repeat nostrums which have done little besides waste resources—money, effort, time—and dismay or infuriate everyone who cares about public education.
For example, since “relevance” became a catchword of reform 40-plus years ago, no one has successfully defined or implemented it, but the word has successfully bulked up empty talk about improving education by tailoring the curriculum to student interests—so American, really, for the adults to put the children in charge of their education. This extended record of ineffectuality makes it no basis for educational reform, but education has no burial ground for bad ideas.
More recently, “silver bullets” have been a mix of the three “M’s”—money, methods, and management—the stuff of the now-fashionable “business” approach to education. Results include resources squandered, teachers demoralized, and the usual suspects—politicians and businesspeople—unfazed by the repeated failures of their redoubled efforts. Expect nothing better from the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top.”
Any problem becomes insoluble if its solution is left to those with little knowledge about, and less understanding of, the basics of education but with an abundance of arrogance to go with their ignorance. Who are these people? Politicians with who knows what education, and bureaucrats with who knows what experience in classrooms.
Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, has never been a classroom teacher, and his vaunted reforms in Chicago, for all the resources committed to them, have produced no statistically significant differences between charter and public schools. Rahm Immanuel is redoubling his efforts and will redouble the results and still get nothing.
The recent and much-touted statement of national “Common Core State Standards” for K-12 education developed by a committee of governors and state education officials is so seriously misleading educators about reading and writing that the committee chair blamed readers for missing one of its main points—oops! in a footnote. This location casts doubt on these experts’ collective competence to give advice to the country on effective writing and who knows what else.
New Mexico’s governor, Susana Martinez, has proven her incompetence in education. Interviewed during the gubernatorial race, she revealed her ignorance of the issues and the superficiality of her ideas for improving it. Debating Diane Denish on education, she displayed her foolishness. Not surprisingly, Martinez selected a Secretary of Education on political, not educational, grounds; thus, she picked the inept Hanna Skandera, who is qualified only to parrot Jeb Bush’s talking points. Their big reform foisted on the state is grades for public schools—which reform encourages teachers and students to buckle down to the task of improving test scores.
Everywhere, data-based performance evaluation of students and teachers but—God forbid—not administrators, bureaucrats, or state officials is all the rage. Most people know that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” But not people in legislatures or business. The example of former Ford CEO, later Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara should have taught that, just as higher (usually jiggered) body counts did not prove that the U.S. was winning—its was losing—the Vietnam War, higher test, attendance, and graduation data (often jiggered) do not prove that the U.S. is improving—it is ruining—education. The lesson to draw is that data-driven decisions are more likely to be wrong than right, damagingly so.
Other nostrums are no better for education. Smaller schools and class sizes, more school choices (including charter schools) or schooling (home schooling), more testing and more use of test scores to evaluate teachers, more teacher evaluation to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, and more competition among teachers for bonuses or raises—none of these reforms reforms education.
Worse, their advocates do not face the facts which discredit these reforms. Larger schools and classes in Japan and Korea, as examples of many other countries, produce far better-educated students than the U.S. does. On national average, charter school students do not do as well as public-school students. Tests to evaluate teachers or schools are frequently unreliable and always suspect of being unreliable because of “gaming” the system, “teaching to the test,” and other abuses, including administrative manipulation of the testing populations or process, or the resulting data. Unreliable evaluations cannot distinguish good and bad teachers—whatever “good” and “bad” mean—; and high-stress or punitive regimes do not attract or retain “good” teachers. Merit systems based on competition for bonuses or raises have failed to improve academic performance and sustain that improved performance, but have demoralized, not inspired, teachers because, as a rule, their career motivations are not monetary, their motives are caring for and educating students, and their instincts are for professional cooperation with their peers.
Two political reforms would prompt reforms within and by the educational system. One is the elimination of the legal separation of school and state. The U.S. pretends that education can be kept pure, untainted by dirty (or any other kind of) politics, by holding school board and bond elections on days distinct from general or special elections for all other public offices and on all other issues. But the exposure of this pretense is evident in the charged—yes, political—debates about teaching human biology of sex, evolution, and sundry works of literature, not only but most notoriously, Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn solely because of its repeated use of the word “nigger.” As a result of this separation, far fewer voters, mostly teachers and parents of enrolled students, vote in school-related elections than in other elections. The separation mocks representative democracy and makes public education a private matter responsive to special interests, resistant to public opinion, and accountable to no one.
My suggested reform is to combine all elections of all officials and on all bond and other issues into one election-day ballot. The result would connect schools and society, require them to compete for public support, and spur the education establishment to improve itself and to effect demonstrable improvement in student performance to earn support. The connection implies that, instead of one-size-fits-all remedies imposed from above, state governments would hold local districts accountable for academic performance according to general criteria but allow those districts to implement suitable means to academic improvement. “Accountability” would no longer be an educator’s empty word full of sound and seeming seriousness, but of no significance.
The second political reform is the structure of school board elections. Presently, candidates run in district subdivisions which reflect no distinctive interests of their voters, and races often become popularity contests or pit one incompetent against another. Given that school board decisions affect the entire district, the entire district population should vote for members on an at-large base. This structure would promote the discussion of issues of importance to the public and the election of better-qualified candidates, more of whom would not be teachers or former teachers narrow-mindedly focused on the interests of their associates.
But the real thrust of reform must be directed at what matters: education, which is, in clear and simple terms, the transmission of knowledge and skills, attitudes and values, from, in the main, one generation to another. The central reason for schools is to support the three essential elements of this process—teachers, subject matter, and students—with subject matter the first among equals. All else is peripheral (not the same as unimportant). Yet from schools of education to the halls of legislatures, the emphasis is child-centered education; thus, on motivation, individualized instruction, easy or agreeable work, and the like; or goads like frequent tests and pressures for job training.
The word “curriculum” is rarely mentioned, probably because its importance makes it controversial. The thinking seems to be that it is better to avoid controversy than to attempt to define an education which does what education is supposed to do: transmit what is valuable. The failure to define curriculum thus becomes yet another way of saying the education is not important. Students might think education was important if they witnessed adults debating what was important in it. Instead, politicians talk about standards to appear serous but avoid action, and bureaucrats use tests to define the curriculums without regard for the views of the public.
The absence of clear, demanding curriculums with public approval also means that teacher education programs continue to be vacuous, fatuous, and ineffective. Everyone avoids the obvious: their graduates in elementary education are incompetent to teach the subjects which they must introduce. The result is students chronically deficient in basic subjects. In New Mexico, only about 50 percent of 4th-grade students demonstrate proficiency in reading and arithmetic on easy state tests; four years later, 8th-grade students do no better. So teaching to the test substitutes for teaching to the curriculums.
New Mexico’s elected or unelected state officials know nothing about the deficiencies of curriculums in major subjects and about the lack of “alignment” between elementary teacher preparation programs and those curriculums—additional conditions susceptible to political reform. These officials alone can address these structural issues which cause crucial problems in public education. Even if some were disposed to address them and undertake reforms, they would face enormous resistance. For reforms mean change, and New Mexico emphatically loathes change. Despite persistent poverty, ignorance, illness, and malnutrition, much of the populace prefers stability although it perpetuates subservience, resentment, and despair; to action to alleviate these conditions. Reform would especially and necessarily upset the political and educational establishments, which wield power in the state. Indeed, one of the signs that effective education reform will not come to New Mexico—or anywhere else, for that matter—is the incessant but unchanging talk about it.