I have done a lot of whining about “corporate education reform” and the “test and punish” theory of education reform and “standards based” top down education. I am in full agreement with the conclusion Kristina Rizga reached after her four years’ study of Mission High in San Francisco, “The more time I spent in classrooms, the more I began to realize that most remedies that politicians and education reform experts were promoting as solutions for fixing schools were wrong.”
However, I am tired of being Debbie Downer. So, I will share my thoughts on a positive path of improvement for education in America.
Democracy and Local Control
Never let foreigners decide how and what should be taught in your kid’s school. By foreigners, I mean anyone that has never been in the school and lives more than 50 miles away.
Reed Hastings of Netflix was such a heartfelt liberal that he even joined the Peace Corps. He taught mathematics in Africa. Yet, in 2000, this once liberal crusader used his vast wealth to lift the cap on charter schools in California. Today he may be even more infamous for telling the California Charter Schools Association that elected school boards are anachronisms and should be replaced by non-profits running charter schools.
This is the problem with the uber-wealthy and their political assets controlling education. As statistics expert Gene Glass wrote “success in business has proven to them that their circle of competence knows no bounds.” It is my firm belief that the wisdom of the masses expressed through democratic processes is far superior to the dictates of any one of us including political titans and the billionaires.
In 1891, at the NEA gathering in Toronto Canada, Francis W. Parker of Chicago representing the Cook County Normal School declared:
“The soul seeking peace and comfort under the dominance and permanence of fixed ideals shrinks with dismay from the inevitable blunders, stupidity, ignorance and calamities that invariably accompany all democratic growth. The short road of centralization seems to reach in a day that which takes years to accomplish under the patient waiting for that slow dawning of intelligence which leads to right action on the part of democratic communities.
“Our foreign critics mistake variety and honest individual striving for chaos. That which has its birth in the desires and intelligence of the people, and is applied by the will of the people, becomes an organic, permanent factor in the progress of civilization of that people. It is rooted and grounded upon the people-“Vox POTTI. Vox dei.” But that which is imposed upon a people by any authority below heaven breaks into atoms when the intelligence and power of a people can reach and control it.
“Centralized power may be a necessity for infancy, but manhood sheds it off for the strong wings of freedom.”
In 1916, John Dewey wrote in his book Education and Democracy,
“An aim must, then, be flexible; it must be capable of alteration to meet circumstances. An end established externally to the process of action is always rigid. Being inserted or imposed from without, it is not supposed to have a working relationship to the concrete conditions of the situation.”
It is not just writers from Mother Jones or 19th and early 20th century American educators who warn of the deleterious effects associated with centralized power and ridged standards. The famed Japanese Buddhist philosopher and educator, Daisaku Ikeda writes in his book Soka Education:
“I have in the past called for the principle of the separation of powers to be expanded to give education a status and independence equal to that accorded the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Because education is a profound endeavor that shapes the individuals of future generations, it should be completely independent of political interference.”
Throughout his long illustrious career Mr. Ikeda has developed friendships and established what Peter Greene calls “thinky tanks.” In the book mentioned above, Ikeda quotes Columbia University’s Professor Robert Thurman’s answer to a question he received at the Ikeda founded Boston Research Center for the 21st Century. He was asked how he views the role of education in society. Thurman replied, “I think the question should rather be; what is the role of society in education? Because in my view education is the purpose of human life?”
The former Rector of the National University of Cordoba, Argentina, Francisco J. Delich is a friend who Ikeda wrote about in his book, Unforgettable Friends. Ikeda imparted:
“Having been driven from the lectern by the government in the past [1976-1983], Dr. Delich is very deeply and personally aware of the evil of allowing government to control education. He wants to build a society in which political leaders respect educators. Education, he believes, is the very foundation of the nation.”
Rizga, Parker, Dewey, Ikeda, Thurman and Delich contravene the thinking of the billionaire class who believe schools should be centrally commanded like the monopolistic enterprises by which they were enriched. People of great moral purpose believe in democratic processes. They understand it is impossible for capitals of power to satisfactorily meet the educational needs of any community by imposition. Democratic processes based locally is the true foundation for developing education. In America, the heart of that development is the board managed public school.
At the school, the power of principals should be reduced and the power teacher department leaders increased. Instead of running schools like a factory with a central figure in charge, schools should be run by committees made up of educators, students, community members and administrators. Many schools in California already have a faculty advisory committees made up of teachers and administrators. They also have school site councils consisting of students, parents and teachers. These groups should run the school.
Today, the only path for advancement available to educators is to leave the classroom and become an administrator. Instead of losing our best teachers to management, pay department heads more and utilize their expertise to improve teaching.
It is unrealistic to expect any one individual (the principal) to be an expert in all disciplines. Make the department chairs the curriculum experts. Add requirements to their position like a master’s degree and ten years of experience. The selection of the department head should remain the purview of the department staff.
Administrators should run school functions like facilities, registration, discipline enforcement, etc. The policies that they administer would be developed by the faculty advisory committee and the school site council.
In other words, let’s democratize our schools and respect all voices including students. District managers should be just that. They should be there to take care of budgets and personnel matters. Schools should not be subservient to districts. Quite the opposite; the district is there to serve the school. We need to get rid of the American ideology that posits a fabled superstar leader. Rather we need to embrace democratic action.
The concept of standards based education was motivated by the undeniable fact that good curriculum is a requirement for outstanding education. Unfortunately, this is the path to authoritarian top down control with its associated negative outcomes. I have written about some of these negative outcomes here.
Today, many states have adopted two sets of terrible education standards which I wrote about here, here, here and here. In a nutshell, standards do not really fit the needs of any schools and they are enforced by authoritarian means based on pseudo-science.
Standards based testing is totally useless for measuring anything other than the economic health of the community being tested. Standards based test cannot evaluate schools, teaching or student learning. As soon as high stakes are tied to them, they become a complete fraud.
We have the best trained teaching force in the history of America. Our teachers are fully capable of designing the curriculum for their schools. Strong department teacher leaders working collaboratively will produce much better curriculum tailored to that community for less money. Because the teachers who developed the curriculum believe in it and are personally invested in its success, they will do a better job of delivering it.
Reality Versus Marketing
Betsy DeVos who is completely unqualified by experience or training has just been confirmed as Secretary of Education. However, this is nothing new. Arne Duncan was also confirmed as Secretary of Education and he was completely unqualified by experience or training. Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walmart heirs wield great influence over our present increasingly autocratic education system and none of them have the kind of experience or training that their level of influence requires. This is our present reality.
Bill Gates has made silly claims like experience, advanced degrees and class size are not that important to teaching and learning. Just yesterday, I read this post, “The Rise of Crony Appointees and the Inexpert Ruling Class” by Professor Paul Thomas of Furman University, Greenville SC. He observed that “Education and education policy have been a playground for Innovators! who have no historical context or real experience in day-to-day teaching and learning.”
Public education is not a business. It’s an environment in which human beings grow intellectually, physically and socially. There is no product and it’s not really a service. Education is unique and trying to fit it into a business box may have seemed like a reasonable idea, but it didn’t work. Business leaders make poor education leaders because they do not have education expertise.
The truth is that expertise based on training and experience are crucial for any endeavor. A deep problem in some charter school chains is they were founded by people who rejected education expertise, scholarship and training. I give details about these schools in this post. There are many possible motives for our current odd propensity as a society to reject professionalism in education and pursue fool’s gold, but whatever the excuse we are harming America.
Yes there are failing schools in America. The cause for that failure are racial segregation, poverty, misguided political policies, racism and graft especially by politicians. The schools in Oklahoma City that John Thompson described fell into their miserable state because of top down mandates and lack of funding. Schools in Newark were the victim of decades of graft.
The failure of all of these schools would have been avoided if professional educators and parents were the dominant voices in the operation of schools.
The cost of testing and technology has drained enormous (unknowable?) amounts of money out of America’s classrooms. In his massive study of the rise and fall of civilizations, the great historian Arnold Toynbee observed in his A Study of History, “The bread of universal education is no sooner cast upon the waters than a shoal of sharks arises from the depths and devours the children’s bread under the educator’s very eyes.”
We are spending enough money to have splendid houses of learning from coast to coast but education monies are being squandered by politicians and business elites. Squandered on impractical or even harmful ideas like “personalized learning” (a kid at a screen running a program provided by Reed Hastings) or “blended learning” (fraudulent schools in the strip mall giving graduation credits for spending time at a computer) and endless testing. The last thing kids in the 21st century need is more screen time.
To create truly great schools, democratize them, limit technology and use teacher generated assessments. Stop the money drain and use those resources and good sense to:
- Reduce class sizes
- Increase teacher pay and teacher education requirements
- Value experience
- Respect and unleash the vast amount of talent on the staff of every school in America.
- Believe in democracy.