Faux Education Reform or Improved Education (Both are NOT Possible!)

22 Nov

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to share my thoughts about education policy with Congresswomen, Susan Davis (Democrat CA-53). Like many high government office holders, Davis got her start in the 1980’s as a member of the local school board. I immediately launched into my heartfelt belief that standardized testing was destroying public education and leading to the privatizing of public schools. She almost immediately asked me what I find a peculiar and telling question, “How are we going to monitor schools without testing?” This question implies that standards and standardized testing do indeed present a way of evaluating quality of teaching or schools. They do not. It also implies that monitoring schools is the job of the federal government. It is not. And for someone that had almost a decade working with schools not to know what a good job accrediting organizations do monitoring and guiding schools is significant. It demonstrates why it is so important to promote professionalism in the operation of our schools. Politicians and rich businesspeople are not well enough informed about the intricacies and variables involved in education to run schools and dictate policy. We respect the opinions of professionals in other arts such as the medical field when we make policy because they are experts in a complicated field, likewise we should respect professionalism in education because it is an even more complicated field. The bottom line is that since the passage of NCLB the education of children in how to think has atrophied. Like Diane Ravitch prophesized, “And so we may find that we obtained a paradoxical and terrible outcome: higher test scores and worse education.”1 Higher test scores because we made that the ultimate goal of our pedagogy and worse education because children are taught discrete pieces of information to recite but get no practice in using that information to reason and create.

While writing about how standardized testing and mechanical literacy are undermining the experience in school, Francis Lucerna, the co-founder of La Puente, observed, “This is not by accident; there is a reason this is happening and why it’s happening in public schools and not in private schools and other places. This is the education for followers, not for leaders.”2 In other words this type of education reform is the kind of class based reform that John Dewey warned against in 1916, “His own purpose will direct his actions. Otherwise, his seeming attention, his docility, his memorizing and reproductions will partake of intellectual servility. Such a condition of intellectual subjugation is needed for fitting the masses into a society where the many are not expected to have aims or ideas of their own, but to take orders from the few set in authority. It is not adapted to a society which intends to be democratic.”3 In a similar vein, Daisaku Ikeda, the founder of the constructivist oriented Soka Education system states, “Learning that has forgotten creativity is a servant of authority. If learning is to serve people, it must continue to create value.”4 For more than a century great education philosophers have warned us about how standards based and behaviorist education vitiates pedagogy; yet here we are in the second decade of the 21st century bringing this kind of injury to the public education system.

How did we get here? Recently I read a book by the renowned educator; cognitive and computer scientist, Roger Schank called Teaching Minds. In a discussion of scripts he writes, “Scripts tell us what will happen next in the aspects of the world that repeat frequently. Anyone who goes to a restaurant knows that when you order food, someone will bring it to you and later you will be expected to pay for it. … People who have scripts often generalize them so that in their own mind they are experts on things they have never experienced. This is what stupid looks like.”5 This seems to be a real cogent explanation of modern education reform led by the likes of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Arne Duncan and the endless list of education reformers with no personal experience either studying or practicing education yet they went to school so they think they are experts. Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute wrote about the Race to the Top (RttT) reforms brought to us by the non-educator education reformers that joined the Obama administration from the NewSchools Venture Fund. He observed that they have “published a list of 19 of its best ideas, few of which are truly ‘evidence-based,’ regardless of what President Obama says, and told states to adopt as many of them as possible if they want to get the money. It’s as if a bunch of do-gooders sat together at the NewSchools Venture Fund summit and brainstormed a list of popular reform ideas, and are now going to force them upon the states. (Wait, I think that is how this list got developed.)”6

Almost One hundred years ago John Dewey wrote Democracy and Education, in which he made many cogent and insightful statements about education. Here are a few:

(Page 46) “Why it is that teaching by pouring in and learning by passive absorption, are universally condemned, that they are still so entrenched in practice? That education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process, is a principle almost as generally violated in practice as conceded in theory.”

(Page 122) “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.”

(Page 158) “Translated into details, it means the act of learning or studying is artificial and ineffective in the degree in which pupils are merely presented with a lesson to be learned.”

(Page 177) “While all thinking results in knowledge, ultimately the value of knowledge is subordinate to its use in thinking.”

(Page 203) “Imposing an alleged uniform general method upon everybody breeds mediocrity in all but the very exceptional.”

(Page 207) “Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less that a revolution in teaching would be worked.”

(Page 303) “Narrow modes of skill cannot be made useful beyond themselves; any mode of skill which is achieved with deepening of knowledge and perfecting of judgment is readily put to use in new situations and is under personal control.”

(Page 417) “Discipline, culture, social efficiency, personal refinement, improvement of character are but phases of the growth of capacity nobly to share in such a balanced experience. And education is not a mere means to such a life. Education is such a life. To maintain capacity for such education is the essence of morals. For conscious life is a continual beginning afresh.”7

John Dewey may have been America’s greatest thinker about teaching and learning and yet our modern reformers completely ignore him. I suspect many of them have never actually studied education philosophy and many others of them have other motives that have little to do with improving public education. Dewey is hardly the only person to have these same observations about good pedagogy. Roger Shank humorously made the point by stating, “Math and science are not important subjects. There, I said it. Start the lynching. One can live a happy life without ever having taken a physics course or knowing what a logarithm is. … But being able to reason on the basis of evidence is important.”8 Tsunesaburo Makiguchi the insightful Japanese philosopher-educator was fighting against an education philosophy based on producing subjects for the emperor at the same time that John Dewey was fighting against a behaviorist philosophy of education in the United States. Makiguchi wrote, “In-school education should be closely connected in practice with actual social life so that it can transform unconscious living into fully conscious participation in the life of society. Education integrated into the life of society will yield benefits of well-planned living, without the undesirable effect of mechanical uniformity an inherent danger in standardized education.”9

The Swiss psychologists, Jean Piaget called Dewey’s discovery-based approach to education “constructivism.” Piaget believed that “children play an active role in making sense of things, ‘constructing’ reality rather than just acquiring knowledge.” The philosophy of “constructivism” is a move away from the educational philosophies of behaviorism and social conservatism advocated by men like B. F. Skinner and Edward K. Thorndike. Howard Gardner, the creator of the theory of multiple intelligences, writes, “Piaget’s account of the passage from sensori-motor actions to concrete to formal operations is the best worked-out trajectory of growth in all of developmental psychology.”10 In addition to Piaget’s work, the Russian developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, observed that children have a “zone of proximal development.” “Vygotsky and other educational professionals believed education’s role was to give children experiences that were within their zones of proximal development, thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning.”11 This approach to “constructivism” has lead to the idea of scaffolding. The teacher identifies the student’s needs and helps them through the zone of proximal development by questioning or other means until the student not longer needs the aide for constructing understanding. These brilliant insights into how people develop and learn are completely vitiated by standards based education and high stakes testing.

For the past thirty years, educators have been making pilgrimages to the Italian town of Reggio Emilia to observe what may be the best preschool education in the world. The traveling exhibit, “The 100 Languages of Children” was startling to educators in 1991 when it came to the United States and they saw the amazing work of these 4 and 5 year-old students. The heart, soul and educational theorist for the Reggio schools was a remarkable educator name Loris Malaguzzi, a confirmed constructivist. He once stated, “No, our schools have not had, nor do they have, a planned curriculum with units and subunits (lesson plans) as the behaviorists would like. These would push our school toward teaching without learning; we would humiliate the schools and the children by entrusting them to forms, dittos, and handbooks of which publishers are generous distributors.”12 He did not mean there was no planning and reflection but that the Reggio educators were constantly ready to modify their plans depending on how the students engaged. Unfortunately, Reggio Emilia is one of the few places in the world where constructivist education is practiced. Ellen Lagemann, an education historian, writes, “One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward K. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.”13 The same general situation in education appears to exist throughout the world.

I conclude after reviewing the observations about how people learn from the best educational minds on four continents that modern education reform in the United States is based on bad philosophy. The KIPP schools which Bill Gates holds up as a model for how education should be done are very behaviorist in their education orientation. Eli Broad completely defies reason when he promotes non-educators with business backgrounds as the best people to hire as education leaders. The Broad approach appears to institutionalize “what stupidity looks like.”  Barak Obama hires a non-educator as the top educator in the country. Together, they promulgate policies that undermine professionalism in education, lionize high stakes testing and make the future of public education vulnerable. As for Congressman Davis’s concern about monitoring schools, there are wonderful professionally based organizations that have been monitoring schools for decades. For example, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) does a great job of looking deeply into the operation and professionalism of schools in the western United States. WASC sends a team of educators from a different region into a school for a weeklong visit in which they review curriculum, school site plans, community involvement and visit many classrooms in progress. These teams are normally lead by a current school principal and are made up of current teachers who all know exactly what a well run school should look like and based on the evidence they gather give the schools valuable feedback. Schools that fail these inspections truly are failures and face the possibility of losing accreditation. If legislators think they need more, then the answer is to add resources to these accrediting agencies that make informed judgments about schools. Standardized testing is an unreliable methodology for evaluating teaching or schools and fuels the impulse toward behaviorism. The one consistent finding about the results of standardized testing is they are most influenced by the financial condition of the neighborhood. Using this unreliable method for evaluating teachers and schools is foolhardy and has lead to great schools being closed and great teachers being unjustly labeled failures.

As the new millennium started, I decided to leave my position as a researcher in Silicon Valley to become an educator. I sought a master’s degree in education at University of California San Diego (UCSD) where I met two amazing educators and thinkers; Professor of Sociology, Hugh ‘Bud’ Mehan and Professor of Mathematics, Guershon Harel.  From Dr. Mehan, the founder of the Pruess School, I learned about the history, politics and theory of effective education. From Dr. Harel, the founder of the Algebraic Thinking Institute, I learned about his amazing theory of education, Duality, Necessity, and Repeated Reasoning (DNR). Dr. Harel taught us about the subtle difference between the ways of thinking and ways of understanding. He presented us with evidence showing that poor teaching methods hurt students’ abilities to understand and their desires to learn. In 2001, all of us in my cadre at UCSD were thrilled to be studying with these great educators and with the idea that we could bring this kind of pedagogy to public schools. But, in 2002, the federal government mandated behaviorism through requiring standards and testing. In the past 10 years, this benighted reform has led to more and more money leaving the classroom to commercial pockets and to schools becoming a more and more onerous places. Now we have Common Core State Standards (CCSS) which are accelerating money out of the classroom to consultants and testing companies and undermining professionalism in education. This week I am presenting a lesson and an assessment on quadratic functions developed by a corporation hired to help us prepare for CCSS. The lesson is not bad but not really remarkable for anything other than more money left my classroom of 40 math students to pay for it. This kind of reform is faux reform which is worse than no reform. We can survive a budget crisis but bad philosophy of education is deeply destructive. Let us have real reform led by professional educators or faux reform led by businessmen and politicians will continue to engender ever degenerating education in America!

1. Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Page 219.

2. Kohl, Herbert and Tom Oppenheim, ed. The Muses Go to School. New York: The New Press. 2012. Page 58

3. Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916. Page 356.

4. Ikeda, Daisaku, The New Human Revolution Volume 15. Santa Monica, California: The World Tribune Press. 2008. (Page 189)

5. Shank, Roger. Teaching Minds. New York: Teachers College Press. 2011. Page 101.

6. Petrilli, Michael. “The Race to the Top: The Carrot That Feels Like a Stick,” Flypaper blog, July 23, 2009. http://www.educationgadfly.net/flypaper/2009/07/the-race-to-the-top-the-carrot-that-feels-like-a-stick/

7. Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916.

8. Shank, Roger. Teaching Minds. New York: Teachers College Press. 2011. Page 83.

9. Ikeda, Daisaku. Soka Education. Santa Monica, California: Middleway Press. 2001 Page 18

10. Garner, Howard. Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books. 1993. (Page 133)

11. Berk, L and Winsler, A. (1995). “Vygotsky: His life and works” and “Vygotsky’s approach to development”. In Scaffolding children’s learning: Vygotsky and early childhood learning. Natl. Assoc for Educ. Of Young Children. p. 24

12. Edwards, Caroline, Gandini Lella and George Forman, ed. The Hundred Languages of Children 2nd Edition. Westport, Connecticut:, Ablex Publishing, 1998

13. Kohn, Alfie. The Schools Our Children Deserve. Boston – New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1999. Page 7.

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