Archive | December, 2014

Illusion Motivates Education Reform

29 Dec

My earliest memory of public education criticism was overhearing my mother and her teacher colleagues talking about a book memorably named, “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” It was a sensation that implicitly stated that public education in America was a dismal failure and that the nation was on a path to its own cultural and fiscal demise. Recently Jim Arnold & Peter Smagorinsky wrote this amazing paragraph about the history of declaring the failure of America’s public education system:

“Admiral Rickover published “American Education, a National Failure” in 1963, and in 1959 LIFE magazine published “Crisis in Education” that noted the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik because “the standards of education are shockingly low.” In 1955 Why Johnny Can’t Read became a best seller, and in 1942 the NY Times noted only 6% of college freshmen could name the 13 original colonies and 75% did not know who was President during the Civil War. The US Navy in 1940 tested new pilots on their mastery of 4th grade math and found that 60% of the HS graduates failed. In 1889 the top 3% of US high school students went to college, and 84% of all American colleges reported remedial courses in core subjects were required for incoming freshmen.” [1]

The paragraph above recalls more than a century of national failure to properly educate our citizenry yet in that same century America became the world’s leader economically, scientifically, militarily and culturally. Does this mean that education quality does not matter or is it more likely that the perception of American education failing – is and was an illusion?

By the middle of the 20th century, cities and villages throughout the USA had developed an impressive educational infrastructure. With the intent of giving every child in America the opportunity for 12 years of free education, this country was the world’s only country not using high stakes testing to deny the academic path to more than a third of its students. The physical infrastructure of our public schools was of high quality and schools were staffed with well trained experienced educators. A trained administrative structure was in place and the path to continuous improvement was established. No one should deny that public education can be improved, but what is also undeniable is that this system is important and successful. To call public education in America a failure is to make better the enemy of good. It promotes a destructive illusion.

I feel a surrealistic connection to what might be the most important driver ever for this destructive illusion. Terrel ‘Ted’ Bell, the 2nd Secretary of Education in the United States, instigated a commission that gave us the infamous, “Nation at Risk.” Beyond just claiming that public education in America was failing and needed drastic reform; the claimants said that reform needed the leadership of people who were not professional educators. First of all, the idea that you should ignore the advice of practicing professionals concerning any field of human endeavor is foolhardy, but foolhardiness permeates modern education reform. It is through Bell I feel a chimerical connection to imprudent reform.

Bell was from Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. I too grew up in a rural Idaho village. He attended Albion State Normal School in southern Idaho. That was my mother’s alma mater as well as that of more than half of my teachers from my time in public school. Like most of the Albion graduates Bell taught while continuing his own education. He eventually earned a doctorate of education from the University of Utah. So this man with roots close to my own became a key instrument in advancing the attack on America’s public schools, which he loved.

Bell’s “Nation at Risk” was a political document written by business men that claimed without substantiation or peer review that the very fate of the nation was at risk because of our failing schools. They said “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people” and claimed, “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.”[2] The paper was a polemic success and a prejudicial analysis of education based on unsupported beliefs. It significantly advanced a destructive and illusory view that would lead all sorts of idealistic people into taking wrong actions.

Terrel Bell was a idealist and an realist. He supported the department of education and Medicare. He had a profound religious faith in Mormonism. As a classroom chemistry teacher who for many years devoted his life to public education, Bell was an unlikely choice to head Ronald Regan’s Department of Education. Bell, however, was picked because of his high standing as a leader of education policy in the Nixon and Ford administrations and his favorable standing amongst the education community.

Bell was supposed to oversee the demise of the department of education and support the states’ rights views (definitely not national standards) of the new President, but he had his own agenda. Bell said, “There are three things to emphasize in teaching: The first is motivation, the second is motivation, and the third is (you guessed it) motivation.” It is strange that an experienced educator with this kind of understanding about the crucial nature of motivation for learning would be a champion of national education standards. But he was. By the 1980’s, many education theorist and observers knew that wherever standards had been tried they tended to circumscribe curriculum and engender jejune pedagogy which stunted the intrinsic motivation to learn. In many ways, Bell is typical of a modern education reformer. He was idealistic, moral, selfless and believed fiercely in the destructive illusion that American public education was failing.

Teach for America and the ‘education entrepreneurs’ who developed the “no excuses” charter school movement also spring from that same kind of idealistic passion based on the heartfelt belief that America’s schools are failing and that they have a mission to save our country’s future. People like Doug Lemov, Stacey Boyd and John King deeply believed that public schools were failing. With no substantial background in education (which they saw as a strength), they started ‘no-excuse’ charter schools. Deriding education theories taught by university professors, it was clear to them that the first item to fix in schools was discipline so they put children in uniforms, made many rules about everything the children did and enforced those rules harshly. In some ways, it was reminiscent of 19th century teaching.

‘Education entrepreneurs’, because they have no respect for education professionals, are doomed to reinventing the wheel. The truth is that even with the tremendous financial and political support their movement secured; the results have been mixed at best and as far as improving education practices they are abysmal failures. The truly difficult outcome from these disciples of economist like Eric Hanushek instead of educators like John Dewey is that they are still true believers in the need to ‘disrupt’ public education because it is failing. Everything they have done and believed in about education is based on the failure illusion that they hang onto tenaciously.

The godfather of the ‘education entrepreneurs’ seems to be the MIT trained economist, Eric Hanushek. His major claim to fame is proposing value added measures (VAM) to evaluate schools and teachers. Economists often function today as modern era soothsayers. To me Hanushek is little more than a mountebank. His VAM has been widely criticized as being statistically absurd, but that hasn’t stopped “elite” schools like MIT and Stanford from singing his hosannas. Hanushek reminds me of a description of economists I once read: “Economists are fond of saying, with Thomas Carlyle, that economics is ‘the dismal science.’ As with much of what economists say, this statement is half true. It is dismal.”[3] Hanushek’s bad science has done a lot to advance the perfidious illusion that American schools are failing.

I too was a victim of the American schools are failing myth. I decided to become an educator in 1999. I left a successful career as a research scientist working in the recording industry to become an educator. With strong beliefs about the importance of public education, I saw myself as a talented guy who could make major contributions to righting the distressed ship of public education. My mindset wasn’t that different than that of the ‘education entrepreneurs.’ I was not in the classroom for many months when I started to realize that I might be the most inept teacher at my school. Teaching is more difficult than being a research scientist and experience in teaching is more important than in research science. It became clear to me that I had been bamboozled. The teaching profession and the condition of public schools in San Diego County in 2002 had never been in better shape.

It is interesting the way this deception has manifested in the neighborhoods of America. In middleclass and upper middleclass neighborhoods, people believe the illusion but are thankful that their own neighborhood public schools are such wonderful exceptions. Here in San Diego, parents at Torrey Pines Elementary School or Challenger Middle School or Poway High School love their schools and would fight for them. At the same time they believe that public schools in poor neighborhoods are failing. The result is that people in poor neighborhoods who don’t have the political capital to fight for their schools no longer can send their children to quality public schools. They must send them to charter schools or drive them to another neighborhood. Poor communities are having their wonderful public institutions like the venerable Compton High School taken from them.

I will conclude with words that the great historian Arnold Toynbee wrote in his masterpiece study of five millennia of human development concerning publicly supported education. He observed that “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.”[4] I hope this was a warning not a prophecy!

1) Arnold, Jim and Smagorinsky, Peter, 12/26/2014 (Quoted in Diane Ravitch’s blog)

2) “Nation at Risk”, 12/26/2014

3) Jones, Judy and Wilson, William An Incomplete Eucation, Random House Inc. NY, 1987

4) Toynbee, Arnold J., A Study of History, Abridgement of Volumes 1 – VI by D. C. Somervell. New York and London: Oxford University Press. 14th printing 1958. (1946)