Illusion Motivates Education Reform

29 Dec

By Thomas Ultican 12/29/2014

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.”

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.

Furthermore, a trained administrative structure was in place and the path to continuous improvement had been established. No one should deny that public education can be improved, but what is also undeniable is that America’s current system has a history of producing successful citizens. 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, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, 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 rural Idaho. 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 public school teachers. 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. 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 and famous scientists. It claimed without substantiation or peer review that the very fate of the nation was at risk because of our failing schools. The authors 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.”

The paper was a very successful polemic and not an honest scholarly effort. Its prejudicial analysis of education was based on unsupported beliefs and ignored data that countered those beliefs. “Nation at Risk” significantly advanced the destructive illusion that public education was failing and the rescue must be led by corporate chieftains.

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 for many years, he 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 which purchased him favorable standing among 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 in the book “An Incomplete Education“:

“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.”

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 I might be the most inept teacher at my school. Teaching is more difficult than being a research scientist and experience in teaching is also more important. 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 middle class and upper middle class 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.” I hope this was a warning not a prophecy!

18 Responses to “Illusion Motivates Education Reform”

  1. Steve Ruis February 1, 2015 at 5:25 pm #

    These critics often ignore salient facts and difficulties in making comparisons, any comparisons of eduction. Harvard University professors were so appalled at the low level of the English language skills of incoming high school graduates that they created the first American remedial course in English. Today we call that course English 1A (or English 100) and it is the standard by which English preparedness for college is measured. And we are better now than Harvard was then (200 years ago or so). But please realize there is no comparison between that ancient course and the modern course, none! (The modern course is more difficult and more demanding.) Comparisons are not possible using that standard.

    What is actually true of today is the very best students are better than they have ever been and the very worst are worse. The reason that the very worse are worse is that we are succeeding in getting many students who fifty years ago wouldn’t have gotten a sniff of a college education, to actually go to college. (I am the first person in my father’s family to have graduated from college. I tested into English 1A as a freshman. My “ilk” didn’t go to college before, we became fireman, carpenters, auto parts salesmen, etc. like my uncles.) Also, we have allowed greater poverty to exist in our student bodies (and society as a whole), which is documented to reduce academic performance. Plus we have, like gadflies, pursued incoherent, illogical educational reforms like drunken sailors. The current foray into “charter schools,” is undemocratic, illogical, ill-administered, ill-funded and has proven itself bankrupt as a model for education. So what are we doing? More of that, please! Amazing!


  2. Hal O'Leary December 8, 2015 at 11:32 pm #



    Our present system of education, with its emphasis on “Standardized Testing,” is both a glowing success and a colossal failure. The side one may come down on depends on what
    we may perceive the purpose of education to be. The current clamor calls not for reform but simply for ways to increase the efficiency of a system whose premise and purpose must be questioned. The success or failure of an honest reform of the present system may well decide the fate of the American experiment.

    If viewed honestly, the purpose of the current system of education is primarily designed to assure that industry will be supplied with a competent work force and that society will be made up of a stable citizenry. The rewards for compliance are monetary gain and social acceptance. In this respect, there is no question but that our current system is a glowing success, and nothing could better serve this educational purpose than standardized testing. With its emphasis on retention rather than thought, it makes for an unquestioning employee and an acquiescent civilian. This, in turn, makes possible a consumer-driven economy and society in which both value and achievement are measured, most often, in material gain. What we have in place of education is indoctrination. Such a system may instruct us as to the best way to “make a living,” but little in the ways in which we might live.

    Standardized testing has become the mainstay of both “No Child Left Behind” of the Bush era and the more current “Race to the Top.” The strategy’s dubious success in terms of student and public acceptance has the professionals scrambling for answers. What the public and the professionals cannot seem to come to grips with is the void in student gratification that comes from having little or no voice in the procedure. The pride and joy of learning are replaced with an award for retention of data. This, unfortunately, diminishes the desire to learn, and it is my contention that the best teacher in the world cannot teach a student who has little or no desire to learn, while the student with such a desire cannot be prevented from learning.

    While the professionals continue to debate and we ponder the true relevance of standardized testing, a more complete understanding of both the pros and cons can be found at this link:

    In weighing the arguments for or against, I would like to add just two specific failings of the current system that are too often overlooked and ways in which they might be overcome. It may be well at this point to turn for the first to Socrates, who said, “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make him think.” It should be obvious, I should think, that the current system of instruction will, more than likely, actually discourage thinking and depress creativity. This approach stands in sharp contrast to the Socratic method in which the teacher, by asking questions, guides students to discovery. Curiosity is another victim of the current system in which instruction becomes obstruction. Again, as Socrates reminds us, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” Here is a concluding admonition from this great mind that is well worth remembering: “The most important of all knowledge is how best to live.”

    The current system may instruct us as to the best way to “make a living,” but it does little by way of enabling the student to live a full life. The full life I refer to is a life in which the individual has the opportunity to realize his or her innate and unique potential as a human being. To inhibit this potential is to deny it. The harmful effect of this inhibition for the individual student is incalculable. To paraphrase William Saroyan, it takes a lot of learning for a man to get to be himself. In the present system, this aspect of what it should mean to be educated and human is painfully ignored, and we should realize that the only true happiness one can know comes not from the acquisition of wealth but from the fulfillment of individual potential, whatever that may be. The objective of the system should be to help the individual student to find himself as something other than a lackey for industry and a sycophant for society.

    Then, of course, there is the corruption born of a system that moves us from simple need to greed. It’s not only the system that becomes corrupt, for ultimately it will pervade the entire society it ostensibly serves. It has been sufficiently shown time and again that standardized testing leads to an irresistible tendency to cheat. It begins with the student whose subsequent life may be colored by what he scores. Then we have the teacher whose very employment may depend on the scores of those students. The same can be said of administrators who supervise the teachers. But it must be noted that it doesn’t stop there. An investigative report released in July of 2011 found that 44 out of 56 schools in Atlanta, Georgia cheated on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). Guilty teachers and administrators all confessed to cheating and blamed “inordinate pressure” to meet targets set by district officials, saying that they faced severe consequences such as a negative evaluation or termination if they didn’t.

    Who can doubt that such a tendency will inevitably carry over into the society at large, and since cheating has become so widespread, can easily be seen as not only an acceptable practice but a mandatory one? Morality is undermined. Trust is lost, and with the loss of trust, humanity is lost. This is a dire picture indeed. Can there be any hope?

    I cautiously suggest that there just may be. It will of course demand a reversal of societal values with nothing short of revolution. For those who may scorn the possibility, I would remind them that it was not so long ago that women could not even vote. It was not so long ago that racism was tolerated, schools were segregated, and everyone not a WASP was stigmatized in some fashion or other. Admittedly, no less than with the others, it will be a slow but inevitable process, but I fear that the only alternative is anarchy and a failed state. It will mean that the values of humanity, altruism and brotherhood must replace the greed of a capitalistic economy that has lost its way–a capitalistic society that has planted the seeds of its own destruction. We must adhere to the Socratic admonition, “Prefer knowledge to wealth, for one is transitory, the other perpetual.”

    As with any revolutionary change, it begins with education. To combat American exceptionalism, history must be revised to reveal the excesses of American imperialism. Geography must be reinstated to help us realize our global obligations. The sciences must be approached from a humanistic standpoint that allows for ethical considerations to keep pace with technology. The arts can no longer be considered a luxury relegated to the periphery. They are a necessity.

    There is one last observation which I would like to make in this appeal. Since most of our current curricula are designed to meet the needs of industry and society, any meaningful reform will require an alteration of focus in which the intellectual and emotional needs of the individual student are paramount and properly addressed. In this regard, I would strongly suggest that the abhorrent standardized testing be replaced with aptitude testing beginning in pre-school. With the realization that each child has his or her own unique, innate potential, it would seem that unless that potential is recognized at an early stage, the child’s chances for the joy of fulfillment as a human being become limited.

    Such an approach will most certainly meet with powerful opposition not only from an industry for which our current system is, in reality, a training ground, but also from a society that is all too comfortable with having us all alike. Before we ask the question of how to increase the effectiveness of the present system, we had best address the question of just what the purpose of education should be.

    Hal O’Leary

    Liked by 1 person

    • tultican December 9, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

      I agree wholeheartedly with you on every point. Thank you.

      Toynbee postulated that arrogance and greed inherent in humanity might be defeated by a spirit of altruism; a spirit to work for the good of the community.

      Daisaku Ikeda, founder of the Soka schools, says that people become human through education. He says humanness in not a natural state. Rather it is a developed condition.

      I think a big weakness in American education has been the fact that our system has since the common school era been a sorting system that selects the winners from the losers. We need a better purpose that opens a path for all people to be winners in life.

      In the classroom, I have seen too many students harmed because they were not learning fast enough. That is a glaring problem with standards, besides making learning unpleasant, it convinces many students that they are not valuable.



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