Education Improvement Thwarted by “Reform”

1 Oct

By Thomas Ultican 10/1/2020

For more than two decades, bureaucratic style top down education “reform” has undermined improvement efforts by professional educators. For budding teachers, beginning in college with the study of education and their own personal experience as students, an innate need to better education develops. However, in the modern era, that teacher energy to improve education has been sapped by the desperate fight to save public education from “reformers,” to protect their profession from amateurs and to defend the children in their classrooms from profiteers. 

Genuine advancements in educational practices come from the classroom. Those edicts emanating from government offices or those lavishly financed and promoted by philanthropies are doomed to failure.

The writer Kristina Rizga conducted a four years’ study of Mission High in San Francisco. She discovered a great school whose students do not test especially well. One of her clarion observations that almost all teachers would hardily second was,

“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.”

Sadly, every business and government sponsored education innovation for the past 40 years has resulted in harm to American schools. Standardized education, standardized testing, charter schools, school choice, vouchers, reading science, math and reading first, common core, value added measures to assess teachers and schools, mandatory third grade retention, computer based credit recovery, turnaround schools, turnaround districts, and more have been foisted on schools. None of these ideas percolated up from the classroom and all are doing harm.

True Education Improvement Comes from Teachers and Classrooms

Before becoming a teachers union in 1906, the National Education Association (NEA) was our nation’s most important influence organization shaping public education policy. The 1891 NEA gathering in Toronto, Canada is still affecting schooling today and the debate engaged in there is still relevant.

It was at this meeting that James H. Baker’s committee made its report on the need for standardizing education. It’s a natural tendency that as a movement matures people will appear who want to standardize it. The main argument for needed standardization was the difficulty high schools were having creating classes that prepared students for entry requirements at Universities because the requirements were so varied. The Baker Committee report led to the establishment of the Committee of Ten and the first curricular standards in the United States in 1894.

In the same meeting’s proceedings, Francis W. Parker of Chicago representing the Cook County Normal School declared:

“The common school furnishes the essential principles in the development and perpetuation of a democracy, and its growth and progress has been purely democratic; it has been and is, ‘of the people, for the people, and by the people.’ … State and national officials are given little more than advisory influences.”

“Our foreign critics mistake variety and honest individual striving for chaos. … 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.”

 From Parker’s perspective, the variety in public education led to an organic process in which innovation was judged by educators freely adopting it or rejecting it. The Baker committee’s response to the college preparation issues frustrated educator autonomy. The national standards they called for have a long history of undermining creative thinking and democratic progress.

In Young Zhao’s book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon there is the story of how the standards based testing system adopted for selecting government employees during the Han dynasty stunted that society’s growth.

It has been estimated that in 600 AD, China had at least a 400-year scientific lead on the rest of the world. So why didn’t the industrial revolution occur in China? Former Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank, Justin Yifu Lin says, “I believe the real reason of the absence of scientific revolution was not due to the adverse political environment that prohibited the creativity of Chinese intellectuals, but due to the special incentives provided by the civil-service examination system.”  

Scoring well on these exams was the path to professional success. The Chinese civilization was in the ascendancy when exams focused on Confusion philosophy and government theory were instituted. How can we know if our civilization is headed for a similar kind of trouble?

In his book A study of History, historian Arnold Toynbee provided criteria for judging whether a civilization was in a stage of growth or decline. He wrote:

“We must ask whether, as we look back over the ground we have traversed, we can discern any master tendency at work, and we do in fact unmistakably decry a tendency towards standardization and uniformity: a tendency which is correlative and opposite of the tendency towards differentiation and diversity which we have found to be the mark of the growth stage of civilizations.”

Some of the greatest twentieth century education thinkers warned against allowing schooling to be dominated from the top. In Democracy and Education, John Dewey wrote,

“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 122)

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

“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.” (Page 356)

Paulo Freire opined in Daring to Dream: Toward a Pedagogy of the Unfinished,

“Neoliberal doctrine seeks to limit education to technological practice. Currently education is no longer understood as formative, but simply as training.” (Page 4)

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.

In addition to Piaget’s work, there is the slightly different view from the Russian developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky. He believed education’s role was to give children experiences that were within their “zones of proximal development,” thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning. 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 no longer needs the aide for constructing understanding.

In the mid-1920s two women who studied progressive education under John Dewey and William Kilpatrick at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College exerted a powerful influence over education policy in California. Helen Heffernan was the state Commissioner of Rural and Elementary Education from 1926-1965 and Corinne Seeds was the Director of the University Elementary school at UCLA from 1925-1957. Their reign saw the most filial, longest and largest implementation of progressive education that ever took place in the US.

However, their methods did not spread to neighboring states and after they left the scene progressive education receded in California. My mother was an elementary school teacher in Idaho for 40-years. I remember her saying in the early 1960s that when children transfer in from California they are usually at least a year behind. Dr. Larry Lawrence in a private interview said that even at the UCLA lab school when Jonathan Goodlad took over, he moved away from many of Corinne Seeds’ practices.

 It seems that teachers found some aspects of progressive education wanting. Unfortunately, about this time, organic development by education professionals was being replaced by centralized authoritarian control.

Top Down Control and Bad Policies

On October 17, 1979 President Jimmy Carter signed legislation elevating the Department of Education to a cabinet level position. Thus the table was set for the federal takeover of public education.

By the time Ronald Reagan’s administration published “A Nation at Risk” a growing call for standards based education had arisen. In the 1960s, psychometrician Benjamin Bloom’s levels of understanding theory had spread widely. Known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, it became the basis for ideas like “mastery education” which has many names and eventually leading to top down education standards.

Vanderbilt University Published a Bloom’s Taxonomy Graphic

IBM CEO Louis Gerstner was so adamant about the need for education standards that in 1994 he even wrote a book about it called Reinventing Education. As the keynote speaker for the National Governors Association (NGA) conference in 1995 which he hosted, Gerstner stated three urgent education goals for 1996: (1) high national academic standards with accountability, (2) the standards must happen NOW, and (3) don’t be sidetracked by academicians.

Corporate titans like Gerstner and Gates foisted their misguided standards on public education. Their costly standards have seriously degraded the development of creative thinking in both students and educators.

Neoliberals like the Charles Koch and the Walton family have joined with religious leaders in the Catholic Church and religious zealots like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to sell vouchers. Money is being siphoned away from public schools to pay for students to attend private religious schools. Evidence is very clear that student outcomes are harmed when they transfer to voucher schools and public schools are financially harmed. This is the same scheme segregationists used to fight for all white schools after the Brown vs. the Board of Education stuck down “separate but equal” schooling.

The other big school choice agenda is Charter Schools. In his new book School House Burning, Derek Black observes about the plutocrats promoting charter schools,

“In their minds, the scale of justice should tip away from mass democracy and the common good toward individualism and private property. That means less taxes, less government, less public education.”

The fraud and instability of the charter school industry has made this so called “reform” an abject and harmful failure. Because the industry is being finance by draining money from public schools, they are being degraded.

America’s high school graduation rates peaked at about 77% in 1970 and then drifted down for almost four decades to 69% in 2007. In 2012, 81% of the freshman cohort in America graduated on time. These record setting numbers are the result of cheating and computer based credit recovery. It is another top down “reform” that is selling fraudulent corporate products while undermining education integrity.

Mandatory third grade retention for children who score too low on a reading test does lifelong harm to those children and the measuring stick is standardized testing which is very flawed.

Also, these tests are also not capable of measuring teacher or school quality. The only correlated student characteristic with this kind of testing is family wealth. The growth models called Value added measures often used to evaluate teachers are just fancy arithmetic applied to noisy standardized testing data. It is an expensive fraud.

All of these agendas have been forced onto public education by politicians and businessman. Instead of the democratic method of organic development by educators freely adopting what they perceive as the best pedagogy, we have allowed public education to be run by authoritarian methods reminiscent of the former Soviet Union.

Public education run democratically by local communities is the bedrock of American democracy. Today a rising oligarchy is demolishing that 1776 experiment. To revitalize the American ideal, start by freeing public education from a billionaire financed tyranny and associated political malfeasance.

4 Responses to “Education Improvement Thwarted by “Reform””

  1. Laura H. Chapman October 9, 2020 at 4:58 pm #

    This is a splendid history of a longstanding distrust of the judgment of teachers and arrogance of people with “one right way” to education the nation’s children. Thank you, thank you.

    Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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