Wednesday, December 14, 2011

1989-2011: School Reform Going in Circles, Going Anywhere?

In 1989 President George H. W. Bush brought together the nation's governors in my hometown for a summit on education.  I was just starting as a high school junior and skipped school that day with my father in the hope I'd see the President speak at UVA's University Hall.  I ended up back at school a short time later after being denied entry.  The doors were shut just as I reached the front of the line.  I was told at the door that even though I had the hard to come by ticket, it was common to oversell the tickets to such events to ensure the President spoke to a full house.

Twenty two years later it is clear that policies that grew out of that summit caused a massive shift in educational power from localities and states to the federal government. The climate of schools then and now and who they worry about satisfying differs a great deal. The economic turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s became linked to an educational crisis.  Whether that link actually existed or not.  The same is true today.  This belief brought about major changes.  Those changes now permeate daily life inside that same building I returned to that September day.   The federal mandates have rained down onto localities, often without the needed funds.   Among the biggest things that that summit produced was reliance and faith in testing as a means to remedy the now accepted belief that public schools were in big trouble.  A direction begun and driven home under Bush then Clinton and again under Bush and now under Obama.  Change is good when things get better.  But the opposite is equally true.  Change can be bad.  The summit produced six goals(later expanded to 8) all of which have merit. 
  1. Annually increasing the number of children served by preschool programs with the goal of serving all “at-risk” 4-year-olds by 1995. 
  2. Raising the basic-skills achievement of all students to at least their grade level, and reducing the gap between the test scores of minority and white children by 1993. 
  3. Improving the high school graduation rate every year and reducing the number of illiterate Americans.
  4. Improving the performance of American students in mathematics, science, and foreign languages until it exceeds that of students from “other industrialized nations.”
  5. Increasing college participation, particularly by minorities, and specifically by reducing the current “imbalance” between grants and loans.
  6. Recruiting more new teachers, particularly minority teachers, to ease “the impending teacher shortage,” and taking other steps to upgrade the status of the profession.

President Bush(center) with Governor Clinton(far right)
It is the pursuit of the goals that has seen less agreement.  We've detailed the folly of that course ad nauseum but the over-influence of big testing companies, lack of research based evidence, and more than a decade of efforts without substantive results ought to mean that this approach has run its course.  Instead we are in deeper and have perhaps literally invested too much in testing to give it up.  In truth there have been few new ideas and true reform has been set aside in order to plow forward with testing, school accountability and privatization.

1983's A Nation at Risk report was the spark that lit the failing schools need fixing fire.  Funny thing about that report and its' recommendations.  It appears the Feds only read the cliffs notes versions and skipped some other important parts.  It certainly is something we'll have to revisit down the road and warrants more than a cursory review from everyone in involved with education.  There were more than a few phrases that caught my eye:

-the urgent need for improvement, both immediate and long term-how's that going almost 30 years later?
-we refer to public, private, and parochial schools and colleges alike- and what is actually getting  "reformed"
-The tests should be administered as part of a nationwide (but not Federal) system of State and local standardized tests.    Very interesting
-assistance of the Federal Government should be provided with a minimum of administrative burden and intrusiveness.  I think some important people missed that point?

The 1990s saw this testing approach gain traction and support in both the statehouse and inside the beltway.  It soon became clear there was money to be made.    All of a sudden politicians, urged on by large companies now with a vested interest in promoting this direction started to take notice.   Cynics would say lawmakers did so for either political or financial reasons.  Others might say the rhetoric was just too irresistible.  What began as basic skills testing is states like Texas blossomed into testing in competencies in periodic grades all along the path to graduation.

This reached its zenith under the heavily publicized but little understood Elementary and Secondary Education Act(NCLB).  In the wake of the September 11th attacks most domestic policy remained 2nd tier at best.  This law was a notable exception.  No one gave the long term consequences much thought.  When passed the Feds generally left it up to states to set marks and measure these standards.  When asked if this approach compromised the law then Secretary of Education Rod Paige said the following:

"No. In our country we made that decision when the Constitution was drawn up. This is a state responsibility. This isn't a federal responsibility to set standards for states. So that argument's already been settled."

At the same time in 2002 noted testing expert from UCLA  James Popham said of testing:

"Most educational policymakers, state board members, members of legislatures, are well intentioned, and install accountability measures involving these kinds of tests in the belief that good things will happen to children. But most of these policymakers are dirt-ignorant regarding what these tests should and should not be used for. And the tragedy is that they set up a system in which the primary indicator of educational quality is simply wrong.     ....   We have to create tests that really do reflect how well teachers have been teaching. Those kinds of tests will allow, I think, public education to survive. The kind of tests that we're using now is setting up public educators for absolute failure"

Rod Paige and Arne Duncan both led large urban school systems and it would be fair to say the issues they faced there might not have been exactly the same as most districts in the nation For certain there were and are kids in every school in our nation that are historically underserved.  But testing has proven far from an ideal solution.  Many educators contend the unintended consequences have damaged our schools and hurt kids.   Resistance to such test heavy approached was and is dismissed as defense of the status quo.  This works given the accepted assumption that schools are and have been failing our nation for some time.

So where are we now and where are we headed.  It was a comment by Geoffrey Canada which got my attention.  His close contact with influential national leaders led him to observe  "There is no plan".  The comment referenced whether or not the feds or states had a solution to fix this perceived problem.   Canada has done much to help kids and no doubt saved many.   He's a common sense leader who was connected to teachers, school and what was really happening.  A rare combination.   In another address  “You want to save your kids? You’re going to have to do it yourself,” he said. “Nobody’s coming.”  Yet the Feds came.  And so did the states.  It started way back when and now appears the new paradigm in education is top down, test heavy and completely reliant on measurable results.  The public seems to demand such outcomes if efforts and funding of public education is to be justified and seen as worthwhile.

 The quest to remedy what we are and were doing wrong has led to the neglect and in some cases abandonment of what we were doing right.   No doubt some things are better.  I agree with much of what Mr. Bush called for 22 years ago.  But some things are worse.  The narrowing of goals, curriculum and focus on misguided measures of quality are not good things.  In my state of Virginia 3% if school division made AYP in 2010-2011.  If they really believed that meant something they'd fire everyone wouldn't they?

We can now tell whether a student has acquired needed information.  But we might be losing sight of what makes a good school, a good teacher or a good education in our one size fits all approach.   The lofty well intentioned individuals who affect school governance have increased control over what we do and how we do it.  My only hope is that as we move forward I and all the other teachers will not be shut out of the conversation like I was shut out of U-Hall in 1989.  I wonder if our state leaders were once again called to Charlottesville if the rhetoric would appear any different.  Or would the call for reform simply reflect a consensus that our schools are in trouble and for the good of the nation something must be done. 

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