Monday, February 6, 2012

Crisis of "their" Creation?

Problems sure, but an "education crisis"?

    One of TU's previous posts proposed that the popularly held feeling about our schools is inaccurate.  Ask just about anyone out there about how we are doing and there is a startling degree of uniformity from the majority of respondents.  "Failing".  What this says is that those preaching the message of gloom and doom surrounding our nation's schools have been amazingly successful. The rub is that while there is need for change, the idea that schools are all in crisis is simply not true. 

   The catalyst for the message rose partly from the chronic gaps in performance between American schools and foreign schools on international tests.  Beginning several decades ago it gained more momentum when among other issues, concerns over performance among racial and economic groups drew more attention.  Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top seemed designed to provide evidence of failure.  This was leveraged into a frantic call for dramatic reform.  It could be argued some schools and some kids are in a state of crisis.  More accurately some communities are in crisis and schools reflect that.  But a national crisis involving all our schools?   Who stands to benefit from such a conclusion?

   Many argue that it is the children in our schools.  Possibly true, but opinions differ greatly on this.  To date, a call to action and the reforms generated by this "crisis" have failed to effectively remedy the ills so often mentioned as the cause of our failure.  The merits of reform generate a great deal of impassioned argument.  Their implementation has unarguably generated a powerful response among teachers.  The response from those at ground level so far lacks a visible leader(Diane Ravitch is one exception) or influential outlet equal to that of reformers.  This causes the teacher voice to lack clarity and platform causing any concerns they do express to be ignored or to go unheeded.

   In the hands of the failure reformers, what is heard from teachers is interpreted by the public as "all the things that teachers and unions oppose"and played as support for the status quo.  That turns many people off to teacher concerns, even if they are valid.  What teacher is opposed to what is good for kids?  None worth their salt.  Schools and teachers constantly strive to do better, always have. The questions remains what path is best to bring this about.   Despite the uncertainty and opposition, the movement toward rapid and sweeping change gains momentum.  What the source of this momentum?  Or should we again ask who is source?

   Reformers, that's who.  Individuals like Gates, Duncan, Rhee, Bloomberg come to mind.  Democrats for Education, Stand for Children, Teach for America along with innumerable foundations with varied missions all share the mantra of crisis.  One group less visible to those not in schools that stands to benefit from a failing schools assumption is for profit education.  Whether it be a testing company, edupreneur, software firm, education management group or a large corporate style foundation, many have staked a claim to public funding and are working hard to steer it where they want.  They are advancing their cause by spreading the crisis message.   There is no shortage of talkers seeking and conferences out there putting the failure message front and center.  Large sums are being spent on advertising or lobbying of politicians who have all too easily bought into the rhetoric of failing schools in order to leverage their own political gain.  So they too feed the crisis beast.     Supporters of this corporate privatization approach contend private groups can do a better job.  Opponents might point out they also tend to cost more in the long run and siphon funds away from students.  In the process untold damage is being done to a vital institution.  Ultimately what matters is results. Testing is the core of what's used for comparison by reformers and much is left in terms of rating their true value.  Most teachers express doubt as their validity and how scores are being used.

What will be the result of such a major shift in education?
   The result of this approach to education is potentially harmful.  Informed voices of reason are overshadowed by the call to fix the perceived failure.  In a society that demands success the  public expects measurable results and buys into this crisis mentality accepting more radical measures.  The blanket thrown over the public schools labeling them as failing is one from which they cannot escape on their own.  They will need the public's help to stem the tide of education "de"-form.  That would be a challenge with the national crisis mentality.  This path prevents focus and identification of issues that could be resolved independently and successfully.  Beneficial changes have occurred but you have to search for them.  In sum the smothering perception of failure has more done damage than good to schools and the people in them.  At the bottom of the education chain, in the local community and classroom, it has created to more problems than it has solved.  That's where any change worth its salt must originate, in the school.  Such innovations today are hard to come by with all the reform mandates.  So this perceived crisis has led us to the brink of a real crisis.

    Much is currently being done wrong.  Testing, privatization, top down corporate style reform is replacing much of the identity that was the strength of the community public schools.  Change and improvement are welcome if beneficial but there is little inclusive dialogue on how to go about this.   True education reform is nothing new and nothing to fear.  What would John Dewey think of where we are headed?  Have we have allowed certain groups and influential individuals to convince the American public we are failing so that any and all change is deemed as good.  One prime example would be the celebration of school closures? How can anyone hold that up as a success?  The deep divide among those in the school and those who seek to control them is evident in such a scenario. Testing scandals and debate about actual turnaround results of key reformers like Klein and Rhee are evidence the issues are far from settled. 

   Not working directly in education it is difficult to grasp the scope and scale of the issues involved.   Reformers at the top believe they understand them.  Using public ignorance as a tool, reformers have essentially been given the keys to the kingdom.   Emboldened by this authority they roll out increasingly drastic and irreversible ideas.  More and more monocracies are tolerated.   They decided schools were failing.  They launch more efforts to convince others of this fact.  They used this environment to assume even more control,  a dangerous amount in many cases.  They've done little to include educators in the reform process and have created a polemical landscape rife with accusations and even fear.

   Those promoting the failing mentality have become opportunists and seek sources of public funding.  Diverting public monies to their latest effort with seemingly little accountability.  Sounds familiar doesn't it?  Their high profiles in many cases have set them up for lucrative positions when they jump ship, leaving others to clean up the mess and do the heavy lifting.   The darlings of private foundations they set to work weakening aspects of the teaching profession so they opening the door for their ideas unopposed.  They work hard to influence Congress and state legislatures that their ideas warrant support thereby completing the cycle.  Outcome based measures of quality have become misguided, vague, ill defined and subject to manipulation.   If this acceptance of unproven and unwise change continues to be tolerated what will be left? 

   The simplicity of a national "crisis" approach is appealing.  It taps into the belief that educating our kids is among our most important tasks.  How we choose to go about doing that is increasingly becoming narrowly focused, controlled, defined and implemented.  If we fail even a single student it is indeed a terrible thing. But that does not equate failure for the school and certainly not systemic nationwide failure.   Schools accomplish much that cannot be measured.   Are we constructing a system that seeks to "educate" kids but falls short of things that will truly help them better themselves?  With the current trends are we really able to prepare them to function as citizens and serve the greater good?  We are creating a system built around failure. Continuing to do so will only create more problems that need to be solved.  Depending on the measures used you may or may not think we are in crisis.  What is certain is that a growing belief in that fact threatens to leave an actual crisis in its wake.   Then again maybe that was the point of those creating this crisis?

No comments:

Post a Comment