Op-ed column: A bad way to learn
Education reformers try to repair schools with ideas that didn’t work to begin with
If an English teacher wrote a column titled “Ten Steps to a Military Victory in Afghanistan,” you probably wouldn’t read it. And its author wouldn’t be invited to an Oval Office strategy session.
We consult surgeons about surgery, engineers about engines and architects about skyscrapers. But when it comes to fixing schools, we consistently rely on people who have absolutely no firsthand experience with real students or classrooms.
No wonder education reform hasn’t made schools better.
“Ten Steps to Make Schools World-Class” was authored by two former labor secretaries and Marc Tucker, founder and president of the organization that commissioned the report. Tucker gained prominence during the 1980s and the Clinton years when, based on his spotless lack of experience teaching in public schools, he championed a “radical” blueprint to restructure public schools.
Decade of bad ideas
From “outcome based education” to portfolios, Tucker was instrumental in foisting more than a decade of bad ideas on public education. His organization preached high standards, but their restructuring initiatives actually lowered them. Their assessment schemes, which are still with us, produce data so unreliable that the RAND Corporation concluded they identified not good and bad schools, but lucky and unlucky ones.
Tucker and his coauthors assert that “today’s younger generation is the first to be less educated than the preceding one,” an allegation that’s true in large measure because of the 30 years of education reform that Tucker has actively promoted. They find No Child Left Behind, the decade-long unsuccessful response to Tucker’s more than decade-long unsuccessful reforms, too focused on “minimum standards” that are “nowhere near enough” to genuine world-class goals. They don’t explain how setting higher standards for students who currently aren’t meeting lower standards will solve the problem, but Tucker has always skipped that part.
They prescribe higher licensing standards to recruit teachers from the “top third of college graduates.” Since simply making it harder to become a teacher probably won’t entice more people into the classroom, the authors recommend that teachers’ pay should “rise a lot.” Aside from displeasing taxpayers, their strategy ignores the fact that money isn’t why most graduates choose other careers. Some people just don’t relish spending their days with hundreds of other people’s children, many of whom are less than eager to be there.
Tucker’s team recommends treating teachers like professionals. This means “putting teachers in charge of their schools,” a curious suggestion coming from a non-teacher who’s spent 25 years telling teachers how to teach.
The authors advise replacing “multiple-choice, computer-scored tests” with “high quality, course-based exams.” That sounds good, but it’s really restructuring code for the subjectively scored portfolios and rubric-scored assessments that can’t provide reliable data.
Parents could then use these meaningless scores to choose “among available public schools.” Except there’s little difference in the achievement record of charter and public schools.
Any school where 90 percent of its students aren’t “ready to enter college” would be “declared bankrupt,” and all its employees fired. Set aside the absurdity that 90 percent of any group is capable of college coursework. Who are they planning to replace everybody with? It’s not like thousands of competent teachers are waiting in line. And even if you replace every teacher, you’re still dealing with the same students. Believe it or not, a lot of public education’s problems are rooted in students, their parents, and society.
To help struggling schools, the authors prescribe federal technical assistance. There’s nothing new about technical assistance. It currently means your school didn’t do well on the tests that can’t measure anything, so state officials are sending experts to show you how to teach right.
Unfortunately, the experts are typically non-teachers or ex-teachers who couldn’t survive in the classroom themselves, and they’re usually armed with the same bankrupt reforms that helped cause the academic decline in the first place. According to the 10 steps, however, once the non-help comes from federal experts, our problems will be solved.
The authors prescribe a range of social services delivered at school as part of “students’ school programs.”
This ignores A Nation at Risk’s 1983 warning about the crippling educational cost incurred when schools are required to divert resources and time from academics to “personal, social, and political problems that the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve.”
In short, the authors’ 10 steps toward world-class schools are really 10 steps backwards into 40 years of bankrupt reforms that helped put us where we are today.
We don’t need new assessments. Teachers, employers, professors, and parents already know our students aren’t learning enough. We don’t need new restructuring regimes. The labor of learning hasn’t changed since Socrates and I were boys. That’s because the human mind hasn’t changed.
What has changed are our expectations. Until we cast off our sense of entitlement, until we again embrace hard work, until we demand decent behavior in our streets and classrooms, our schools and students won’t succeed.
The key to world-class schools is a world-class people.
That’s the first step we need to take.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vt. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.