Two recent articles made me realize that there ARE limits to what technological and technocratic thinking can accomplish, and those limits are becoming evident as we see overreaching in public education.
One recent post from Diane Ravitch summarizes Peter Greene’s analysis of the Common Core. Greene, a pro-choice professor whose chair at the University of Arkansas is funded by the Walton Foundation. Greene concludes that technocratic universal solutions thinking like the Common Core cannot be applicable in public education. Indeed, he concludes that there are NO universally applicable fixes:
Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt. Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live. You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.
For proof of Greene’s last assertion, one has to look no further than the recently announced closure of InBloom, the Big Data enterprise underwritten to the tune of “$100 million in philanthropic support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.” In response to the decision to close, InBloom’s CEO lamented that “It is a shame that the progress of this important innovation has been stalled because of generalized public concerns about data misuse, even though inBloom has world-class security and privacy protections that have raised the bar for school districts and the industry as a whole.” Actually, Greene’s analysis is more cogent: InBloom’s attempt at a total victory resulted in a total defeat… and Gates’ impatience at getting schools on board with his data-centric vision led to the failure.
In my comment to Diane Ravitch’s blog post I observed that when technocrats make bundles of money using mathematical algorithms to “earn” money or develop computer codes and programs to corner the marketplace they believe they can use the same kind of thinking to solve social problems. Alas for them, what works in cyberspace seldom works on planet earth.
Today’s NYTimes featured a lengthy article explaining the political division within the Republican party over the Common Core, an article that repeats lots of misinformation (or perhaps DIS-information) on the Common Core. Here are two instances where the Times repeated the assertion that the Common Core was developed independent of the federal government.
- “The learning benchmarks, intended to raise students’ proficiency in math and English, were adopted as part of a 2010 effort by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to bolster the country’s competitiveness.” NO!!! The Common Core was adopted AFTER the USDoE effectively mandated their adoption in the States by linking the CCSS to the State’s ability to get waivers from NCLB
- “Supporters of the Common Core, which outlines skills that students in each grade should master but leaves actual decisions about curriculum to states and districts, say that it was not created by the federal government and that it was up to the states to decide whether to adopt the standards” NO AGAIN!!! The Common Core was adopted AFTER the USDoE effectively mandated their adoption in the States by linking the CCSS to the State’s ability to get waivers from NCLB.
Even more maddening is the depiction of the opposition on the left coming predominantly from the teachers unions “…because of the new, more difficult tests aligned to the standards that are being used to evaluate both students and teachers.” which is reinforced by a quote from Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam who contends the opposition includes “…folks on the left associated with teachers unions who are trying to sever any connection between test results and teacher evaluation”. As readers of this blog realize I worked for 29 years as a Superintendent of Schools and have written and spoken against the use of value added metrics for the past five years. Anyone who seeks rational, evidence based tools for evaluation would necessarily reject the use of standardized test scores as a primary basis in the evaluation process.
Some of the commenters tried to correct misunderstandings… but some just echoed the bad information or built on the incorrect information the Times provided. If the national “newspaper of record” is not recording information accurately, it is hard to engage in a meaningful debate about the direction we should be taking in public education.
Thomas Friedman is so enamored of the high tech economy that he devoted today’s column to an interview he had recently with Laszlo Beck, Google’s HR Director, on job seeking in today’s economy. Google hires “100 people per week”, which pales in comparison to the hiring that manufacturing enterprises did in year’s past, and doesn’t begin to compare to the 4,200,000 job openings that occurred in February 2014. That said, there was one piece of advice that Mr. Beck provided regarding college enrollment that resonated with me:
“My belief is not that one shouldn’t go to college,” said Bock. It is that among 18- to 22-year-olds — or people returning to school years later — “most don’t put enough thought into why they’re going, and what they want to get out of it.” Of course, we want an informed citizenry, where everyone has a baseline of knowledge from which to build skills. That is a social good. But, he added, don’t just go to college because you think it is the right thing to do and that any bachelor’s degree will suffice. “The first and most important thing is to be explicit and willful in making the decisions about what you want to get out of this investment in your education.” It’s a huge investment of time, effort and money and people should think “incredibly hard about what they’re getting in return.”
This resonated with me because I believe the same guidelines apply to high school. Not everyone enrolled in high school has a purpose in mind and those who don’t tend to do far worse than those who do. A “college prep” student enters high school with an implicit purpose: they are taking courses to prepare themselves to go to college once they graduate from college. A student who enters high school with no intention of going to college and no clear picture of what they hope to accomplish AFTER high school is adrift. Much of the reform movement in public education assumes that every student aspires to college… an assumption that makes it easy to develop standardized tests that measure progress toward that assumed goal. But many– if not most– students enter high school without a clear understanding of what they are going to get in return for the time they are investing… and without that clear understanding school is difficult for the student and motivation is a challenge for the teachers.
Assuming everyone aspires to or needs college is preposterous. We need to spend more time and energy connecting with each student in order to make our schooling relevant to them and less time testing them to see if they are “ready for college”.
Oklahoma, like Texas, has overreached in its testing and the legislature is responding with rollbacks after getting an earful from parents, teachers and other voters. What kinds of legislation is being appealed?
- “…the mandatory retention of third-graders who fail the state’s reading assessment administered under the Reading Sufficiency Act” which was repealed by overwhelming majorities in both the house and senate
- The common core
- A battery of tests in social studies and geography in the 8th grade, which, when coupled with previously passed legislation eliminates all testing of history in the K-12 continuum
- A-F ratings for schools based on assessments
The reasons for abandoning “reform” are mostly political.
“I think their constituents are getting engaged and involved. They are paying attention to the issues, and they will look at their options when it’s time to vote,” said Meredith Exline, president of Oklahoma Central Parent Legislative Action Committee.
Oh… and one other issue came to light after the legislature passed all of these “reforms”: changes require money!
Amber England, government affairs director for Stand for Children Oklahoma, which advocates for school reforms, said repealing mandatory retention could be seen as a sign the government has failed to properly fund reading programs that were supposed to make the Reading Sufficiency Act successful. She pointed to Oklahoma’s ranking as 49th in the nation in per-pupil funding.
“Schools are being asked to do a whole lot of new things, but they are not getting any money to do them,” England said. “These measures are in jeopardy because the Legislature hasn’t provided the money to do them properly.
So this development in OK, hardly the most progressive state in the nation, is heartening on some counts. They demonstrate that voters who are opposed to the top-down imposition of unproven practices can raise their collective voices and effect change— a sign that democracy may still be alive. They provide evidence that legislatures will need to either raise additional funds for “reforms” or pay the price at the polls. And, they indicate that parents are mad as hell about the testing straightjackets and will either unite to repeal legislation or withdraw from the testing regimen.
The development is disheartening, though, because given the choice between providing more funding to make OK’s public school spending competitive with other states or backing down on changes… it decided to avoid increased spending. It is also disheartening because other articles on the Common Core indicate the withdrawal of support for it was based as much on the content of the new standards (i.e. the inclusion of evolution as settled science) was as much a provocation as the common core’s link to testing. Finally, it is disheartening because the children who lived through the poorly conceived testing regimen, the poorly conceived efforts to address their learning deficiencies through the elimination of “social promotion”, and the narrow interaction that resulted from these “reforms” can never recover the time they lost preparing for tests that turned out to be immaterial.