I’ve read a lot of education history books but most of them begin at the turn of the last century when public education as we know it today was put in place across the country. Today’s NYTimes features an article by University of Wisconsin professor William J. Reese called “The First Race to the Top”, which describes Massachusetts State Board of Education Chairman Horace Mann’s testing initiative in Boston in the 1840s. The article recounts Mann’s return from Prussia where he observed the school systems in place there and “…in a nationally publicized report (stated) that Prussia’s schools were more child-friendly and superior to America’s”. The local media went into a frenzy that parallels today’s reporting. One section the article jumped out:
The examiners explained in a lengthy report that they wanted “positive information, in black and white,” to reveal what students knew. For further comparison, Howe’s (examination) committee gave the same test in towns outside of Boston, including Roxbury, then a prosperous suburb.
All summer, Howe and his colleagues hand-graded the tests, evaluating 31,159 responses. The average score was 30 percent. The committee wrote a searching commentary on the outcome and prepared tables ranking the schools by average score. They all fell short of the standard achieved in Roxbury.
Five years lated, when the Board of Examiners advocating tests were replaced by a new set of examiners, the new chairman wrote:
“Comparison of schools cannot be just,” the chairman of the examining committee wrote in 1850, “while the subjects of instruction are so differently situated as to fire-side influence, and subjected to the draw-backs inseparable from place of birth, of age, of residence, and many other adverse circumstances.”
Reese concludes his op ed article with these paragraphs:
The members of Howe’s committee were mesmerized by the charms of numbers, tables and ranked lists, but they also warned that schools performed many important tasks, not easily measured statistically, like teaching norms of civility and good citizenship. And what the public wants from its schools has only grown.
We have come a long way since the summer of 1845. Public education, then in its infancy, is now universal. Testing yields essential, valuable knowledge about school performance, but its exaggerated use distorts teaching and ignores the broader purpose of education. As Howe’s committee insisted, test results should not be the full and final judgment on schools and their teachers. There is more to a child’s education than “positive information, in black and white.”
Arne Duncan can read this and assert that his use of tests is NOT “exaggerated” and is balanced by observations… but the media and businessmen remain “mesmerized by the charms of numbers, tables and ranked lists” will continue applying pressure on schools based solely on test scores… and those tests reinforce the current structure of schools based on age-based grade level cohorts.
In “Capitalist for Pre-School, an op ed piece in today’s NYTimes by John E. Pepper, Jr. and James Zimmerman, two “long time corporate executives”, demonstrates a solid understanding of the educational argument for the implementation of “quality pre-Kindergarten” programs… but displays extreme naivete when it comes to financing the initiative.
Their argument for universal pre-school is supported with the same rationale that progressive educators use:
Children who attend high-quality preschool do much better when they arrive in kindergarten, and this makes an enormous difference for their later success. The data on preschool is overwhelmingly positive. Although some studies suggest that the positive impact decreases over time, this is mainly attributable to differences in the quality of preschool and of the schooling that follows — not a deficiency in preschool itself.
The article cites a number of examples of successful pre-schools presenting data that illustrates their proven track record. The article also notes that our competition is making large investments in pre-Kindergarten programs, which promises to widen “our greatest deficit in this country — the one that most threatens our future as a nation — …our education deficit” All of this verbiage could come from an article in The Nation or Common Dreams. The article stumbles badly though when it attempts to answer the question about how this could be funded:
Some will ask where the money will come from, at a time when states and localities are even more strapped than the federal government. While there are a variety of financing proposals, we do not believe higher taxes will be necessary in every jurisdiction.
Rather, we believe the right approach will be to rebalance and optimize the money we are spending now. The amount of money being spent on early childhood education is so small currently that we are confident it is possible to achieve the efficiencies needed to shift money from other areas of investment.
Last year, only 2 percent of Ohio’s general-fund budget went to early childhood education. We believe that, with proper planning, that amount could be doubled without compromising other financing streams.
I am a longtime school superintendent and I can tell you that Pepper and Zimmerman’s superficial analysis of costs is WAY off the mark. They seem to base their “rebalance and optimize” argument on the fact that 2% of Ohio’s general fund budget goes to early childhood education. This logic is flawed because it is based on two assumptions: that the all State funded programs are “high quality” in the same way as their exemplary programs; and that the cost to operate exemplary programs is equal to or less than the costs of lower quality programs. The logic is also flawed because many states have less than 2% of their operating budgets earmarked for pre-school education. Bottom line: more money WILL be needed and it will come from all jurisdictions— especially if one of the goals is to provide “struggling families who are living in poverty or close to it (often, even while holding down full-time jobs)” with a chance to improve the lives of their children.
Finally, like most businessmen I’ve come in contact with over my 29 years as Superintendent, Pepper and Zimmerman have no experience working in a democracy. States and local school boards do not have the ability to unilaterally “rebalance and optimize” their budgets because every budget cut they want to make has to pass muster with voters. As I’ve written in other blog posts, businessperson can sit in a padded chair in a windowless board room and make decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis… elected officials make budget decisions sitting in folding chairs in front of the people who will be affected by the cuts. Rebalancing and optimizing isn’t as easy in the public sector as it is in the private sector.
I am pleased that the business community is supporting pre-school. Now they need to understand that it will require more than rebalancing and optimizing: it will require an infusion of cash.
A blog post by Diane Ravitch earlier today included a link to an Education Week article by Nancy Flanagan which included this description of Detroit, MI:
There are 50,000 homeless people in the city. There are 30,000 houses with no running water, 10,000 occupied homes with no power, and 40,000 homes in foreclosure. One-third of the land in the city is empty, vacant–and there’s no supermarket in the city limits, so 90% of purchased “food” comes from 7-11s, gas stations and fast food outlets. Burned-out houses are everywhere, and there are entire neighborhoods where unemployment is universal.
And we know who is to blame for the low performance of students on standardized achievement tests: why its those greedy unionized teachers.
My response to the article and blog post follows:
The 7-11s replacing supermarkets is a perfect metaphor for what will happen to public schools if legislatures, boards, and voters endorse the notion that unregulated private enterprise can solve the problems of schooling. The for-profit 7-11 charters will offer bare bones curricula while the full-service suburban schools will provide a wide range of offerings…. Blaming teachers for low performing students is like blaming the 7-11 clerk for bad nutrition in the community.
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