Public education is nearing a breaking point. GARY STAGER assesses the players struggling to revitalize the system, and explains why all of them are failing.
This summer, as I listened to the unbridled joy of children playing outside my window, I read a New York Times article about first graders being placed in "Gift of Time" summer schools. For nearly 12 percent of first graders in East Ramapo, New York, summer break means being held back and receiving a "gift" of tutoring, with an extra order of tutoring on the side. Somehow, we are to believe that this will help slower children catch up.Except they can't catch up. When they return to school in the fall, according to the Times article, they'll be segregated in their own small classes made up of other kids deemed "low-performers." At an age when children should be falling in love with learning, these children will be labeled, shamed, and tracked. Such practices have been discredited by a substantial body of research (if not common sense) and yet more and more schools across the country are implementing similarly punitive practices. Schools are seeing recess eliminated, electives are being cut, and teachers are insulted by the prospect of having their career and income threatened by their students' scores on a single multiple-choice test. All in the name of No Child Left Behind, a mathematically impossible piece of federal education legislation, which requires all of the nation's schoolchildren to be above the mean on standardized tests by 2014.Our schools may very well be in crisis, but not for the reasons bandied about in the press. The crisis is not based on teacher pay, lack of accountability, or a lack of rigor. The problem is that we do not create productive contexts for learning in which the needs of each child are met as their talent, interest, curiosity, and passion are amplified. The last thing we need is another sweeping top-down reform. In fact, it is my belief that the dominant solution to any educational challenge will be wrong and make the problem worse.The tragedy of No Child Left Behind, and the private and public efforts to undo its damage, is that not every child is given the chance to achieve her full potential in a caring, creative, dynamic, and intellectually rich environment. And in the absence of ongoing classroom innovation and grassroots advocacy, NCLB has taken over.These days, anyone who attended school is an expert in education and everybody has a plan to "fix" the public schools-the philanthropist, the businessman, the bureaucrat, the politician. For ages, business leaders and politicians have wanted to privatize the entire system and let the marketplace sort things out-as it did with Enron, Chinese pet food, or oil prices. Now, they're taking control of schools through philanthropy. Parents of means, meanwhile, are opting out in record numbers, sending their children to private schools, or charter schools, or are homeschooling them. Indeed, as the federal government has steadily eroded public support for the public school system, through propaganda and failed policies, children are the collateral victims. The winners of the school wars remain uncertain; the losers can be found in almost any classroom.Of course, none of this is altogether new. People have been trying to fix schools for as long as schools have existed, but the tone shifted in 1983, when the Reagan administration published "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform." The report began with alarming rhetoric not heard since Sputnik: "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.""A Nation at Risk," which claimed that educational issues presented a threat to our very freedom, changed the tenor of educational discourse. "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today," the report said, "we might well have viewed it as an act of war." For an administration committed to eliminating the Department of Education, these predictions of an imminent apocalypse were the tool of choice to reshape the educational system.But it wasn't until the first President Bush that the government made a serious push for help from the private sector. Bush thought business leaders might be able to help fix public schools by running them more like businesses. So in 1989, he asked the Business Roundtable (300 CEOs and governors) to try to reform education, since governors and CEOs-administrators all-share similar temperaments and a desire to impose top-down policies. Armed with corporate war chests and support from governors, the Roundtable's influence met little resistance.Uninterested in the complexities associated with teaching and learning, the Business Roundtable demanded that state legislatures impose "outcome-based education," "high expectations for all children," "rewards and penalties for individual schools," and "greater school-based decision making." In order to enforce and measure these voluminous imperatives, standardized testing would be required. It sounds familiar now-these are the core tenets of NCLB-but at the time, the idea of applying the rules of business and competition to education was relatively new.These efforts fuelled the higher-standards movement. It's hard to argue against raising educational standards, but imposing uniform curricula and teaching practices leads to a paradoxical lowering of standards.The Business Roundtable continued thinking about education through Clinton's two terms-eight years during which nothing lasting changed the course of education reform-until today. Even though the public has lost some interest in buying what they were peddling, the damage wrought by the Roundtable persisted: Standards, and the measuring of standards, ruled all.
|It is my belief that the dominant solution to any educational challenge will be wrong and make the problem worse.|
|It's hard to argue against raising educational standards, but imposing uniform curricula and teaching practices leads to a paradoxical lowering of standards.|