August 28, 2011

Where bad education really comes from

Sam Smith

Even liberals and Democratic presidents are placing an inordinate amount of blame on teachers for the state of public education, adopting the classic right wing practice of attributing the faults of a system to its weakest elements, in this case teachers and students This distracts from such issues as who is responsible for running schools, who designs the curriculum, who chooses and trains the teachers, the size of classes, budgeting, how much we pay teacher, the economy's need for graduates and so forth. Besides, those making such claims never offer proof that the percentage of bad teachers has really changed all that much over time.

What is causing this obsession parading as public education reform? Among the factors:

- A generally unstated awareness that American culture is in decline and the assumption that poor education may be responsible.

- The huge profits available through changes in educational policy such as more testing. Not only are testing companies helped, but also publishers of materials that help students pass tests. More than a few of these firms have strong political connections. Here's just one example:

NY Times - Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington detailed at least $1 million in spending from the No Child Left Behind program by school districts in Texas, Florida and Nevada to buy products made by Mr. Bush's company, Ignite Learning of Austin, TX. . . Ignite, founded by Neil Bush in 1999, includes as investors his parents, former President George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. Company officials say that about 100 school districts use the Curriculum on Wheels, known as the Cow, which is a portable classroom with software to teach middle-school social studies, science and math. The units cost about $3,800 each and require about $1,000 a year in maintenance. . . The citizens' group obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act request showing that the Katy Independent School District west of Houston used $250,000 in state and federal Hurricane Katrina relief money last year to buy the Curriculum on Wheels.

- The desire to sell public schools located on valuable urban land to developers. This has been a factor in DC, Chicago and elsewhere.

- The desire to create tax supported targeted education for those members of the future elite who can't afford to go to private schools. Charter schools and vouchers are designed to discover which members of the underclass are worth elevating to higher status, while leaving the rest in less favored public schools.

- Technocratic control obsession: Liberalism has grown less and less interested in direct action that helps large numbers of people - such as food stamps, social security and minimum wage - and more and more infatuated with control and direction based on an assumption of technocratic expertise. Thus, in the Obama administration, we have federal control of medical record keeping and a desire to assume far great control over schools. This is in opposition with a couple of centuries of American belief in local schools and with the fact that schooling is, at its core, a largely personal matter involving teacher and a student for which technocratic control or corporate reorganization offers little aid and easily interferes. It is also worth noting that typically those claiming expertise and control are far less skilled in education and teaching than many they wish to control.

- Political and media spawned myths about public education. For example, few Americans would be aware from the news that, between 1972 and 2005, average SAT verbal SAT scores have declined all of 4.2 percent. Math scores have increased 2.2 percent. This is not good, but neither does it point to a new crisis" In fact, these scores bottomed out in the early 1990s and have been rising since, albeit slowly.

Between 2003 and 2007 - when Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, was running the Chicago schools - fourth grade math scores in that city rose 6 points, or less than three tenths of a percent. The scores in Chicago rose only 2 more points than in the state of Illinois at large. Eighth grade math scores rose 5 points in Chicago and 7 points nationwide between 2003 and 2007.

The Chicago Tribune reported in October 2008, shortly before Duncan was appointed, that:

"The percentage of Chicago public high school students who met or exceeded state standards on a test tied to the ACT college-entrance exam dropped for the third consecutive year, according to scores released Friday."

And how did Duncan respond? In the best bureaucratic manner: "We believe the new PSAE scores are different from the old ones and that valid comparisons between 2008 data and previous years cannot be made."

Reported the Trib, "Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the State Board of Education, said federal officials reviewed the new scoring and found it to be comparable to that of previous years." But no matter, if the scores are good, take the credit. If they're not good challenge their basis.

Duncan - like DC's school chancellor Michelle Rhee - has fostered a dysfunctional rightwing, corporatized system of education that not only isn't working, it is damaging our children as it trains them to be obedient worker-drones incapable of analyzing or understanding what is really going on about them. The dangers of this system include:

- Teaching our children only to give the right answers and not to ask the right questions.

- Grossly limiting education to fact accumulation and basic manipulation of data, leaving little time for analysis, creativity, judgment, philosophy, gaining social intelligence, as well as learning about, and participating in, the non-mechanical aspects of life such as art, theater and music. This system deliberately teaches our children not to think.

Even that poster child of the left behind - the DC school system - provides a curious mixture of facts if you bother to look at them. For example, it's true that DC is at or near the bottom in SAT scores. But again, if you look at test scores over time, you find things like this: while Connecticut's 8th grade math scores went up one point between 2000 and 2007, DC's went up 13 points. In reading, between 1990 and 2007, Connecticut's declined 5 points while DC's went up five points. According to the logic of the faux school reformers, we probably should close Connecticut's schools and sell them all to developers.

One of the reasons technocrats like test scores so much is that it saves them the trouble of dealing with the complexities of real education. They parade seemingly objective numbers (and hide them when they're not favorable) and strut around with a overblown media status driven by public relations rather than experience and fact.

One of the reasons I don't like test score obsession is because I went through fourth grade at a DC public school that never would have passed the standards of today's self-proclaimed reformers. We had 160 kids with four teachers, two of them maiden sisters known by everyone as the thin Miss Waddy and the fat Miss Waddy. The school lacked special programs and we undoubtedly took up too many square feet to be truly educationally efficient. Nonetheless, out of this failure came a dean of Catholic University, a foreign correspondent for a major newspaper, an urban planning professor and an irrepressible independent journalist, just to name a few from my period - proving once again that in education, objective standards often don't cut it. What's happening in that square footage of whatever size, and who's doing it, is what really matters

For another example, one of the schools targeted for closing by DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee was in a heavily black neighborhood. The school, John Burroughs, put up a web site to help in its fight against closure. On it you could learn that this school the city wanted to shut down is:

- One of five Middle States accredited elementary schools in DC
- Meets federal requirements in reading and math
- Placed first in the city's black history contest
- Has a scout program, cheerleaders and a ski club
- Ranks 15th citywide in reading and 12th in math

There is no standardized test in the world that will tell you how good the two Miss Waddys were or that John Burroughs school has a ski team and that both these facts really matter.

There are a million things standardized tests won't tell you. Like the time I was speaking to more than a hundred public school students visiting DC from Oklahoma City and ten minutes into the talk a heavy set black girl stood up and raised her hand. Her question: "Excuse me, Mr. Smith, but I didn't get your last point. Could you explain it again?" I wanted to say to her, "Who taught you to have the courage to do that because I want to go hug them."

Another time, I knew whom to hug: a friend of mine who taught conflict resolution in the DC schools. One of her students was on a bus when a woman stepped aboard and got into an argument with the driver. The 14 year old student walked to the front of the bus and said, "Excuse me, but I've been trained in mediation. Can I help?"

Again, there is no test for that.

To improve our schools we must first change the way we think about them. We have been trapped into a technocratic mythology that is hard to escape since it has also enthralled the media. But here is a list of things that are important to consider and act upon before we spend another dime on more tests or close another school:

The need to need the young

It is commonly said that one needs a good education in order to get a good job. But it is also true that in order to have good schools, one needs good jobs. Educational systems rise and fall in response to the economy they serve.

A dramatic example occurred at the beginning of World War II. During the Depression years there was an assumption that many of the jobless were either too dumb or too lazy to find employment. After Pearl Harbor, however, such assumptions collapsed. America needed everyone and in schools, factories, and the military the allegedly uneducable suddenly were able to learn.

Today there is an assumption that many of the urban jobless are either too dumb or too lazy to find employment. But unlike during World War II, this assumption is not being tested because we simply don't need everyone any more. Instead we have let the social triage of race and class takes its course.

When fifty percent of a city's welfare recipients have a high school diploma, there is a strong hint that something is very wrong other than the educational system. Further, the word gets around. Politicians and the media may have abstract fantasies about the value of education; kids tend to be a bit more realistic.

So the most important first step towards a better urban school system is a better urban economy. The second step is to stop treating our young as an accident or crime waiting to happen and to begin respecting, helping and needing them. We could, for example, use older students more as tutors and teachers of younger kids. We could use high schoolers as community organizers.

We could even teach students to become emergency medical technicians and community social service aides. Imagine if every urban high school had an emergency squad that was not only medically trained but was able to provide assistance to the elderly and infirm of the community and help staff clinics, schools, and recreation centers. With a classy uniform, good training and equipment (along with a few perks like being on call on a rotating basis during the class day), schools and communities might find themselves with some impressive new role models. Can't be done? Well, it has been. On one Indian reservation, a high school developed its own search & rescue squad, which has become a well-regarded part of the area's emergency services.


Tara Parker-Pope, NY Times - A study published in the journal Pediatrics studied the links between recess and classroom behavior among about 11,000 children age 8 and 9. Those who had more than 15 minutes of recess a day showed better behavior in class than those who had little or none. Although disadvantaged children were more likely to be denied recess, the association between better behavior and recess time held up even after researchers controlled for a number of variables, including sex, ethnicity, public or private school and class size. . . In the Pediatrics study, 30 percent were found to have little or no daily recess. Another report, from a children's advocacy group, found that 40 percent of schools surveyed had cut back at least one daily recess period. . . Last month, Harvard researchers reported in The Journal of School Health that the more physical fitness tests children passed, the better they did on academic tests. The study, of 1,800 middle school students, suggests that children can benefit academically from physical activity during gym class and recess. A small study of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder last year found that walks outdoors appeared to improve scores on tests of attention and concentration. Notably, children who took walks in natural settings did better than those who walked in urban areas, according to the report, published online in August in The Journal of Attention Disorders. The researchers found that a dose of nature worked as well as a dose of medication to improve concentration, or even better. In another study of children who live in public housing, girls who had access to green courtyards scored better on concentration tests than those who did not. . .

The corporatization of public schools

Bill Kauffman, writing in Chronicles, argued that one of the most deleterious changes in public education has been the increase in school -- rather than class -- size. Kauffman notes that this was intentional, led by people such as Harvard President James Conant who produced a serious of postwar reports calling for the "elimination of the small high school" in order to compete with the Soviets and deal with the nuclear era. Says Kauffman, "Conant the barbarian triumphed: the number of school districts plummeted from 83,718 in 1950 to 17,995 in 1970."

One of the results of this is a redefinition of the many principals' jobs from being a school's leading educator to being part CEO and part warden.

Schools as part of a community

Part of the corporate education mentality of people like Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee is that they have no appreciation for the role of community in education. As Duncan put it: "I am not a manager of 600 schools. I'm a portfolio manager of 600 schools and I'm trying to improve the portfolio."

They close schools based on a MBA's sense of efficiency, without considering the immeasurable importance of having a community involved in a school and the children learning the importance of community.

The new approach is damaging communities by closing schools that not only served students but their parents and provided commonality in ever more atomized urban areas.

The importance of language

One of the most important things students should be doing is using language more. Writing something every day, not to pass tests, but to learn how to express themselves and use words in dealing with others. It doesn't matter all that much what you write - it can be poetry, ads, diaries or screeds - but the use of language as a central part of education is essential,.

Back in 1989, Shirley Brice Heath wrote in the American Psychologist of her work looking at the shifts in the in the oral and literate traditions among black Americans living in poverty and how this affected their education:

"In a comparative study of black dropouts and high school graduates in Chicago, those who graduated had found support in school and community associations, as well as church attendance; 72% of the graduates reported regular church attendance whereas only 14% of the dropouts did. Alienation from family and community, and subsequently school, seems to play a more critical role in determining whether a student finishes high school than the socioeconomic markers of family income or education level. . .

"For the majority of students that score poorly on standardized tests, the school offers little practice and reward in open-ended, wide-ranging uses of oral and written language. . . Yet such occasions lie at the very heart of being literate: sharing knowledge and skills from multiple sources, building collaborative activities from and with written materials, and switching roles and trading expertise and skill in reading, writing and speaking."

Charter schools

Either charter schools work or they don't. If they don't, you don't want them. If they do, then their use inherently creates a two track school system with the public schools reduced to what known to be called in DC as pauper schools.

Charter school advocates claim that their schools are open to all, but while this may be true, it's not as important as one might think. A door that is open is not automatically entered. And the child of a poor but ambitious or caring parent is far more likely to apply to a charter school than one whose parent is a drunk or depressed. A segregated system is thus created even if not by intent.

There is also the anomaly that if the core principle of charter schools - their independence - is so wonderful, why are so few public schools transformed into charter-like schools? There is an enormous argument to be made for decentralizing power within the public school system but the opposition comes not from teachers or from their unions but from school administrators. So you end up with hypocritical arguments from the likes of Duncan or Rhee about the virtues of charter schools while they refuse to lift a finger to give their own schools the benefits they claim the charters possess.

Finally, there are the hidden problems. Such as public systems that have to carry all the burden of special education while the charters have little or none. Or - as statistics in DC strongly suggest - what might be characterized as an attendance scam - in which charters accept large numbers of students and the tax funds that go with them and then many of the students drop out without the tax dollars being refunded. Thus the public schools get hit twice.

Bad principals

If you believe the media, there are only bad teachers and no bad principals. The New York Teacher, a publication for the United Federation of Teachers, has added a feature called "Principals In Need of Improvement." An excerpt:

"When a principal gravely mismanages a school and makes life impossible for the staff, it tends to happen in the shadows. Many staff members are intimidated and afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals. But for the sake of the staff and of the students, this situation needs to be brought into public view."

The quality of teacher training

Why is so much written about the teachers unions and the evils they have caused and hardly anything about the quality of teacher training at colleges and universities? Could this training by a key part of our problem?

The lack of arts, history, civic and sports

The technocratic approach to education destroys time and dollars for the very programs that teach students to be fair, wise, creative and useful members of society. Programs that teach you not just how to answer questions correctly, but how to apply knowledge to real situations and how to deal with other humans. Arts and sports, for example, are a rare example of public education involving other than one student and one teacher. Absolutely necessary yet being eviscerated by the technocrats. And what good is crude knowledge to our culture if the graduated neither understand our culture, our past or their role in a community?


Each of these factors are of great importance but given short shrift in our discussions about public education. We have let the discussion be run by technocrats who are deforming, and not reforming, our public schools, and - by doing so - we have created a far great problem for these schools then any bad teachers in their midst.