The Common Good & Education

Republican political analyst and writer David Brooks’ spoke about Character and The Common Good last week in Boise, Idaho. His conflicting views on the importance of community versus our current education “reforms” were striking — to me.

Is doing what is best for the next generation considered a common good?

Is doing what is right for the next generation considered a common good?

Brooks spoke about how love, relationships, and friendly interactions changes lives.

He believes the country is suffering from “a crisis of the social fabric.” He sees the hope for humanity in communities’ picking up communities thereby building a “denser moral fabric.”

He knows we are divided by education.

He feels our need for personal relationships.

He sees how both Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln supported “limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility.”

But my theory here is that David Brooks can’t see how education reform policies are destroying our social fabric. There’s a couple of reasons. One, A Nation At Risk (in his own words) marks his involvement with education reform. And two, if you view education reforms from a narrow political perch you can easily fall off. If you fall off, you can’t see far enough back to clearly view the road to educational quality and equality. You can’t see our history.

But, let’s consider the education reform road he, and the nation, traveled.

After the release of A Nation At Risk in 1983, there was a flurry of media sound bites unleashed on the public (more propaganda than substance). But what followed is what really set the stage for standards, assessments, accountability, and technology to be the education reform “gift” from the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and others. (See the fine print below.)

The gift that keeps on giving or taking?

The gift that keeps on giving, or taking?

In the decades that followed, many attendees of this 1996 Education Summit remained major players in education laws that govern our public K-12 system. That reality did not change with congress’ newest law – the Every Student Succeeds Act – ESSA. “They” pushed the law into existence. They rule.

Their governing philosophy —the foundation upon which they built our reforms— is that we were entering the information age and the economy was dependent on dollars flowing into the education “industry.”screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-6-00-59-pm

The fact that the majority of parents were satisfied with their child’s school drove the need to wage a propaganda war on public schools. “They” needed to create a market. (To Market to Market, 1997)

Keep in mind, changes in education take roughly a decade to unfold. During the period prior to the standards, assessment, accountability, technology movement, the United States was making significant educational progress in our K-12 system. This was also a time when our higher education was still the most highly revered in the world.

What the hell were we thinking?

Fast forward to post-9/11 of 2001 when David Brooks wrote One Nation, Slightly Divisible. He talked about the education gap and how the income gap had widened as we entered the information age (aka knowledge-based economy).

And in 2005 Mr. Brooks noted the maturation of the information age, in The Education Gap, as he linked “economic stratification” to “social stratification.” He documented behavioral differences in divorce rates, smoking, exercise, voting, volunteer work, and blood donations linked to educational attainment. Stating that this might be a “more fair” (?) system, he acknowledged that the system was creating

“brutal barriers to opportunity and ascent.”

A couple of months later (and four years after No Child Left Behind), Brooks noted in Psst! ‘Human Capital’ that…

“When President Bush proposed his big education reform, he insisted on tests to measure skills and knowledge…. No Child Left Behind treats students as skill-acquiring cogs in an economic wheel, and the results have been disappointing.”

… Brooks saw skills and knowledge as superficial components. And he went on to mention one of our “classic” government studies…

“…James S. Coleman found that what happens in the family shapes a child’s educational achievement more than what happens in school.”

So despite recognizing inadequacies and the misdirection of the No Child Left Behind law, ITS GOVERNING PHILOSOPHIES REMAIN IN PLACE — student outcomes as measured on standardized tests continues as the basis of our “accountability” mechanism?

Call it fed-led or state-led; it doesn’t matter. The nation doubled down on it…quietly.

And in 2009, David Brooks got caught up in the frenzy of “standing up to the teachers’ unions” as expressed in The Quiet Revolution. He, and many other Republicans across the country, jumped on-board the Democrats’ Obama/Duncan bandwagon of what they were calling “real education reform” — coupling student outcomes and teacher pay.

Never mind that test-based accountability didn’t yield real reform.

Never mind that family and other social supports are extremely important to student success in life. … regardless…

…the Quiet Revolution was celebrated.

By 2010, many involved in the American education reform war declared that Teachers Are Fair Game. Many people still believe that the major problem in education reform is that union rules “protected mediocre teachers.” I know many of my representatives here in Idaho do. But the vast majority of American parents don’t see their children’s teachers as the problem.

Time to Reflect, Reconsider, and Respect the Evidence?

By 2005,  the country recognized the major faults with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But it remained the education law of the law for an additional decade. The name was finally changed to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) but these guiding principles (the major problems with the law) remain in place…

  • yearly standards-based, test-based accountability,
  • the push for “personalized” learning through technology instead of supporting better teacher-student personal relationships, and
  • “choice” through funding of charter schools (which has been sold to us in the name of “parental engagement,” “flexibility,” “competition,” “free-market,” “a civil right,” and “equality of opportunity” to name a few). It’s the ultimate education-real-estate market.

We know what doesn’t work but we’re being pushed into more of the same through the rules that govern our schools —federal, state, and local.

Consider This: Our Common Ground

In 2001 in One Nation, Slightly Divisible, David Brooks asked; Are Americans any longer a common people? Do we have one national conversation and one national culture? Are we loyal to the same institutions and the same values?

According to his research, we agree “too many children are being raised in day-care centers these days.”

You see, we do value family and support the ideal of family.

In The Education Gap (2005) he stated that we “believe in equality of opportunity.”

You see, we do value the ideal of equal educational opportunity as expressed in the aim of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965 ESEA, changed to 2001 NCLB and now 2015 ESSA).

How We Missed Seeing the Trees for the Forest

In keeping with most journalists, Brooks only quoted PART of the work of James S. Coleman. Missing is the rest of the Coleman story.

Brooks touched on the importance of a child’s willingness to learn which Coleman delved deeply into and discussed it as “the pupil attitude factor.”screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-6-45-44-pm

Coleman discovered, as Brooks finally did, that a strong community support system for school children is essential to giving every student the opportunity to excel. Coleman dubbed that safety net “social capital” and defined it.screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-6-45-56-pm

So we do see!

In Psst! ‘Human Capital’ (2005), Brooks expounded on what works.

“The only things that work are local, human-to-human immersions that transform the students down to their very beings. Extraordinary schools, which create intense cultures of achievement, work. Extraordinary teachers, who inspire students to transform their lives, work.”

And by 2015 Brooks looked smack in the face of the solution. He does see. In Communities of Character he talked about …

“super-tight neighborhood organizations” and revealed, “…very often it’s a really good school.” These schools “cultivate intense thick community.”

And earlier this year, Brooks once again brushed-up against a solution to offering equal educational opportunity in The Building Blocks of Learning. About this I write with extreme trepidation!

David Brooks wrote,

“Education is one of those spheres where the heart is inseparable from the head.

Even within the classroom, the key fact is the love between a teacher and a student.

For years, schools didn’t have to think about love because there were so many other nurturing social institutions.….emotional engagement is not something we measure and stress.

Today we have to fortify the heart if we’re going to educate the mind.”

So here’s my reason for concern. Just because something is important to student learning does NOT mean WE should:

  • measure it in the children,
  • scapegoat the teachers if the outcomes don’t meet our arbitrary standard, and
  • make damned sure it is anchored to standards, assessment, accountability (and the technology to do that accountability) in our laws!!!!!

Stop already!

We know functional communities are safer, healthier, and better educated. The people in those communities instinctively understand the concept of a strong social fabric and supporting the common good.

Dysfunctional communities don’t get it. Their safety net does not include the strong fabric of our common good. And standards, assessment, accountability, and technology are no substitute for increasing the resources necessary to supply the proper and necessary fabrics.

“Better policy can help.” We need education reform laws that are free from the dirt and stench left behind by the education reform vulture-capitalists. Does the nation agree?vulture

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And are David Brooks’ views on the common good and education reform policies conflicting to others, or, do they clearly echo the sentiments of the nation?

“We” should have a national conversation about that!

Accountability of Administration

Each layer of administration in our education system — in schools, on school boards, at the district level, in state’s departments of education and the United States Department of Education — exists for a reason and to serve a purpose. As institutions designed to serve the public need, how are they being held “accountable” to the public?

Many education officials seem to have become more “accountable” to federal or state authorities for record keeping purposes rather than for the real purposes for which they exist. And too many times administrators are ignoring the people they are supposed to serve — students, parents, and society.

The responsibility for public education is seen as a “states rights” issue – or so we believe. But what does it really mean when the courts imply that they are not responsible for “quality” education such as they did in Detroit?

“…the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled on Nov. 7 the State of Michigan has no legal obligation to provide a quality public education to students in the struggling Highland Park School District.”

No legal obligation? That just blows me away! We are forced to test, label, close down schools, and move students all over the place but no one is responsible to ensure quality education is offered in all schools so that all schoolchildren can have equal access.

That is the problem and should be the focus of the solution!

We know there are huge disparities in this country.B8Uj_hlIMAAZ2XB.jpg_large

I happen to live in the state with the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation. Has our (or your) state defined: what are adequate funding levels? Do we have a funding formula designed to obtain more equitable funding? Do we have expectations for student “performance” to improve and “achievement gaps” to narrow? (SURE) Have we defined what resources they need to get there?????

We say we have higher “expectations.” Where are the quality indicators for all levels of the system and where is THE report card showing the progress institutions are making towards equitable learning opportunities? Or aren’t they really responsible for that?

Fair play would be for the public to have higher expectation of accountability for the system.

Fair play would be for the states to show us the indicators they use to prove they are being responsible stewards of our education system.

We have reached the moment when we should be able to see that ….

“We need an accountability system where there is local responsibility, true state accountability, and  a federal duty to monitor progress for the purpose of providing guidance and support.”… “School improvement must be a local responsibility shared through the democratic governing of schools. States must ensure accountability of their system through shared knowledge of measurable results and financial accountings of adequacy and equity. The federal government must return to its role of oversight, support, guidance, research and development, and dissemination of information, and serve when needed to protect and provide for the national interest.” (From The Crucial Voice of the People)

 We need to better understand the role of government in education.

State officials will be responsible for identifying their resources and establishing indicators of their success and to continually monitor and report on their ability to meet their responsibility.” … “The Federal Government has the primary responsibility to identify the national interest in education. It should also help fund and support efforts to protect and promote that interest. It must provide the national leadership to ensure that the Nation’s public and private resources are marshaled to address the issues discussed in this report [National Commission on Excellence in Education]. A Nation at Risk

I understand the federal role in education as originally described in The Smith-Towner Bill of 1918, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and in the purposes of the U.S. Department of Education as listed in 1979:

  • to ensure access to equal educational opportunity;
  • to supplement and complement the efforts to improve the quality of education;
  • to encourage involvement of the public, parents, and students;
  • to promote improvements through research, evaluation, shared information;
  • improve coordination;
  • improve management and efficiencies;
  • increase accountability of federal programs to the President, Congress, and the public.

Yes, we have some things to work on!

What I do not understand is how we have gone for so long ignoring the fact that some states are NOT living up to their responsibility. Why are we hunting for witches while the elephant is trampling everything in sight?

Are we blind to the parasites destroying us ? Or have we just been fooled for so long that the lies became our truth?

Why are we not asking for clarity on the disparities? And right now, why are we not talking about the problems with No Child Left Behind – AS A NATION.

If we want schools to improve, we must have state, district, and local accountability that focuses on implementation of the elements of school improvement. It is the only way we will ensure equitable resources. It is the only way we get real and lasting improvement. … a continuous improvement process with indicators that match what matters.

What Is the Diagnosis?

As a veterinarian, when I’m presented with a sick animal my first step in problem solving is a good history. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. For example, in a crisis I skip the history taking and go directly to doing what’s necessary to save a life.

The objective of a good history is to gain clarity as to what happened that may have contributed to or created the problem. A good history guides us in deciding the proper tests to run — always with the goal of making the correct diagnosis.

In education reform, we have been “reforming” at a steady clip for over 30 years. The patient —the public education system—has not been cured, has been given prescription after prescription all of which have made it appear clinically sicker, and the main diagnosis we are working off of is that the standards aren’t “high” enough plus we have now added that the tests aren’t good enough.

So let us go back to the time when a crisis was declared and the history of standardization of instruction, which had been tried in America in the early 1900’s and mid 1930’s, was skipped over in the process of making a diagnosis. Let’s pick up where we left off.

Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education reported that we were “A Nation at Risk” and ever since, the general public has believed that standards were both the problem and the solution. So we set our course of reforms on standards and testing.

We misdiagnosed both the problem and what that famous report said.

It is important that we know this because when we look at the patient today, the initial problems still exist but our misdiagnosis and the wrong cocktail of prescriptions have made the system worse.

Now, the country is addicted to the treatment; dependent on tests to tell us how the patient is doing versus looking at the patient itself. We are monitoring our system into destruction.

A wise old vet school professor once advised,

“if you see a patient back three times for the same thing, you need to get a new set of eyes on the problem. You’re missing something.”

Well, it turns out that another set of eyes was put on the problem and their diagnosis was quite different. The Sandia National Laboratories gave good explanations concerning both the interpretation of test scores and the proposed (now in action) “reforms.”

Censorship is as detrimental as a lie.

Censorship is as detrimental as a lie.

Some powerful somebodies silenced the report

#TruthBeTold ? Only if we demand it.

My prescription to revive the dying patient is this:

  • Demand Congress remove the No Child Left Behind federal mandate for yearly standardized testing and replace it with checks on the system at 4th,8th, and 12th grades only in addition to the random use of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
  • Reopen the wound of national standards. Air it out. Is it what we want or do we want national guidelines (benchmarks) around which we tailor standards to fit our needs? That discussion needs to happen in the open.
  • Let’s get new eyes on this issue and start with a full and truthful history. If there is a good reason that the Sandia findings should not be heard, let’s hear it.

Assessing the Risk

Is it fair to have said in 1983, and to say now, that we are a nation at risk? My gut tells me yes, forever and always, we should be viewing this republic in that light lest we become complacent. Wait! Too late? … Not really.

The words “rising tide of mediocrity” from Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education report, titled “A Nation at Risk,” lives in infamy to stir a divisive debate. Were those words a fair assessment?

To decide, I reviewed the 11 statistical indicators used by the commission but then I got to thinking; education reports of any true significance to long-term progress (which is what should be part of our concern) tend to run a decade or so behind any given change. And that is when it dawned on me to ask my fellow 1974 graduates what they thought of the education we received in our small, mid-western, blue-collar town.

I posted this on Facebook: “Albion High School (AHS) Graduates: how would you describe our education at AHS? Great/Mediocre/Poor?” Was this scientific? No. Is it significant? You decide.

Those that responded overwhelmingly judged their education in the late 60’s and early 70’s as mediocre leaning towards poor. Was it a “rising tide”? I don’t know. But what I do know is, as expressed in the responses by those that had gone to other schools, our school was “not as challenging as the other schools. I couldn’t believe the difference!”

This was unequal access; it existed then, it exists now.

John W. Gardner, an influential Republican in a Democrat's administration.

John W. Gardner, an influential Republican who served both parties and helped bring to fruition a federal education law under a  Democrat’s administration.

However, if you read down through the responses from my wise classmates, you’ll find that they/we were not fully crippled by the mediocrity of our educational background and we recognize that it took concerted individual effort to overcome the shortcomings of our formal education. Some acknowledged what a privilege it was to come from families that had and valued books and many of those that responded were, one way or another, able to pursue higher education.

I was left wondering about those that did not respond. Did they find support and fill the educational gaps? Did they have talents they never developed to their full potential? How much American talent is lost when mediocre education is accepted anywhere?

 How is this a fair shot?

And why are education pundits, bloggers, leaders, etc. still blaming a report for the take-over of education reform by the education industry? Is that a fair assessment? More importantly, wouldn’t it be in the best interest of children for us to look at and reevaluate our history of education reforms in a positive light?

Take the good; leave the bad behind. Change; improve; make progress

How?

“Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”  George Washington, Farewell Address

And as our American education story goes, it was President Abraham Lincoln who signed the Morrill Act “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in several pursuits and professions of life.” This set the foundation for the land-grant college system, our agricultural experiment stations, and extension (diffusion) of practical research-based information.

How do we grow a nation?

How do we grow a nation?

Lincoln believed that “The legitimate object of government is ‘to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves’.”

A hundred years later, the need to maintain the integrity of educational research and development through the use of our public institutions of higher learning was recognized by the educational visionaries of that time and written into law – the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And the role of the federal government was clearly understood as expressed by John F. Kennedy,…

“A century of experience with land-grant colleges has demonstrated that Federal financial participation can assist educational progress and growth without Federal control.”

A network of regional educational laboratories was to be developed intending to provide the basic research and development of practical solutions to the issues facing schools. They were to serve as the bedrock of excellence promoting use of best practices ( Theory of Action). The information they provided was then to be disseminated (diffused) to the schools. But the goal of forming a network to freely disseminate information (diffusion of knowledge) and assist in training at the local level was never fully realized.

And time marched on. The Reagan administration report, A Nation at Risk, pointed to the Cooperative Extension System as an example of America’s can do spirit. Ronald Reagan recognized that…

“Despite the obstacles and difficulties that inhibit the pursuit of superior educational attainment, we are confident, with history as our guide, that we can meet our goal. The American educational system has responded to previous challenges with remarkable success. In the 19th century our land-grant colleges and universities provided the research and training that developed our Nation’s natural resources and the rich agricultural bounty of the American farm.”

How we make progress is up to us.

How we make progress is up to us.

By using the right foundational building blocks, it is possible to erect an institution for the diffusion of knowledge that is built to last.

(This is the last of a ten blog series on The Road to Educational Quality and Equality that began with The March Begins.)

What Do YOU Mean “Standards”?

Our modern-day standards movement can roughly be marked by the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983. And “standards” crept into federal law under George H. W. Bush with the help of Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ratvich who promoted the use of “academic” standards.

We use descriptors of every kind when we talk of standards: academic, performance, process, content, curricular, core, opportunity-to-learn, and always “higher.”

But let’s talk about how to use standards. As Charles M. Reigeluth explained in “To Standardize or to Customize Learning?”—“If not properly conceived, standards can do far more harm than good….They can be used as tools for standardization—to make all students alike. Or they can be used as tools for customization—to help meet individual students’ needs”

We can look at it this way: There is no standard way to drive; there are rules, there are guidelines, but when it comes to getting behind the wheel, it’s an individual thing with decisions made based on variables. Reigeluth provided this —“To use a travel analogy, standards for manufacturing are comparable to a single destination for all travelers to reach, whereas standards for education are more like milestones on many never-ending journeys whereby different travelers may go to many different places.

Who chooses the road for our young travelers?

Who chooses the road for our young travelers?

As long as we offer all of our education traveler’s quality opportunities along the way, we have fulfilled the promise of equal opportunity. But we have not.

The process for using standards is not simple. It seems reasonable to have content standards developed in cooperation with experts in the content areas; that is where “experts” can help “locals.” And after that (again quoting Marzano & Kendall,1997) “standards-based approaches must be tailor made to the specific needs and values of individual schools and districts.”

So, the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) regional educational laboratory long ago developed a data base of content standards along with advice on how to use them to develop classroom curriculum to meet the needs of the community. My advice is to use what we know.

This controversial and divisive topic of “standards” comes down to the fact that we can take a “content” standard, which is a description of what the student should know and be able to do (as defined by experts in a given subject) and turn it into a “curriculum” standard which takes into account how a subject is best presented along with suggested activities. This produces a usable instructional framework.

Ultimately, what is “best” for students in any given classroom can only be decided right there in the classroom, in real time, with much prior planning. This is a starting point in the travel toward excellence.

But we must be clear — standards for academic achievement are not the same as standardization of instruction.

And as was pointed out in A Nation at Risk, standardized tests of achievement should be “administered at major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work.”

We sure as shootin’ blew that advice to hell and back!

Part 6 of ten blogs on The Road to Educational Quality and Equality that started with The March Begins.