We Set Our Course On The Wrong Destination

The Declaration of Independence is seen as our nation’s promise. It contains guiding principles upon which our nation was built. Its words invoked a vision, a place to be created, a destination. Because of it, America became the “separate and equal” sovereign nation it set out to be.

By 1954, it was decided that when it came to public schools “separate but unequal” was our reality. A socioeconomic and racial inequality in America was acknowledged. That fact alone was justification for the writing of federal education law in 1965. And we set our course of action on offering equal access. However, desegregation —a forced attempt to offer that access—overshadowed full implementation of the law.

But equal access alone was never enough; the American standard is one of quality.

So as 1983 rolled around, the National Commission on Excellence in Education openly questioned the quality of our public secondary schools and made the call that we were A Nation at Risk based on eleven “indicators.” The majority of those measures were standardized test scores. The course was set. The destination was higher scores.

At that time, the commission’s analysis of statistics painted a bleak picture. And even though some of us still believe their recommendations were generally in the best interest of improving education, it is the commission’s “final” diagnosis of the quality of education in America that has been a topic of dispute in education circles for 35 years — with good reason.

A decade after the release of A Nation at Risk, researchers at the Sandia National Laboratories conducted their own study of elementary and secondary education. The only article about this investigation that the public has some access to is a summary titled “Perspectives on Education in America” (The Journal of Educational Research, Volume 86, Number 5, May/June 1993).

Sandia researchers did their own analysis of U.S. student’s performance on international and national test scores in addition to looking at “the education goals proposed by President [H.W.] Bush and the nation’s Governors.” They wrote that their analysis “focused on popular measures used to discuss the status of education in America.”

They found that in “nearly every” popular measure there was a “steady or slightly improving trend.” These researchers did not interpret this to mean that we don’t need to improve; they questioned the appropriateness of the popular measures, the difficulty of predicting the future educational needs of the country, and they found us “clearly deficient” on some measures they felt were appropriate.

So if left to their own devises, would the Sandia analysts choose different indicators of educational quality and achievement? The country did not ask.

Have our policymakers taken their findings into consideration? The country cannot possibly know.

This group of engineers — admittedly looking at education from an apolitical, outsiders’ view — summarized for us; the challenges we must face, the barriers that can impede educational improvement, and the conflicts they anticipated with the “reforms” being proposed.

Their findings should have been taken as cautionary. But the country did not hear them.The report was suppressed. The report, and the perplexing act of its contents being censored, failed to draw the attention of the media.

This lack of pertinent information has left us drifting along using “questionable measures.” And we lurched forward with full sails into the gusty winds of conflicting reform theories while anchoring them firmly in law — without good reason.

Any comparisons of U.S. scores on international tests should be seen as irrelevant in discussions of reform until the faults in those comparisons are clearly explained to the public.

What there should be no doubt about is that Gerald Bracey was correct in his observation that 20 years after A Nation at Risk, “The various special interest groups in education need[ed] another treatise to rally round. And now they have one. It’s called No Child Left Behind. It’s a weapon of mass destruction, and the target is the public school system. Today, our public schools are truly at risk.”

Now we know the destination set for the nation is privatization of our public schools.

Today, to effectively use history as a guide, we need the unfiltered insight of some of our best and brightest minds. We need the truth.

As the Sandia report quoted Clark Kerr, then President Emeritus of the University of California:

“Seldom in the course of policymaking in the U.S. have so many firm convictions held by so many been based on so little convincing proof.”

And that is now sadly true of the nation as a whole. We set course towards an illusion that raising test scores would produce “excellence.”

Good decisions are based on observation and evidence.

When information is withheld, we are more inclined to choose a course of action that takes us in the wrong direction. And the destination set for us appears to not be the one the American people desire.

Once upon a time, we were on course “To strengthen and improve educational quality and educational opportunities in the Nation’s elementary and secondary schools.” We are now running full speed ahead towards the alluring but deceptive goal of better test scores.

It is time to write a better passage in this reform saga by starting with the long ago expired and fault-ridden federal education law inappropriately named “No Child Left Behind” and now called the “Every Student Succeeds Act.” To do so responsibly requires we have a true assessment of our education system.

If this country’s leaders sincerely believe in excellent education for all, they will bring the missing Sandia Report up from the depths and welcome re-analysis of both it and A Nation at Risk. Our course in education reform, and our monitoring of it, depends on wise and informed decision-making. Our republic requires it.

(P.S. A version of this blog was originally posted on TruthOut in 2014.)

America’s Crisis: One Part Education, Four Parts Political

“America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis.”              Jeffery D. Sachs

America’s crisis is real. Despite what many believe, the crisis isn’t caused by our public schools. Our public schools are a reflection of what has happened to our society. And rather than arguing over students test scores, the most important score in need of discussing is the falling U.S. Happiness Score (Gallup International Cantril ladder).

The rising rate of drug addiction, suicide rates, and school shootings are more indicators of social decay. But it would be a huge mistake to jump on simple fixes and ignore this opportunity to examine the factors underlying the problems.

What Are We Doing That Has Intensified America’s Crisis?

The country is being led to believe that if lawmakers focus on economic growth their policies will restore happiness in the American people and the American Dream will live on. But what the public is not considering is the current “paradox” that is giving rise to a worsening social crisis.

“Income per person has increased roughly three times since 1960, but measured happiness has not risen….happiness is now actually falling.” Yet,…

“Almost all of the policy discourse in Washington DC centers on naïve attempts to raise the economic growth rate, as if a higher growth rate would somehow heal the deepening divisions and angst in American society. … the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach.” Author: Jeffery D. Sachs RESTORING AMERICAN HAPPINESS

Sachs points to five major factors that have contributed to the decline of our society:

  1. the rise of mega-dollars in U.S. politics,
  2. soaring income and wealth inequality,
  3. the decline in social trust,
  4. post 9/11 stoking of fear rather than social solidarity, and
  5. the deterioration of America’s educational system.

What Sachs may not understand is that the American public education system has been under attack for decades. The “deterioration” has been politically induced. And the system has been re-purposed for workforce development in a controlled economy. Here again, we see the policy focus on the economy. That takes away from the other purposes of education.

What Are We Not Doing?

We are not considering the true value of happiness. And too few of our citizens are willing to sacrifice their time to help ensure a civil and prosperous society for the future. So we find ourselves without the critical mass of people to push public policy that invests in our societal needs. Instead, the current push to maintain the already established corporate state continues.

But as a society, we might have an even bigger problem.

Does the Idea of “Community” No Longer Hold Any Significance?

Have we become so hyper-partisan that words like “social capital” no longer hold a common meaning?

“L.J.Hanifan’s 1916 article regarding local support for rural schools is one of the first occurrences of the term ‘social capital’ in reference to social cohesion and personal investment in the community.”

Is the phrase “social cohesion” or “social solidarity” being interpreted as socialism? Yet certainly people shudder at the idea of “social collapse.” Are we giving thought to what holds us together?

We may be politically divided but the greater society has common problems.

Rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust can only be countered through social supports, political participation, generosity, education, and the will to cooperate and work together for the good of the nation and the happiness of society. It’s the only way the republic survives.

“The form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.”

– John Adams, Thoughts on Government.

So How Do We Start Alleviating America’s Crisis?

We start by facing America’s appalling reality: we don’t care about our children.

“A population that does not take care of the elderly and of children and the young has no future, because it abuses both its memory and its promise.”

That sad thought was expressed by Pope Francis. But for some reason it reminded me of a non-fiction book written by my favorite author. James A. Michener wrote…

“We are the survivor whose basic roots were sound to begin with and were carefully nurtured and improved as two centuries passed. Now, with dedication to the principles that made us great, we can at least borrow time. Clear sailing —albeit through increasingly roiling waters—until 2050, then the beginning of the twilight. But in the next half century we can light new candles of excellence, protect the ones we already have and gain an extension. I wish I could witness the next years of decision; they should be riveting as we face one crucial choice after another. I hope our genius for doing the right thing will guide us.” This Noble Land: My Vision for America, 1997.

We cultivate and grow social solidarity or we collapse and die a slow national death that most of us will not live to see. Is that why most Americans prefer not to join the political fight for the life and happiness of America, our decline won’t affect them?

“Why don’t people care, when it doesn’t affect them? Maybe people ought to start.

… Because one of these days, the person needing help, or just some caring, will be you. That’s why I care

Reason enough?

“I hope our genius for doing the right thing will guide us.” James A. Michener (1907-1997)

These are not the candles Michener envisioned seeing us light. Let’s get busy changing our society.

Santa Fe High School freshman Kylie Trochesset, left, and her mother, Ashlee, wipe away tears during a prayer vigil following a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, on Friday, May 18, 2018. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)