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.)

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

The Crossroads of Opportunity

The modern-day march towards equality has always been — at least partially — about public education.

When educational inequality was studied by James S. Coleman, they used tools —surveys and tests— to determine outcomes. And those that saw equal educational opportunity being established in high-minority and high-poverty schools looked further into the means by which educational quality was being improved.

Since researcher Ronald Edmonds and others made their observations known, no one has been able to definitively dispute them. The correlates for effective schools have been expanded; they have been rewritten and renamed; they have been reorganized and re-researched — and they stand as guiding principles.

Edmonds had followed in the footsteps of the leaders of the community school movement. Father of the concept, Frank Manley, drove the idea as far as he could and handed it over to Frank (Francis) Keppel who wrote the essence of it into law as best he could.

Jefferson's express of the need to educate the common people.

Jefferson’s express of the need to educate the common people.

Now, we stand at a crossroads in education law. What principle will we stand upon in order to do right by the children of this country? Will we side with what has proven itself effective, or go with what so many desperately want to make “work”? Will we repeat mistakes of the past only to discover it leaves children behind? Or will we travel the hard but proven path of equal opportunity?

Does a rising tide lift all boats?

It is only when you stand on the shoulders of giants that you can see what they saw. Understanding the concepts of standards, testing, community education, and the personal and shared responsibility of educating a nation of children is the ladder that can take us high enough to see the best way.

The opportunity we have now is to use the law —the reauthorization of ESEA currently called No Child Left Behind— to put in place the foundational principles of equal educational opportunity, the principles of effective schools.

Part 9 of ten blogs on The Road to Educational Quality and Equality that started with The March Begins.

The Realities of Our Time

“Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words [self-evident truths] with the realities of our time.”  President Obama

Today’s reality is that we cannot see what is coming when we don’t understand where we have been. And it may be self-evident that we are created equal but what is most evident is how unequally we dish out quality education. It isn’t because we cannot; it is because we will not. Face the reality; as a people, we are in chains.

If the president “knows that the path to the middle class goes right through America’s classrooms,” then why does he push to import STEM talent? Does he really not believe in the character of Americans? “Initiative and enterprise,” “hard work and personal responsibility” — give us a break. That’s all we ask, that you give us a break. As one Occupy spokesperson said, “I don’t want a handout, I want a fighting chance.”

The very chain that binds us is inequality — unequal voice in our republican government; unequal educational opportunity; an unequal start in the race of life. The pursuit of happiness is made harder when the man hoping to help bridge our realities and that quest does not understand our educational history.

And education does not top the list of issues that catches the eyes and ears of the public. The man behind the bully pulpit can change that; will he?