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.)

A False Crisis Set Education Reform Adrift for 35 Years

The false crisis —created by politicians pushing a political agenda— focused the nation’s attention on the wrong reforms.

6-14-1983 President Reagan participating in a Regional Forum on the National Commission on Excellence in Education Report with Governor Lamar Alexander at the Farragut High School in Knoxville, Tennessee

The political debate that followed the release of A Nation at Risk kept the public from hearing the potential solutions offered in the report itself. While President Reagan’s report on education in America is famous for the words that helped create the false crisis, “a rising tide of mediocrity,” the lesser-known words from A Nation at Risk were those describing the creation of a “Learning Society.”

Unfortunately, Reagan did not speak in public about a “Learning Society”a concept that has now been redefined by a variety of organizations further muddying our political “education reform” waters.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education clearly conveyed the ideal of a Learning Society by its…

“commitment to a set of values and to a system of education that affords all members the opportunity to stretch their minds to full capacity, from early childhood through adulthood…”

The concept of the Learning Society is centered on creating life-long learning as the norm. It is about the need for our education system to ensure all children are learning how to learn. It is about becoming self-reliant in an ever-changing world.

The Commission began its study in 1981 with some well-defined items of “concern” to be addressed in their investigation. Included was “defining problems which must be faced and overcome if we are successfully to pursue the course of excellence in education.” The focus of the study was secondary schools (high schools and colleges). On the other hand, the false crisis was about all of K-12 education.

Instead of explaining the recommendations of the commission, Reagan declared that his administration would work…

“for passage of tuition tax credits, vouchers, educational savings accounts, voluntary school prayer, and abolishing the Department of Education.”

He stated that the political agenda was…

“to restore quality to education by increasing competition and by strengthening parental choice and local control.”

None of President Reagan’s political rhetoric was written in the report.

And as Valarie Strauss recalled Reagan’s education legacy, he “may best be known for his oft-stated desire to eliminate the Department of Education. What some may forget is that he changed his mind” in 1983 after the release of A Nation at Risk. Now, we can only speculate as to why that might be.

But if the past is but prologue, it behooves us to now hear some of the actual findings and recommendations from the commission that wrote A Nation at Risk.

The study found “inadequacies in the way the educational process itself is often conducted.” And researchers narrowed their list to “four important aspects of the educational process: content, expectations, time, and teaching.” Their recommendations focused on those four areas.

The commission expressed an understanding of an “emerging national sense of frustration [that] can be described as both a dimming of personal expectations and the fear of losing a shared vision for America.” They expressed their hope that this [education reform] “could well become a unifying national preoccupation.” They warned.

“This unity, however, can be achieved only if we avoid the unproductive tendency of some to search for scapegoats among the victims, such as the beleaguered teachers.”

Today we know with certainty that the warning was ignored.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education asked that we use “history as our guide.” They felt it important to remind us,..

“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” … and that… “American schools provided the educated workforce needed to seal the success of the Industrial Revolution and to provide the margin of victory in two world wars.”

The American system has not FAILED to serve our country. And the recommendations were made based on the belief that the future required improvement.

20 years later, the late and much respected educator Gerald Bracey called the recommendations “banal”— nothing new. Another decade passed as did reform law after reform law. And here we are, still fighting the same historical battles.

As with any history, our history of education reforms are viewed based on the personal perspectives of both the writers and readers. The readers have the choice of putting their own views aside and trying to understand that of the writer. Here’s how I see things:

Those of us born in the late 50’s, who experienced childhood in the 60’s and adolescence in the 70’s, have the advantage of hindsight; our experiences are now our country’s history. I was of the generation investigated by the “Nation at Risk” commission. The quality of education in my small, mid-western, blue-collar town with its racially mixed schools was viewed, by many of us, as mediocre. Its high school is now closed and the students are bused to their school of choice. Our town was put at risk.

So 35 years after the National Commission on Excellence in Education published their report, I can also look back through the lens of my children’s educational experiences during the implementation of No Child Left Behind in a western city — high-minority, high-poverty setting — and I wish the people of this nation had insisted that all schools follow the banal recommendations of A Nation at Risk. As a parent, I would have been pleased to have my schools offer what this report endorsed.

It took another decade before the false crisis was significantly challenged and then the evidence would be buried.

Now, I can only hope we will set things straight for the next generation —using history as our guide.

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

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 aren’t we 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.

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Update: December, 2015, No Child left Behind was changed to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The wording has changed; the problems remain.

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 (now called the Every Student Succeeds Act – 2015) 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