35 Years Adrift on an Ocean of Reforms

A Nation at Risk began as a commissioned report to define problems in America’s schools. It became known more for the longstanding political debates that developed. But did this single report produce the ocean of reforms that now threaten to destroy our public schools? Was it the report that forced us to set our course on national standards and testing? Or did a few choice words, and powerful people, set us drifting on the ocean of reforms that are now eroding the educational foundation of America?

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Like or loathe them, those words from A Nation at Risk live on in education reform infamy.

MormonWiki Secretary of Education Terrel Bell with President Reagan

As President Reagan explained, he and his Secretary of Education T. H. Bell “agreed that it was imperative to assemble a panel of America’s leading educators, an assembly of such eminence that the Nation would listen to its findings.” So when the nation did listen, it was Ronald Reagan, not the experts, we heard say, “…our educational system is in the grip of a crisis caused by low standards…” The words grabbed and held the nation’s schools hostage.

The New York Times reported that we were…

“being threatened by lax standards and misguided priorities in the schools” and that “the commission said low educational standards constitute a serious problem.”

If members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education did speak those words in 1983, they did not choose to write them in the official report!

What the report really said about high school and college standards was this:

“We should expect schools to have genuinely high standards rather than minimum ones, and parents to support and encourage their children to make the most of their talents and abilities.”…

“…we find that for too many people education means doing the minimum work necessary for the moment, then coasting through life on what may have been learned in its first quarter. But this should not surprise us because we tend to express our educational standards and expectations largely in terms of ‘minimum requirements.’” …

“In some colleges maintaining enrollment is of greater day-to-day concern than maintaining rigorous academic standards.”

And their advice for setting standards for high schools and higher education:

“We recommend that schools, colleges, and universities adopt more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student conduct, and that 4-year colleges and universities raise their requirements for admission. This will help students do their best educationally with challenging materials in an environment that supports learning and authentic accomplishment.”

In addition,

“Persons preparing to teach should be required to meet high educational standards, to demonstrate an aptitude for teaching, and to demonstrate competence in an academic discipline. Colleges and universities offering teacher preparation programs should be judged by how well their graduates meet these criteria.”

What A Nation at Risk Did NOT Say

You can read, reread, and word search the document and you will not find a recommendation that we set K through 12 academic standards at a level that all students will meet. Instead, we were urged to NOT see standards as the goal but instead set the expectation for students that they will do their personal best to push themselves to the limit of their talents and continue through life as life-long learners.

In A Nation at Risk, you will NOT find “standards” being held up as either the silver bullet nor the major problem despite what foes and fans alike —and the public—have been led to believe.

Look closely at the actual recommendations for standardized testing.

The commission wrote:

“Four-year colleges and universities should raise their admissions requirements and advise all potential applicants of the standards for admission in terms of specific courses required, performance in these areas, and levels of achievement on standardized achievement tests in each of the five Basics and, where applicable, foreign languages.

Standardized tests of achievement (not to be confused with aptitude tests) should be administered at major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work. The purposes of these tests would be to: (a) certify the student’s credentials; (b) identify the need for remedial intervention; and (c) identify the opportunity for advanced or accelerated work. The tests should be administered as part of a nationwide (but not Federal) system of State and local standardized tests. This system should include other diagnostic procedures that assist teachers and students to evaluate student progress.”

This one recommendation — that standardized tests of achievement be administered only at major transition points — should have replaced the yearly testing mandated in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But yearly standardized testing remained in NCLB’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Thus, accountability based on testing remains a senseless detriment to educational progress.

The Truth

It was never A Nation at Risk that led the standards, testing, and accountability movement. As Valerie Strauss recalled, it was “Reagan’s second education secretary, William (Bill) Bennett, [who] continued to pursue a policy that focused on standardized testing.”

US Secy. of Education William J. Bennett (L) standing with Pres. Ronald W. Reagan during ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House. (Photo by Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Influential people set this nation adrift on the faulty belief that somehow raising the bar with different standards and more testing would float all boats and stem the “tide of mediocrity.” It didn’t float all boats; it sank a whole lot of dreams.

The political focus on standards and testing drowned the discuss on the more important topic of expectations.

Getting Back On Course: We Need A Real Wake-Up Call

Think about it; thirty-five years of having political leaders telling the public, parents and educators that standards and testing improves schools is long enough. No, it’s too long! It obviously did nothing but create conflict, narrow the goals of education, and put money in the pockets of education corporations rather than in classrooms.

Let’s get back on course. Start by simply asking congressional candidates and representatives to pledge to remove the yearly testing mandate from federal K-12 education law (the Every Student Succeeds Act). It’s up to us to end this testing nonsense.

As A Nation at Risk affirmed,

It is by our willingness to take up the challenge, and our resolve to see it through, that America’s place in the world will be either secured or forfeited.”

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P.S. This blog originally appeared as an article in TruthOut (9/19/14) BEFORE No Child Left Behind was renamed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The name was changed; the need to fix it was not. The process to FIX ESSA should begin next year.

The Education Reform Oligarchy: How They Used Us

The education reform oligarchy set an agenda, carefully selected their mode of operations, and agreed upon the bait. They developed a vision, knew what they needed to do, how to do it, and they had the monetary and political support to move a nation to do their bidding. They used us to advance their plan.

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NOTE: Published in 1983.

With wisely selected words, they tapped into our frustration with bureaucracies and BIG government while marketing their wares, following their map, and sticking to their strategies — repeatedly and relentlessly.

They used mass messaging, mass media, and massively powerful organizations to launch and continue to float THEIR mass movement. Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 11.41.31 AMTo succeed with their plan, the oligarchy needed to undermine what was a strong public institution.

There was never any dispute that schools need to constantly be improving themselves and that unequal access to quality education exists because of socioeconomic factors.

And the oligarchy always claimed their plan was about systemic improvements.

At this point, I challenge the notion that their agenda was ever about educational improvement.

Published May, 1986

Published May, 1986

Did they really care about this country’s future?

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American Federation of Teachers, National School Board Association, and the National Education Association went along with the recommendations while ignoring the fact that the plan was market-based from its inception.

Business people look at markets. The oligarchy faced a fact, parents liked their schools. So, they expanded their market shares by creating an illusion of need. Their public persuasion took several forms.

This 1986 public poll shows that very few parents think their schools are failing.

This 1986 public poll shows that very few parents thought their schools were failing. (For the record, I’m one of the few.)

THEY TARGETED A POPULATION:

The marketing plan needed to target a politically active portion of the population who mostly lacked any real contact with —or direct knowledge of— the reality of our schools.

May 27, 1986

Voters understand that to get better jobs, you have to have better schools,” said [then] Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

August 26, 1986

“…parents are a declining percentage of the voting population in this country. It will not be sufficient to have just the parents in favor of better schools. We have got to have the retired population understanding that their future Social Security payments depend upon the earnings of kids who are now going into school.” —Mr. Lewis Branscomb , IBM scientist at the National Governors Association (NGA) meeting.

Was this about better schools or the education market?

“…the knowledge-based economy… ‘What 
is industry in a knowledge-based economy?’ The answer is the education industry.” —Mr. Lewis Branscomb, IBM, NGA meeting.

“Can we do education as an investment, a moneymaking profitable investment?” —Mr. Bradford Butler, Procter & Gamble, NGA meeting.

They had a financial target — to grow the education industry. (Now globally a $4.4 Trillion industry.)

They knew what was needed

“I think the key to engaging a long-term interest and commitment of companies is the adoption of a reform strategy…” Mr. Lewis Branscomb, 1986 NGA meeting.

THEY TAPPED INTO OUR VALUES and CORE BELIEFS.

We wanted assurances that our schools would improve; they sold us test-based accountability. We value freedom of choice and know how important parents are to a child’s education; they peddled school choice as parental involvement.

We have repeatedly asked for better-prepared teachers with a decent salary to match; they put forth merit pay and career ladders based on an unproven, and now statistically dis-proven, theory of reforms. The basis, “standards.” The weapon, “testing.” The attraction, “accountability.”

The standards, testing, accountability movement was rolling forward.

THEY — USED OUR GOVERNMENT RESOURCES.

Regional educational laboratories that were established in 1965 to do research and development were used to push the outcome-based strategy.

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New Standards Project was Marc Tucker’s project. He is the director of NCEE (National Center on Education and the Economy).

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Source: It began as one of our regional educational laboratories. Now McREL International.

THEY — USED OUR SYSTEM OF GOVERNING.

From 1991 to 1993, Lamar Alexander was secretary of education with Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch serving as his counsel and being responsible for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

What is most notable about this time-frame, other than the advancement of standardization, is what did not happen.

  • The Sandia Report was not discussed — it clarified many reform issues.
  • The warnings of the Education Counts panel were ignored —so we moved on with test-based accountability instead of a system that measures what matters.

THEY — USED OUR LAWS to continue putting the outcome-based theory into practice throughout the states, as planned…

“…the Governors were the key to the necessary revolution in school policy.” Marc Tucker, 1986 NGA meeting.

And just like they created a false market for “financial products,” they did the same with the education market.…”To Market, To Market: The School Business Sells Kids Short

“Mary Tanner, managing director at Lehman Brothers, which sponsored the first educational investment conference last year, compares it to health care – ‘a local industry that over time will become a global business.’”

Then as tragedy hit us on  9/11/2001, the federalization of their movement moved forward without much national discussion. With billions on the line, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) sealed the deal with the wording “accountability, flexibility, and choice.” And once again, our government structure was used to support their goals. Instead of research centers, NCLB put in place technical assistance Comprehensive Centers. Now those centers are being used for a new product. But standards and tests are only one product. They want it all!

We believe in having the freedom to choose but with schools, most didn't NEED to do so.

We believe in having the freedom to choose but with schools, most didn’t NEED to do so.

But with only 1 in 4 parents willing to choose a school other than their neighborhood one, the education market needed to expand further. The oligarchy went big on this one.

With the Eli Broad Foundation and Michigan Governor John Engler starting the ball rolling in 2002, the BROAD CENTER leadership development program was launched and their graduates landed (or were strategically placed) in our largest urban school districts to lead school turnarounds. Mostly, we saw disruption through school closures.

The biggest market shares were in the fifty largest cities where the "dropout factories" were ripe for plucking.

The biggest market shares were in the fifty largest cities where the “dropout factories” were ripe for school closures.

Marc Tucker’s National Institute for School Leadership (NISL) wasn’t far behind. He took a different approach to school closures but he continues, to this day, to use our money for his projects. Why isn’t that money going into public institutions?Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 10.16.34 PM

The oligarchy went on to use what they know will work… “disruptive innovation.”

“a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market , eventually displacing established competitors.”

Traditional public schools are seen as their competitors.

And they “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Hurricane Katrina – school closures and re-opening as privately run charters. The Great Recession – an opportunity to accelerate the whole money-making plan using our Recovery Act dollars.

Over and over, they dangled autonomy, better teacher pay, and better schools in front of us. THEY — USED OUR INCESSANT WILLINGNESS TO SUPPORT SCHOOLS.CDjZ3EQUEAA0IZI

But, finally, the resistance to pseudo-reforms has been growing. It is a fight against the GERM – Global Education Reform Movement.

The oligarchy’s sustained campaign —outcome-based, neoliberal, greed-driven, pretense of reforms — isn’t unique to the U.S. because this is a global market. So what we see here in the U.S. is what is being seen the world over. We win a battle here and there but…

“…the same ‘reforms’ are again back after one year, albeit in a new package this time. What does this tells us? This tells us that even though the [resistance] movement was strong enough to highlight one specific and temporary aspect of the ‘reform’ agenda; it was not able to make popular the comprehensive critique of the whole process.”student-protests-cbcs-fyup

We need to see their whole process.

As resistance to “disruptive innovations” rises, THEY will use “intervention design thinking principles” to manage the challenges involved in getting us “to engage with and adopt innovative new ideas and experiences.” But remember “innovative” or “new” doesn’t mean better schools for our kids. It more likely means a repackaged education product.

When will this nightmare end? It will only end when enough of us see that the oligarchy has used us, and, only we —collectively—have the power to stop it.

To the Success of The Education Movement

CHEERS!

CHEERS!

“What are the ingredients that any successful movement needs?” asked John Blake in his article Why some movements work and others wilt. Here are excerpts from the paper:

“Remember four rules:

1.  Don’t get seduced by spontaneity. Spontaneity is sexy. Yet spontaneity is overrated… Successful movements are built on years of planning, trial and error, honing strategies for change. A good movement should already have an organizational structure set up to take advantage of a spontaneous act that grips the public…William Barber’s advice for movement builders: Don’t wait for the right spark to organize. Do it now. ‘No matter where you are now, now is the time to build coalitions,’ Barber says. ‘You do it now because when the moment comes, the only thing that will be able to save you is to be together.’

2. Make policy, not noise. Successful movements just don’t take it to the streets. They elect candidates, pass laws, set up institutions to raise money, train people and produce leaders, observers say…. A successful movement is filled with people who know that it is wise at times to compromise…. Cast a vision of America that appeals to all types of people.

3. Redefine the meaning of punishment. The belief that modern Americans lack the right stuff to rise up is ‘hogwash.’… ‘As dark as things may seem at a given moment,’ Sam Pizzigati says, ‘things can change very rapidly when a social movement takes off.’… The redefinition goes like this: ‘No punishment anyone can lay on me can possibly be any worse than the punishment I lay on myself by conspiring in my own diminishment,’ says Parker Palmer.

4. Divide the elites. ‘Elites help movements when they feel their own interests are threatened,’ says Pizzigati.

There is one final lesson for anyone who wants to join a movement. Victory is fleeting and setbacks are inevitable. At times, it can seem like it was all a waste.”

Now knowing what makes movements successful, can those of us that fight for strengthening public schools by doing what is best for students see why the standards, testing, and accountability movement has come so far?

In The Crucial Voice I wrote, “The modern standards movement politically overpowered, but did not destroy, the modern community education movement.” And I will tell you that when I read that the Mott Foundation now supports the Common Core National Curriculum movement, my heart sank a bit because it was Charles S. Mott who originally supported Frank Manley in his efforts to develop and spread the community education concept — setbacks? Yes, a few.

“Let’s have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” — Abraham Lincoln

Spring Cleaning: Letter Discovered

My Message to Parents and Other Concerned Citizens:

This current standards and testing movement that began 30 years ago is a bipartisan effort to make the “outcome-based” model for education “work.” The education industry has done quite well while our children have not.

The goal set by law, in No Child Left Behind, is unrealistic, unattainable, and frankly undesirable. Our American character embodies the ideals of freedom of thought, equality of opportunity, pragmatic resourcefulness, and individuality. This law standardizes the education “outcome.” Who defined this outcome for our children?

The role of the federal government must be defined by us.

The role of the state must be defined by us.

Locally, it’s time to take back our schools.

At all levels, it is our right to know the facts, to hear the truth, to be informed. It’s time to use politics to take politics out of the education equation. As a nation, we must press our candidates and those already in office to answer to us. Accountability starts with them, not our children’s test scores.

No Child Left Behind is the national education issue worthy of our undivided attention.

With Heartfelt Sincerity,
Victoria M. Young