Let’s Have a Real Discussion about Education Policy

Back in August President Obama gave a speech about education policy at Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas. Here’s a snippet posted in a blog piece

Education should not be a Democratic or a Republican issue. It’s an American issue. It’s about what’s best for our kids. And I haven’t just talked the talk, I’ve walked the walk on this. Over the past four years, we’ve broken through the traditional stalemate that used to exist between the left and the right, between conservatives and liberals. We launched a national competition to improve all our schools. We put more money into it, but we also demanded reform. We want teachers to be paid better and treated like the professionals that they are. But we’re also demanding more accountability, including the ability of school districts to replace teachers that aren’t cutting it.

If you unpack this paragraph from his speech there is so much context underneath that bears further discussion and much of which I find particularly frustrating.

First of all, why shouldn’t education be a political issue? Isn’t the whole point of having a democracy to use it to bring a range of thinking to the table and continually find an ever-evolving consensus (or at least a working majority) to evolve our society and its institutions? What if he said, “Economic policy should not be a political issue, it’s about what’s best for the country”, would people accept that as well? Taking this argument to its logical end point, why have a political process at all?

Obama’s Dilemma

Regardless of my basic political philosophy questions, I think I understand Obama’s reticence to make education policy a political issue.

Obama at his heart (despite conservative spin doctor talking points) is a pragmatic community organizer, whose natural instinct is to find a working middle ground and get things done. This was clearly evident to me in his administration’s management of the crafting of health care reform legislation. Business-friendly ideas about a market-based solution including a mandate to purchase insurance were combined with progressive political ideas about expanding the health care safety net for the economically disadvantaged among us. But other progressive ideas about single payer or a public option, which were antithetical to our existing mostly for-profit health care and insurance industry, were jettisoned, to find that working middle ground to move forward.

It was a very rude awakening for that pragmatic community organizer to have the Congressional Republicans make a political calculation that it was in their best political interest to oppose the health care reform bill, even in its compromise form with all its business-friendly components. With a House majority and sixty votes in the Senate (until Ted Kennedy died), Obama was forced by the GOP to govern from the left, while they solidified their base on the right (including the insurgent Tea Party) and made a successful play in the 2010 election for the middle.

So when it comes to education policy, it is not in Obama’s pedigree to look for an ideological fight, but to find middle ground and from there try to take concrete steps forward. The currently accepted middle ground, such as it is, emerged in 2001 with the “No Child Left Behind Act”, which involved a partnering of the conservative Bush administration and Teddy Kennedy, the leading Congressional progressive, gaining broad support from both Democrats and Republicans. Like health care reform legislation a decade later, NCLB combined conservative ideas about measurable standards, high-stakes testing and school choice, with progressive ideas to promote educational equity between rich and poor.

Our Education System Governance Conundrum

What’s particularly frustrating to me is that NCLB “works” for the people who manage our public education system and are charged with implementing the policy, while at the same time failing our kids (the users of the system) and the teachers that are trying to help them. It is a classic example of the weakness of a huge hierarchical bureaucratic system. The decision-makers at the top and the people impacted by those decisions at the bottom have very little communication with each other, and therefore end up having very different criteria for success.

For the legislators and bureaucrats (particularly at the state and federal level) and the corporate foundations and big businesses that service and sell to them, it is a reasonably straightforward exercise of positioning themselves as champions of “educational excellence”. This is accomplished by pushing for ever-broadening “standards”, demanding accountability by those below them on the pecking order (particularly schools and teachers) and trumpeting incremental improvements in test scores, which are likely given those accountability measures which continually push schools and their teachers to ever more effectively teach to the test. Those legislators and bureaucrats are further buttressed and pampered by big business, whose corporate foundations and big educational vendors make their livings providing public school systems supplies and services. The emperor may have no clothes, but the tailor selling him that garb is not going to be the first one to mention that fact.

But other than aggregated testing statistics, there is no feedback loop from the bottom to the top of the governance pyramid. So many if not most of our public schools, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, have narrowed their curriculum and methodology toward teaching to the test rather than offering a robust educational venue. And despite a focus on improving test scores (including disturbing incidents of systemic cheating) large numbers of schools throughout the country are being labeled as “failing” based on NCLB criteria, triggering disruptive remedies that seem to focus on ever greater incentives/coercion of teachers to produce higher test scores in their classrooms.

Obama Plays the Bureaucratic Game

In the text of his speech above, Obama calls out his administration’s signature educational program, “Race to the Top”, “a national competition to improve our schools”. I suppose it could be characterized in the best light of encouraging states with rewards for winning the competition. Better perhaps than punitive sanctions for schools that fail to meet their test score thresholds in NCLB – carrots rather than sticks.

But from what I can see it’s still part of a paradigm of top-down control. Look how Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan is using NCLB waivers to coerce states into adopting more accountability measures to further pressure teachers to teach to the test. It is ironic that Obama’s own kids are safely ensconced in a good private school offering a more robust and holistic learning environment. A learning environment that the public education policy his administration supports is forcing our public schools to move away from.

Lack of a National Dialog

What is particularly frustrating here is that there is no national dialog on the basic premise of top-down control of the education system, the standardization and regimentation that it fosters, and the high-stakes testing plus teacher accountability that enforces that standardization and regimentation. There is certainly increasing evidence highlighted daily in the media that more and more schools are teaching to the test, along with increasing unrest among teachers coerced to do so, and students and their parents who feel they cannot set their own learning priorities.

This is where a real political dialog on education would be useful, but is lacking. For all Republican talk about championing individual liberty, educational choice, and the entrepreneurial spirit I see very little difference between Obama and Romney on education policy.

From a Huffington Post piece, “Mitt Romney Spells Out Ideas On Schools But Provides Few Specifics At Education Nation”, writer Joy Resmovits calls out various aspects of the GOP candidates education policy…

In stressing teacher quality and the importance of testing over money and class size, Romney has aligned himself with many Democrats — including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — who support a movement known as education reform. However, Romney differs from the Democrats on the issue in his views on school choice, vouchers, accountability and the role of teachers unions…

When asked by a student about alternatives to measuring kids’ performance through tests, Romney said he had none… Romney concluded that “if teaching to the test means learning how to read and write and learning basic math skills, there’s nothing terribly wrong with that.” He added, “I’m not going to replace testing.”

Romney also espoused his love for charter schools, which are publicly funded but can be privately run. When he visited Philadelphia earlier this year, he stopped by a school that was closed for low performance but then taken over by a charter school. He saw kids on computers and singing in a glee club, and asked its founder how he afforded it all. “I run it like a business,” the schoolmaster told him.

Where are the differences between the two presidential candidates on education policy? Romney is for vouchers and Obama is not, but Bush was for vouchers and nothing ever happened with that during his eight years, so that’s mostly just a rhetorical issue. Obama is generally more pro-union than Romney, but then the Obama administration has pushed for teacher accountability opposed by teachers unions. Chicago Mayor and Obama political ally Rahm Emanuel fought a bitter battle over accountability with his city’s teachers union and their strike earlier this fall. Both Romney and Obama are for charter schools, though Romney perhaps with more rhetorical emphasis on letting charters bring more business-like competition and entrepreneurial thinking to schools. Also, though not highlighted in the Huffington Post piece, I presume Romney would be more of an advocate for homeschooling.

But when it comes to the fundamental top-down model of public education controlled by the states and the teach-to-the-test schooling that it fosters, Romney is right there with Obama, maybe willing to be more candid about it than Obama would if pressed.

Missing Voices

The American public education system is a massive institution involving over forty million young people as students, millions of adult teachers, hundreds of thousands of facilities, and many billions of dollars in yearly expenditures. Adding in other school staff and all those students’ parents, we must be talking over a hundred million direct stakeholders. Beyond all these folks there are perhaps several million more indirect stakeholders – bureaucrats and legislators at the local, state and federal levels that direct and administer the system, plus all the people working for businesses and non-profit organizations that provide products, services and advice to schools. With that huge array of diverse stakeholders there are continuing issues and conflicts around curriculum, methodology, governance, safety, poverty, equity, civil rights, cultural diversity, and youth/adult dynamics. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what schools should or should not be doing.

But given all that, and the seemingly perpetual calls for and efforts towards education “reform”, it seems mind-boggling to me that the national discussion about education policy in the mainstream media falls within such a narrow range of ideas and underlying assumptions, including that…

* Education only happens in a school classroom with a teacher instructing students, or when students do homework assignments assigned by that teacher

* The state should mandate the bulk of what students learn, when and how they learn it

* School attendance has to be mandatory, full time, five days a week

* Teachers should have almost absolute authority over students, principals over teachers, and on up the school governance hierarchy

* It is appropriate to constantly grade and rank students and punish them for poor performance

* Standardized test scores, while not a perfect system for evaluating students, teachers and schools, are still valid absolute and comparative measures of educational effectiveness

* Young people won’t learn things unless they are directly instructed in those things by adults

* There is one best way to educate young people in schools and once that best way is identified all schools should follow that approach

These are just a handful of the limiting assumptions about what education is or has to be. It seems to me that virtually all the people that discuss education policy in the mainstream media accept all these assumptions and never address anything outside that “box”.

Other Notable Voices Mostly Unheard

That said, there are a range of notable alternative educational thinkers out there who are thinking outside that box. They have some very innovative and profoundly different ideas about what constitutes a good education, and though they push to be heard beyond the small community of alternative education supporters, they rarely are.

Let me say that I have met or at least read or heard most of these people and I can say categorically that they certainly would liven up the discussion on public education policy if they were included in the mainstream discussion. I’ve included a link for and a quote from each of them…

* Pat Farenga – Parent, author and activist who worked closely with homeschooling/unschooling pioneer John Holt until Holt’s death in 1985.

Learning to read or do quadratic equations are not “natural” processes, but unschoolers nonetheless learn them when it makes sense to them to do so, not because they have reached a certain age or are compelled to do so by arbitrary authority. Therefore it isn’t unusual to find unschoolers who are barely eight-years-old studying astronomy or who are ten-years-old and just learning to read. – Pat Farenga

* John Taylor Gatto – Retired American school teacher of nearly 30 years and author of books on education and education history, and an activist critical of state-controlled compulsory schooling and of the perceived divide between teen years and adulthood.

I’ve come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us… I began to wonder, reluctantly, whether it was possible that being in school itself was what was dumbing them down. Was it possible I had been hired [as a teacher] not to enlarge children’s power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to *prevent* children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior. ― John Taylor Gatto

* Daniel Greenberg – Author and co-founder of the Sudbury Valley School, a flagship American democratic-free school that many other such schools have been patterned after.

You can’t make someone learn something – you really can’t teach someone something – they have to want to learn it. And if they want to learn, they will. – Daniel Greenberg

* Yaacov Hecht – Pioneering Israeli educator, school starter and advocate for democratic education of young people.

An education system focused on its students’ achievement of social realization, acts as a “learning social network.” The aspiration is that the “Pyramid Classroom,” 30 students in front of a single teacher, will transform into a “learning social network,” comprised of 31 teachers and students – a network in which each student or teacher can teach his/her areas of strength and learn from the strengths of others. – Yaacov Hecht

* Matt Hern – Activist, community organizer, writer and academic who lives and works in East Vancouver with his partner and daughters. He directs the Purple Thistle Centre and founded Car Free Vancouver Day.

Schools are sites of both social replication and creation: that is to say, they reflect and define how we organize and understand ourselves. If children spend the vast bulk of their lives in anti-democratic institutions where they have little opportunity to make real choices, direct their learning, spend time doing things they value, or take independent initiative, how can we expect anything other than a docile and complacent citizenry? – Matt Hern

* Alfie Kohn – Author and lecturer on education, parenting, and human behavior. Critic of conventional education and parenting practices, including use of competition, incentive programs, conventional discipline, standardized testing, grades, homework, and traditional schooling.

So how should we reward teachers? We shouldn’t. They’re not pets. Rather, teachers should be paid well, freed from misguided mandates, treated with respect, and provided with the support they need to help their students become increasingly proficient and enthusiastic learners. ― Alfie Kohn

* Grace Llewellyn – Educator and author in the fields of youth liberation, unschooling and homeschooling. Her most well-known book is The Teenage Liberation Handbook.

Your teacher cannot bridge the gap between what you know and what you want to know. For his words to ‘educate’ you, you must welcome them, think about them, find somewhere for your mind to organize them, and remember them. Your learning is your job, not your teacher’s job. And all you need to start with is desire. You don’t need a schoolteacher to get knowledge – you can get it from looking at the world, from watching films, from conversations, from reading, from asking questions, from experience. – Grace Lllewellyn

* John Harris Loflin – Education activist and advocate of Critical Pedagogy, an approach to school and school curriculum built around marginalized communities challenging majority culture. He is director of Education at the Indiana Black & Latino Policy Institute, a part of the pro-democracy movement in Indiana’s public schools.

Schools and teachers must move to change the definition of parent participation in the education process, to not just include the academic achievement of individual students, but also to view them as co-activists in long-lasting, social-transformation of the school district and the community. – John Harris Loflin

* Ron Miller – Former Waldorf teacher, prolific author, education historian and advocate for education alternatives

The child is endowed with an inner power, says Montessori, and this power is nothing less than the cosmic force that breathes life, love, and creativity into the world. The highest and truest purpose of education is to nourish this force, to bring forth this power. “Education” harnessed to the machinery of an impersonal, rapacious system of production, consumption and control chokes off these possibilities and is thus a tragic diminishment of what education, and the human being, might be. – Ron Miller

* Jerry Mintz – Advocate for democratic education and founder and director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO).

If students are able to have the freedom to follow their own interest, what happens when you have a whole group or whole school of them? This is where democratic process comes in. The democratic meeting insures that the freedom and rights of the individual do not encroach upon the rights of others in the group. And it goes beyond that. The interactive process usually comes up with better solutions than any one individual could. It is a learner-centered process for a group. – Jerry Mintz

* Deborah Meier – Educator, writer and activist often considered the founder of the modern small schools movement. In 1974, Meier founded the alternative Central Park East school, a New York City public school which embraced progressive ideals in the tradition of John Dewey.

When we pretended that all schools were simply schools – and more or less identical, and it didn’t matter that much anyway — it made some sense to say geographic lines were it. Except for the rich, etc. But if we actually want each school to be “itself” – with a right to a distinctive approach, it gets difficult. – Deborah Meier

* Diane Ravitch – Education historian, academic, commentator and former federal educational policymaker. Former supporter now critic of NCLB, high-stakes testing, privatization, charter schools, and the belief that educational issues can be addressed without addressing underlying poverty issues.

Unless the schools provide our children with a vision of human possibility that enlightens and empowers them with knowledge and taste, they will simply play their role in someone else’s marketing schemes. Unless they understand deeply the sources of our democracy, they will take it for granted and fail to exercise their rights and responsibilities. ― Diane Ravitch

* Zoe Readhead – Longtime director of Summerhill school, the world’s most well-known democratic-free school, founded by her father, pioneering alternative educator A. S. Neill.

Fundamentally Summerhill is the same as it always was… Freedom for the individual, freedom as opposed to licence. Times may have changed but kids have not, in spite of what public opinion believes. It takes millions of years to change a species. Today’s kids may look very different from kids in the 30s, but they still have the same needs. Kids need to play, they need the companionship of other kids, they need supportive adults, a secure loving environment and, of course, parents who love and approve of them. – Zoe Readhead

* Sir Ken Robinson – Author, speaker, and international advisor on education in the arts to government, non-profits, education, and arts bodies. Director of The Arts in Schools Project (1985–89), Professor of Arts Education at the University of Warwick (1989–2001), and was knighted in 2003 for services to education.

The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions. ― Ken Robinson

* Tim Seldin – President of The Montessori Foundation and Chair of the International Montessori Council. Almost forty years experience in Montessori education and author of several books.

What is education for? How we answer this question is critical for the future of our children, our nation, and our world. Yet all too often it gets lost in debates about standards, testing, and other procedural reforms that treat education as something to be done to children rather than for and with them. – Tim Seldin

* Lynn Stoddard – Veteran teacher, writer, advocate for the teaching profession and author of Educating for Human Greatness.

Every child can excel in school, if we change the system – if we trust and hold teachers accountable for nurturing positive human diversity rather than human uniformity… Schools should make provision for every child’s voice, their talents, gifts, interests and abilities, to be developed — and heard. – Lynn Stoddard

I’m sure there are other names that should be on this list, but I guarantee that the folks listed above would definitely broaden and spice up the educational discussion in our country!

2 replies on “Let’s Have a Real Discussion about Education Policy”

  1. This is a beautifully written piece containing many interesting and thoughtful quotes by bright individuals who seem to understand learning. What is missing is what is missing in almost, if not all, political, theoretical, and editorial writings – how do we do what needs to be done? How do we transform education when government entities drive the educational bus, not trained educators? How do we transform education and meet the needs of all students, most specifically those who are drowned in poverty, abuse, mental health issues, Fetal Alcohol Affects/Syndrome, addiction…and the list goes on. I have worked in schools for over 30 years and I have worked with those students with the highest needs: developmentally disabled, emotionally and behaviorally disordered, poor, mentally ill, FAS, chemically dependent, abused and neglected. I have helped kids one at a time, but I have little control over the the aforementioned conditions and our systems do little to solve the problems of this group of children. It is easy to teach those who are willing to learn, those with supportive families, those who are of higher intelligence – they are usually curious and creative and only need a little guidance. What is difficult is to develop a system that meets the needs of all students. Only when someone can provide a viable solution that our governmental entities will accept and fund, will we truly transform education. In the meantime, people like me will continue to do the best we can for every child for whom we are responsible, with fewer resources and more regulations. I agree with much of what is written here, all that is missing is the SOLUTION! HK

  2. Helen,

    I hear you. The solution was proposed by President Kennedy and Johnson. It was never properly executed and now is a forgotten part of our American education history.

    Lefty Parent – I know I have tried to reach out to you and have a conversation in the past but it didn’t happen. How about now?

    I need to redo my website but here it is as is http://www.thecrucialvoice.com

    Here to converse about the solution.

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