eling strongly that today's most influential education policymakers are failing to grasp that big picture, a few days ago, at the suggestion of Susan Ohanian, I started pulling some thoughts together with an audience like the readers of the AARP Journal in mind. Below is this evening's draft. I'm tentatively titling it "Back To The Future? Big Mistake".
The Rockland Café bumps up against the sidewalk on the east side of Main Street in Rockland, Maine. It’s a down-home, family sort of place, not much like most of the restaurants just up the road in the tourist-packed town of Camden. It opens for business at 5:30 AM, seven days a week, every week of the year. For a reasonable price it offers, “All you can eat seafood.”
Hanging on the north wall of the restaurant is an enormous enlargement of a photograph taken in 1907. It shows the under-construction schooner Mertie B. Crowley being launched just south of town. A crowd watches as she slides down the ways into the waters of Penobscott Bay.
What catches your eye about the Mertie B. Crowley—and may explain why the picture is on the wall—is that she has six masts rather than the usual three.
What were Rockland’s shipwrights thinking? It’s 1907, for crying out loud! Just 44 miles down US Route 1 from Rockland is the Bath Iron Works, a company that, by 1907, had been building steam powered ships for years. Did those Rockland shipbuilders think that by souping up the old design—adding more masts and sails—they could compete?
Think of the Mertie B. Crowley as a metaphor for the education your children and grandchildren are getting. In education, that “old design” is called the “core curriculum,” the mix of math, science, language arts, and social studies courses taught in America’s schools.
In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence In Education published a report called “A Nation At Risk.” Several CEOs of American businesses read the report and concluded that our schools were doing such a poor job, Russia, Japan, or some other foreign power was about to eat our lunch. What was needed, they said, was “rigor”—schools that were as tough and demanding as those they thought they’d attended when they were young. What had happened, they believed, was that America’s teachers, once first-rate, were no longer getting the job done, had gradually slacked off, probably suffering from “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” So, bypassing educators and working directly with state governors and other politicians, the CEOs built an educational counterpart to the Mertie B. Crowley. They demanded and got a souped up core curriculum—more math, more science, new standards, more standardized tests, more drills, less social studies, art, music, and recess, an end to social promotion. The politicians named it No Child Left Behind, the CEOs joined them on board, and they set sail toward a “world class” education.
Educators still did the grunt work—wrote the standards, administered the tests, posted the scores—but only CEO’s and politicians were allowed in the pilot house to steer the education reform ship.
Staying on course, those in the pilot house believed, was simple. Educating well wasn’t complicated, was just a matter of transferring information from those who knew to those who didn’t know. If information wasn’t getting transferred, it was either because (a) teachers didn’t know what information to transfer, or (b) they weren’t trying hard enough.
Those were simple problems, said the CEOs and the politicians. If teachers didn’t know what information to transfer, ever-more-detailed “standards” would tell them. And if they weren’t trying hard enough, market forces—competition, merit pay, choice, vouchers, charters, publicity, fear of job loss, labeling and grading of schools, and so on—would pressure them to shape up. Competition, of course, required precise score-keeping, so a lot more standardized testing was necessary.
Has it worked? Not according to Louis V. Gerstner, ex-CEO of American Express, RJR Nabisco, IBM, and the Carlyle Group, winner of many awards for his efforts to reform American education. In a November 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed, he said, “We must start with the recognition that, despite decade after decade of reform efforts, our public K-12 schools have not improved.”
But he has an explanation for the failure. He thinks the standards and accountability procedures Congress pressured the fifty states to put in place are lousy—too local, too political, too varied to allow direct performance comparisons. What’s needed are national standards, and national tests.
As you’d expect, the CEOs think nationalizing businesses and industries is a really bad idea, and they strongly disapprove of the kind of centralized, top-down decision-making that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but educating kids, they’re sure, is easier than making widgets or moving money around. Gerstner wants Congress to become America’s school board, and the first thing they should do when they take over is install national standards and tests. Yes, it’s true the Constitution says education is a state responsibility, and it’s true that a 35-year-old law says the feds can’t mess around with the curriculum, but that’s no problem. The national standards can be “voluntary.” If federal dollars are funneled to the “volunteers,” the non-volunteers, always short of school operating funds, will soon knuckle under.
Most educators, particularly the younger ones, serve aboard the No Child Left Behind willingly, but the old hands think the ship is headed for the rocks. They keep asking questions, cupping their hands and yelling warnings up to the pilot house, but neither the CEOs nor members of Congress are paying any attention:
● Hey, up there! The “core curriculum” you want to lock even more rigidly in place with national standards and tests was adopted in 1892. It had major problems even then, and with each passing year becomes more inappropriate and dysfunctional. For starters, it denies the seamless, mutually supportive nature of knowledge. It has no agreed-upon aim. No criteria say which new knowledge to teach or which old knowledge to dump. No built-in mechanisms force it to adapt to social change. It pushes information at learners at fire-hose velocity, and even the smartest kids can’t cope. It doesn't move smoothly through ever-increasing levels of difficulty. It disregards the brain's need for order and organization. It fails to address complex, critically important moral and ethical issues. It stuffs abstract ideas unrelated to their experience into kids' short-term memories and it disappears as soon as the test is over. It routinely neglects every thought processes except recall. We could go on. Why in the world, when knowledge is exploding, would you think it’s a good idea to freeze this 19th Century relic in bureaucratic place forever?
● Hey, up there! You’re blaming us for things over which we have no control. Common sense says that if kids are hungry, or sick, don’t see well, get moved every time the rent comes due, have serious family problems, are being knocked around or subjected to who knows what other kinds of abuse at home, it’s going to affect how well they learn. Why is your only response when we tell you this, “No excuses!”? Are you afraid someone might point out that your decisions about off-shoring manufacturing or manipulating markets might have something to do with why America’s kids face so many problems?
● Hey, up there! Your single-minded preoccupation with corporately produced, machine-scored “measures of accountability” are killing real education. Those crude tests costing us billions of dollars are tails wagging the education dog. They can’t measure those “higher order thinking skills” you keep claiming you want your employees to have; can’t measure personal qualities like tenacity, trustworthiness, and the ability to work with others; can’t measure creativity, resourcefulness, ingenuity; can’t measure what kids can actually do with what they know. But notwithstanding all that, you’re using the numbers they produce (numbers everybody knows politicians manipulate for political purposes) to shame us, fire us, close us down, or to convince the public that their schools should be handed over to Edison or some other corporate chain.
● Oh, hey! Another thing about those tests! Every kid’s head is wired differently. Shouldn’t we rejoice in that fact and capitalize on it instead of pretending that there’s such a thing as a standard kid? After all, it’s different abilities and interests that make civilization possible. Why are you hell-bent on making every kid jump through the same hoops?
● Hey, up there! You’re dead certain that Milton Friedman was right, that market forces can cure all of education’s ills. Hasn’t it occurred to you that most of us aren’t in it for the money, that if we stick with it past the first couple of years it’s because what turns us on are the looks on kids’ faces when they make sense of something they didn’t understand? Sure, we’d like to make enough to live decently, but that’s only reasonable. What do you think merit pay does to the cohesiveness of faculties and teacher teams that need to share insights and skills, and work together in the interest of the young?
● Oh, by the way! Thoughtful educators have always known that our 1892 curriculum was deeply flawed, and were well on the way to setting up pilot programs to test alternatives when you took over. While you’ve been busy making irrelevant anything other than guessing what was probably in the head of some moonlighting graduate student test-item writer, many of our insightful thinkers—Neil Postman, David Ausubel, John Holt, and others—have died.
The CEOs and politicians now steering American education, and experienced, professional educators, are so far apart in their assumptions about educating that communicating is all but impossible. At the root of that disconnect is the refusal of the non-educators to accept that educating is anything more than a simple process of transferring information from those who know to those who don’t know. This Conventional Wisdom assumption, no doubt reinforced by their own mis-education, guts real education—makes human relationships irrelevant, emotion irrelevant, eye contact and body language irrelevant, class size irrelevant, caring and concern for kids’ welfare outside the classroom, irrelevant, the real world to which information relates, irrelevant.
Educating, really educating, is easily the most complex process in which humans engage. If it were simple, the world would almost certainly be a much lovelier place, free of war, poverty, and oppression. Far from being merely a matter of moving information from one head to another, educating requires the discerning of the models of reality in others’ minds, and devising strategies for altering them.
No other profession equals teaching in inherent complexity and intellectual challenge. The longer thoughtful teachers teach, the more aware are they of the difficulty of the task, and the more modest they become in their claims of success. Teachers, good teachers, the kind of teachers you want teaching your kids, grand-kids, and great-grand-kids, are still learning how to teach when they retire, forever wishing they had another chance to work with those they know they short-changed when they’d only had ten or fifteen years of experience. To assume that anybody who knows a subject can teach it, to assume that a kid fresh out of college can donate a couple of years to teaching as a sort of civic duty and do right by kids, to assume that a retired admiral or general, or mayor, or a successful CEO, can step into the classroom and do the job that needs doing, is utterly ridiculous.
Anybody who’s paying attention knows that America’s schools—even the wealthy ones in upscale neighborhoods shipping SAT-acing graduates off to the Ivy League—aren’t preparing our kids and grand-kids for a future more complicated and dangerous than we can even imagine. It isn’t just naive to think that today’s educational problems can be solved by doing with greater determination and rigor the same thing we were doing in the 19th Century, it’s irresponsible, a criminal dereliction of duty.
If education policy continues to be shaped, as it presently is, by those who haven’t spent at least 10,000 hours working closely enough with kids to engage them in conversation, America doesn’t have the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of arriving at the 22nd Century in a form we’d recognize and approve.
The Mertie B. Crowley hauled ice to cities along America’s East Coast for three years. Unable to hold course during a storm, she ran aground and disintegrated in 1910.…