Sunday, June 09, 2013

Teddy's legacy.

The decline of America’s K-12 education system has been a source of angst for generations. Yet through the past half-century or more, from the Soviet launching of Sputnik to the present, America has led the world in the assimilation of new immigrants, the invention of new industries, and the expansion of the world’s imagination. Somehow, as has often been noted, the same nation whose students who are decried as failures through their elementary and high school years for their performance on international tests are somehow transformed through our—now-decried—higher education system to become the most inventive, adaptable and entrepreneurial workforce in the world.

The most recent of many educational reforms has been No Child Left Behind. The political legacy of two men—George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy—concerned for the plight of those children who were being left behind, No Child Left Behind has done much to undermine the quality of public education for the middle three quintiles of students, while little or nothing doing nothing to uplift the lives students in the most dire and impoverished circumstances. (Those in the top quintile, of course, have always had and will continue to have, the resources and social capital to come out ok, and are the least vulnerable to the predations of the destructive force of federal policies.)

By imposing outcomes on standardized tests as the singular measure of our educational system, No Child Left Behind has done much to usurp classroom time from traditional activities to an ongoing focus on test preparation. Testing that might once have been viewed as one of many means of assessing the volume or quality of learning in a benign context has become the goal in and of itself. And in the process, the underlying values of a national education system that once reflected the diverse priorities of local school boards and parents, have become captive of federal dictates.

The power of the federal government to assert its will, despite only providing a fraction of the funding for K-12 education, should be a cautionary tale in and of itself. In the absence of meaningful data suggesting that outcomes on now-ubiquitous tests are correlated with those attributes that might be seen as essential in a modern workforce—Curiosity, adaptability, inter-personal effectiveness—testing has now been accepted as a valid measure of our success. In essence, by focusing on what, students are being deprived of the more existentially critical why and how. Gone from our educational lexicon are the notions of experiential education. Gone are the insights of John Dewey or Alfred North Whitehead. In their place are hedge fund managers and titans of technology who suggest easy solutions through assuming away the elegantly human complexities inherent in the education of our children.

To this new generation of reformers, evidence of our failure can be seen in the lack the type of productivity growth that has been realized across other sectors of the economy. Unlike the transformation of American industry that has been enabled by technological change and globalization, and process improvement modalities such as business process reengineering and Six Sigma, the essential production function of K-12 education remains essentially as it was a half-century ago: one teacher stands in front of a class of 20 to 35 students—depending on the resilience of property values and taxes in the local community.

The fundamental problem is that at its most basic level, K-12 education is a human system, involving variables ranging from social context, psychological issues and the family systems, to brain science, each interacting differently in each child. It is not a mechanical system and is not amenable to process metaphors as Atul Gawande has so effectively developed to suggest paths to both outcome improvements and cost reduction in the practice of medicine.

The irony is that most of those who decry the state of our educational system, and would push us further down the NCLB rabbit hole, were quite happy with their own elementary school, and with teachers they had along the way. Their advocacy of Teach For America and narrowing the elementary school curriculum to scripted learning and test preparation belies their own experience with teachers whose competencies improved over time with experience and a deepening understanding of the mix of inspiration, discipline and motivation that each child needs.

Voices on the left and the right continue to emphasize the fundamental failure of NCLB. Consider these two rebuttals to the status quo. First, from Geoffrey Willis, of Thinking Right:

One major flaw with using standardized testing to measure the success or failure of an educational system is that it measures neither creativity or work ethic both huge factors in societal and economic success.  America has been a huge immigration draw as people recognize that with creativity and hard work the sky is the limit and America has benefitted from the huge influx of talent that has been drawn to this country.  What draws the world to the United States?  A free market economy that attracts these immigrants from all over the world and the lack of any traditional class or other societal structures that restrains success in other parts of the world.  These are both things that America has had a huge international advantage for more than a century but which it is now turning its back on in an effort increase its world standing “in the rankings.

Fortunately, these tests are misleading and not really indicative of the quality of education in the United States.  Unfortunately, these tests have become the life-blood of school administrators to show the “success” of their school driving more and more time into preparation for standardized testing at the expense of real education.  Studying for the test has become the norm while real learning, expression and creativity have taken a major hit.  This educational wrong turn was magnified by the horrible “No Child Left Behind” policy which played to the lowest common denominator rather than allow educational flexibility.  This soul crushing policy really should have been named “No Kid Can Get Ahead Or Be Creative” policy.

And from Diane Ravich on the other side:

I came to the conclusion ... that No Child Left Behind has turned into a timetable for the destruction of American public education. I had never imagined that the test would someday be turned into a blunt instrument to close schools — or to say whether teachers are good teachers or not — because I always knew children's test scores are far more complicated than the way they're being received today.

But in just ten years, No Child Left Behind has become an institutional presence in Washington, DC. NCLB has spawned new industries that now each have their own line items in the federal budget, and before our eyes, we have witnessed the emergence of a new “iron triangle” of these new industries, their lobbyists and an entrenched bureaucracy that has made the permanence of the NCLB paradigm all but a foregone conclusion.

This should not be. No Child Left Behind was a mistake, and as rare as it might be in Washington, the conclusion should not be to amend it and reform it, but rather to end it. Just this once, our leaders in Washington should admit a mistake and return to the status quo ante. If the issue is teachers unions, have that fight in the open. If the issue is diversification of the control over local funding, take that on that issue. But just this once, in the face of a failed concept—one whose failure will stay with us for decades—one we should prove our ability to admit our mistakes and move on. Let the states and school districts tackle the challenges of educational reform, and admit that the federal hand has little, if any, value to add to that process.

As Senators deliberate the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, perhaps they should reflect on three questions:

When did America become great by diminishing aspirations rather than enobling them. 

When did America become great by narrowing fields of learning rather than expanding them.

When did America become great by reducing our expectations of our children rather than raising them.

Finally, they should ask themselves which of them would have preferred the education that we are now creating over that of their own childhood experience. And the answer to that question should be self-evident.