Ten More Years of Dumdums: Dissenting Thoughts on Education Reform
Wade A. Carpenter
I believe that . . . the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God. -- John Dewey1
Shut up, ye saints of God! His kingdom He will bring
Whene'er He will. So just sit still: You cannot do a thing! -- The Lame Doc2
HAPPILY, BOTH DEWEY'S MESSIANIC pretensions and the Lame Doc's false humility miss the mark. Schoolteachers are not likely to usher in The Kingdom all by our lonesomes . Nonetheless, politics and red tape haven't totally neutered our profession yet; we are still able to accomplish feats of brilliance and beauty, but won't be able to do so much longer unless we can stop our political leaders from corrupting us.
Certainly educators have long faced problems of pedagogy, inequality, curriculum, culture, drug abuse, poverty, parental apathy, student misbehavior, et cetera, et cetera, and good people can still disagree over how to solve them . But events of the past decade, from the NCLB disaster to the Atlanta and Philadelphia cheating scandals, have clearly revealed the root of most of our problems. The partisanship and budgetary brinksmanship of 2011 made the situation unmistakable, so it is time educators started pointing fingers (your choice as to which one). The underlying problems of American public education are political, and more specifically, politicians. It's not surprising that for over a decade politicians have directed the public's opprobrium onto educators through a sustained campaign of teacher bashing.3 The likelihood that every- body has had at least one bad teacher at some time makes that storyline plausible . But what astonishes me is that we ourselves have believed them! The past few months of appalling misconduct in our nation's capital have shown us the true character of our representatives: we have met the enemy, and they is them .
From Silver Bullets to Dum-Dums
A decade or so ago I argued in Phi Delta Kappan that the Kappan/ Gallup Poll's evidence showed that the previous decade's educational reform efforts -- ten years of silver bullets --had been little more than a loud misfire.4 I offered a critique of research and implementation, and a few suggestions. My criticisms were generally charitable: I thought most had been good ideas from well-intended scholars, but inadequately researched and unevenly executed . Since then, the weaknesses of educational research have changed little . However, several of my suggestions have been implemented‚ although not in ways I'd endorse .
For instance, I suggested a moratorium on K-12 reform and a total rewrite of teacher education . Since then, we have seen quite a number of changes in teacher education programs, imposed largely to impress accrediting agencies. While some have been helpful, accreditor and administrative demands for data gathering have become so burdensome that one might call it data boarding , and I must confess to a (tiny) bit of sympathy for Guantanamo detainees.
One revealing example is the current obsession over teacher dispositions. Character and judgment are, of course, rather difficult to measure, so dispositions and politically correct clichés seem to satisfy our accreditors nicely . But intuitively, it seems silly to spend time quantifying dispositions and clichés . A typical one for teacher ed students might be I believe every child can learn. Well, of course they can. But that begs questions like what should they learn, and to what levels of mastery? Supposedly, standards will answer that at the K-12 level. But what if those standards are a cakewalk for some kids (and hence, stultifyingly boring), and for others a useless load of gobbledygook? Holding everyone to those standards holds back the advantaged and may hold down the disadvantaged.5
Likewise, since the Kappan article appeared we have had a near-moratorium on silver bullets at the K-12 level . There has only been one effort really worth discussing, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which has delivered a shattering volley of dum-dums, hollow project(ile)s that leave a big hole . I had suggested zero-sum reform: that for every new duty imposed on teachers, a comparable burden should be removed . NCLB did address teacher overloading, but did so by addition rather than subtraction . My most positive interpretation of NCLB is that it attempted to lighten teachers' burdens by focusing us on academics and de-emphasizing the other crosses we've borne ever since Dr. Dewey's unfortunate descent into megalomania. Unfortunately, it was designed and marketed by corporate and political bigshots who knew little about the classroom.6 Perversely, teachers' burdens were increased when a bipartisan Congress and two successive administrations added unbelievably useless accountability requirements to our load. One egregious example was instituted in a nearby high-poverty school system, where teachers were required to spend inordinate amounts of time preparing standards-based bulletin boards to satisfy roving inspection teams . It is difficult to imagine a stupider waste of educator time, nor a more useless intrusion on the education of high-needs kids .
On the good side: politicians and the administrators who answer to them have at least ended the old bickering over sub- ject-centered versus teacher-centered versus student-centered instruction . On the bad side: they replaced those stale arguments with a forced consensus revolving around a standards-based curriculum and test-driven evaluation schemes that were ill-con- sidered and essentially punitive . When kids do it to kids, we call it bullying . When adults do it to kids, we call it classroom manage- ment . When adults do it to adults, we call it accountability.7 The military has found that rigid accountability won't go half as far as situational flexibility in the twenty-first century,so perhaps we can inform electioneers of the foolishness of micromanagement in our own arena of combat.8 If so, maybe they will reverse admin- istrators' current best practice and return to the ancient wisdom that really does get results: Hire quality, then let 'em teach . Although the past decade's ham-fisted approach to accountability may sometimes result in better instruction, the distrust on which it is based is, on its face, incompatible with anything I'd care to call education . My most negative interpretation of NCLB is that it was deliberately designed to give the maximum bad publicity to the public schools . I can think of no other explanation for the wooden-headed application of AYP requirements and the air-headed development of unrealistically high goals, not to mention the damn-near Wilsonian ideal mandated into a thoroughly damnable law that everybody will be at grade level by 2014, all of which have inexorably led to miseducators fabricating outcomes.9 Happily, even Arne Duncan has finally figured out how bad an idea that was.10 But perhaps I'm being overly charitable again: maybe it was just his boss suddenly realizing that he still needed teachers' votes .
As discussed a decade ago, public education has long been subjected to periodic enthusiasms devised by well-intended schol-ars and administrators, which are rolled out with great fanfare, but which then usually fade from the public's interest, though seldom from teachers' workloads . Typically, they make little if any sustained improvement in the education of children . The difference over the subsequent ten years has been that most of the fads have been developed by politicians, and I'm not sure that all of them have been well-intended . What remains the same is how much improvement has resulted .
The Results 11
The short answer: Not much, except in testing companies' bot tom lines and administrators' turf, counterbalanced by a decline in the public's perception of teachers and schools . For the past decade No Child Left Behind has dominated the public discourse about education, giving us something of a race to the bottom between those who mandate progressively sillier ways to carry it out . In 2010 22 percent of the public indicated their belief that NCLB was helping the schools, 28 percent thought it was hurting, and a whopping 45 percent thought it made no difference.
In 1987's Kappan/Gallup survey, 26 percent of the public gave grades of A or B to the nation's schools . By 1997 that figure had dropped to 22 percent . In 2007 it hit bottom at 16 percent . Three years later it had risen only to 18 percent . On the other hand, in 1987, 13 percent gave the nation's schools Ds or Fs, which rose to 21 per- cent by 1997, 23 percent by 2007 and 26 percent in 2010. Kappan's yearly polls show much more parental confidence in their oldest child's schools . In 1987 69 percent of parents gave those schools A's and B's, in 1997 that figure had fallen to 64 percent, in 2007 it was inching up to 67 percent, and three years later it achieved a modern high at 77 percent . Interestingly, the share of parents giving them a D or F has stayed relatively stable, between 7 and 11 percent, with a record low of 5 percent in 2010 . The late Gerald Bracey regularly argued that this startling discrepancy was due to negative political rhetoric and media bias. David Berliner and Bruce Biddle followed this line of reasoning with their book, The Manufactured Crisis.12 While their arguments were a refreshing balance to the almost-uninterrupted barrage of cheap shots, complaints that they whitewashed what was really happening in way too many schools were not without merit.13
Opinions on how to address education's problems have changed some over the past decade as NCLB sparked and then fizzled. Merit pay for teachers, always a controversial issue, is now a bit more popular with the public, with 68 percent in favor in 1984, compared to 73 percent in 2009 and 71 percent in 2010 . Teachers' opinions may have moderated considerably, but there is very little support for tying salary to standardized test scores.14 Much the public (44 percent) gives top priority to instructional improvement . However, the poll in 2009 indicated a strong support for multiple forms of teacher evaluation . Nearly everyone agrees that the dropout rate is a major problem, but opinions vary on how best to deal with it . The two most highly regarded options are making high school classes more interesting (52 percent very effective and 37 percent somewhat effective ) and encour- aging attendance at nontraditional high schools, at 23 percent and 51 percent respectively.
Charter schooling is increasingly popular, but it remains unclear how well the public understands how they would operate. Most of the central office administrators I encounter are just about as vague when the subject is brought up, and Gary Clabaugh's column in a forthcoming issue of this journal will discuss the dangers of their being operated dishonestly. Public opinion has varied considerably over the years when identifying the biggest problem facing the public schools. The 2010 survey revealed that 36 percent consider funding the worst, fol- lowed by discipline and overcrowding . Happily, drug abuse was rated way down from previous years. On the other hand, government interference made an astonishing jump from 15th on the 2009 list to number five in 2010! As startling as this leap is, it may still reflect an inadequate understanding of the operation of public schools, which are, of course, governmental, and hence, political through and through.15 One may wonder what the rating might be if the pollsters asked about government involvement in education: In another recent survey, 17 percent of those polled by Gallup viewed the federal government positively, ranking it last in a list of 25 major industries.16
At first, accountability was directed from the state capitals, where one out of four legislators do not even possess a four-year degree, and few ever consider educators' opinions.17 However, both the Bush and Obama administrations worked steadily to increase the federal level of control, particularly in the realm of curriculum. Most state governments cheerfully knuckled under, presumably because they had come to see education as a political and budgetary liability.18 It is easy to be uneasy about that . On one hand, a well-founded suspicion of big government has always been a part of American political culture. On the other, it was hard to see how the feds could possibly screw things up any worse than some states already had . But the results thus far suggest we may have underestimated our national officials. The old quip that giving money and power to politicians is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenagers is true enough, but every two years they still persuade otherwise intelligent and rational people to give them even more money and power!19
Now, in view of the crass partisanship, deadlock, and permanent electioneering starkly revealed this year, Washington, D.C., reminds me of nothing quite so much as one of the deeper circles of Hell.20 Why are the national parks still America's Best Idea? Maybe because most of them are so remote! Please don't misunderstand: it's not that our legislators are dysfunctional, as so many broadcasters claim . In fact, they are very effective at their primary task: the election of carefully groomed individuals to redistribute wealth from undifferentiated taxpayers to favored supporters. For more than two hundred years politicians have been habitually buying votes with taxpayers' money . Among primitives that would be considered theft . We call it entitlements or stimuli, depending on which party we identify most closely with. Again, please don't misunderstand: I'm not taking a Tea Party-type position against redistribution per se , which has been powerfully advocated by the sacred scriptures of all three Abrahamic faiths, and by both classical and modern political theorists . I am arguing against the corrupt and corrupting redistribution accomplished by classical and modern political practitioners. It's always alarming to see virtuosity become a vice .
We need to understand that although education is the biggest single factor in state budgets, and is not inconsiderable in the federal, the kids are not the first priority for legislators. Even charitably assuming goodwill, politicians' priority is, of course, political . Given the complexities and time demands of educational dealmaking, if they don't get (re)elected, they will not get much of whatever good intentions they may have accomplished.21 Why is that so hard for educators to understand? Although nobody is against kids, other people's kids aren't number one for anybody, including our political masters.22 Which raises the disturbing question: To what extent has the politically-generated reform of the past decade been intended to improve learning, and to what extent has it been intended to harvest contributions and votes? Or even more apprehensively, one might ask if it was indeed a calculated measure to discredit public schools and revive interest in privatization?23
Although I think it's time to shift the blame for the twenty-first century's educational problems to politicians, that does not excuse those of us in the classroom from examining our own consciences. There are indeed a lot of teachers who bring the rest of us into disrepute, and what have we done about them? If the teacher next door is known to be ineffective, have you offered help? Even innocently sharing a method successfully tried in yesterday's class is better than nothing. There is such a thing as constructive teachers' lounge gossip, in which teachers offer colleagues ideas they found worked with a particular kid. Just letting your colleague know which parent gets results can lead to breakthroughs. There are thousands of ways teachers can help one another, and if we don't, we may be hurting them, their kids, and sooner or later, ourselves .
Second, we need to realize that we are soft targets: vote-seekers know that given the diversity of goals schoolpeople have shouldered, we will always be failing at something that can be exploited for political advantage . The first question for the politician is very much like the first question for the preacher: when confronted by a new idea or an old sin, the minister asks: Will it preach? The officeseeker asks if it will get votes‚ or at least garner the campaign contributions that will buy them.24 More happily, we should also realize that politics is an unusually forlorn profession and politicians are distinctly defeatable. Rare is the lawmaker who leaves office an unmitigated success, and most are removed involuntarily. Teachers should know that politicians are just like children: they'll do what we let them get by with .
So how can we stop them, or at least balance things? Clearly, public schooling is a public concern, not just a professional one . But just as clearly, our political masters have had little interest in what professionals say. There is at present no effective voice for teachers with the politicians, much less symmetry of power over our own jobs . Our institutions have failed us. The Department of Education's press releases often make the department seem like little more than the education wing of the party in power.25 Teacher unions, like much of organized labor, have suffered a highly successful assault on their credibility.26 And some of our own most prominent educational leaders have given us all a bloody nose by coercing their systems into cheating scams as idiotic as they were unprincipled.27 And given the penury that renders teachers themselves incapable of the one sure-fire way to influence candidates (hosting fundraising events), it is easy to despair. But perhaps a teacher version of asymmetric warfare might be more effective than anything we've tried thus far . Given the national disillusionment at the workings of the res publica, this election cycle might be precisely the moment for it .
I wonder what would happen if we were to collect a small set of teacher demands of national importance‚ not inputs, not desires, not requests, but demands‚ and then threaten to withhold teachers' votes? As evenly as this country is divided, politicians need our three million votes. For too long one party has assumed we're in the bag, and the other has not even bothered with us. That goes against the grain: we're supposed to be examples of good citizenship.
But there are two kinds of citizenship, just like there are two kinds of cities. Just over seventeen hundred years ago Saint Augustine wrote: Two cities have been formed by two loves . . .: In the one, the princes . . . are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love . I choose the second, and its version of citizenship doesn't look much like the one that's mugged teachers for the past ten years . How did we get suckered into the cruel and stupid heresy that it is always better to vote for the lesser of two evils than it is to not vote at all? How did people who are supposed to teach critical thinking come to thoughtlessly accept the textbook-quality non sequitur that if you don't vote you can't complain? For some problems, just say no‚ principled nonparticipation is both moral and practical: not betting on a crooked game is usually the smartest response to a sleazy dealer.
Vocal nonparticipation may be the smartest act of citizenship when faced with as rigged a game as American educational politics has become. In future issues of this journal I will develop the justifications for principled nonparticipation, and explore the circumstances under which it might be advisable. So, what demands would you make? Please send your suggestions for reasonable requirements of general applicability to email@example.com. I will not identify you without permission, but would request that you include your area of the country, to help us assess what problems are truly national. I will include the biggies in these followup articles . Maybe it's time to send a wakeup call, one that might go something like this: Dear Mr./Ms. Candidate: Our votes are for sale. These are our demands: ______. If you do them (not just promise them) we will vote for you. If you don't, we won't. And if nobody will do them, we'll just stay in our classrooms on election day. We don't vote for nothing.
1 . John Dewey (1897), My Pedagogic Creed [Article V], School Journal 54 (January): 77-80 . Found at http://dewey .pragmatism .org/creed .htm .
2 . A spoof of Rise Up, Ye Saints of God, by an elderly teacher of my acquaintance who is still going around the block, but would rather do so anonymously.
3 . Unfortunately, teacher-bashing is not limited to the United States, nor is it limited to them . The term appears to have been of British coin- age, and for an interesting but slightly depressing Australian study of the phenomenon, see Brian Crossman (2008), Images of Teachers at Conferences: Developing Teaching as a Profession, Demographics and
4 . Wade A . Carpenter (2000), Ten Years of Silver Bullets: Dissenting Thoughts on Education Reform, Phi Delta Kappan 81 (5): 383-389 .
5 . See Wade A . Carpenter (2009), The Other Side of Data-Based Decision- Making . Educational Horizons , 87 (4): 218-223 . See also Valerie G . Chapman and M . Duane Inman (2009), Conundrum: Rubrics or Creativity/Metacognitive Development? Educational Horizons (3): 198- 202, and Wade A . Carpenter, Behind Every Silver Lining: The Other Side of Rubrics, ibid: 156 -161 .
6 . See Dara Wakefield and Beverly Smith's The Relocation of Education Governance: Trail of Fears, in this issue of New Educational Foundations.
7 . Diane Ravitch (2010) provides a perceptive insider account in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic) .
8 . Re military combat, see David Paschal (2007), Irregular Warfare: Impact On Future Professional Military Education (Carlisle, Pa .: U .S . Army War College) . See also David H . (2006), Learning : Observations from Soldiering, in http://usacac .army .mil/CAC/milreview/English/ JanFeb06/Petraeus1 .pdf . BTW , it wouldn't hurt those who keep prattling about twenty-first-century skills to remember that the first combat action of this century for the world's most advanced military was a horse-cavalry charge in Afghanistan. See Doug Stanton (2009) . Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. York: Scribner .
9. For a helpful synopsis of news coverage, including access to the official report on the Atlanta cheating scandal, see the Atlanta Journal Constitution (2012), Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, http://www .ajc .com/ news/atlanta/atlanta-public-schools-cheating-1026035 .html . In fairness, also see the response of former Superintendent Beverly Hall (2011), Scandal Is Not the Whole Story, Education Week (August 21), 1 . For the basics on the Philadelphia scandal, see Michael Winerip (2011), Pa . Joins States Facing a School Cheating Scandal, at http://www .nytimes . com/2011/08/01/education/01winerip .html?pagewanted=all .
10. Ed . Secretary: States to Get School Test Waivers, http://www .edweek . org/ew/articles/2011/08/08/446590useducationoverhaul_ap .html?r= 1316242328 . See also Sam Dillon (2011), Overriding a Key Education Law, at http://www .nytimes .com/2011/08/08/education/08educ .html.
11 . The data for this section comes primarily from the past two decades of PDK/Gallup polls, published in September issues of Kappan , the most recent being September 2010, 92 (1): 9-26. Life Long Learning, The Journal of Educational Enquiry 8 (2): 1-14 .
12 . David C . Berliner and Bruce J . Biddle (1995) The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools (Reading, Mass .: Addison-Wesley) .
13. One especially perceptive review is in Lawrence Stedman (1996) . Review of Berliner and Biddle The Manufactured Crisis . Education Policy Analysis Archives 4 (23, January) .
14. Jane G . Coggshall, Amber Ott , Ellen Behrstock, and Molly Lasagna (2011), Teacher Talent: The View From Generation Y, http://www . publicagenda .org/pages/supporting-teacher-talent-view-from-Generation-Y . The report, after trumpeting a 70 percent approval rate for incentive pay among young teachers, then goes on to admit that only ten percent endorsed tying it to test scores: Despite openness to incentive pay, it is not Gen Y's first choice as a strategy for improving teaching . The idea of tying teacher rewards to student performance ranked last among 12 proposals, including requiring new teachers to spend more time teaching in classrooms under the supervision of experienced teachers, requiring teachers to pass tough tests of their knowledge of the subjects they are teaching, and ensuring that the latest technology is available in each classroom to aid instruction
15. Joel Spring has been one of the most insightful authors on this subject, with regular updates of his textbook American Education and Conflict of Interests: The Politics of American Education (McGraw-Hill and Longman, respectively). For a more positive view, see Janet Newman and John Clarke (2009), Publics, Politics and Power: Remaking the Public in Public Services (London: Sage) .
16. Frank Newport (), Rate Computer Industry Best, Federal Gov't Worst, at http://www .gallup .com/poll/149216/Americans-Rate-Computer-Industry -Best-Federal-Gov-Worst .aspx. See also Felicia Somnez's contribution to The Washington Post's Politics blog at http://www.washingtonpost .com/ blogs/2chambers/post/poll-only-17-percent-view-federal-government-favorably/2011/08/29/gIQA5NRQnJ_blog html .
17 . According to a WT. Grant Foundation study of six focus groups of policymakers‚ congressional aides, state and local superintendents, state legislators, school board members‚ when asked to name factors that influence changes in education policy and practice, education leaders did not mention any breakthrough research, nor did they cite any findings they felt had had a dramatic effect on policy or practice. For a more thorough and wide-ranging study, read Richard Ingersoll (2003), Who Controls Teachers' Work? Power and Accountability in America's Schools ( : Harvard) . See also Winnie Hu (2011), Many State Legislators Lack College Degrees, New York Times (June 13): A14 .
18. Again, Wakefield and Smith (infra, 2012). As good a background source as any is the Council of Chief State School Officers, which provides regular updates of the deliberations at http://www.ccsso.org/federal_programs/13286.cfm . The U .S . Department of Education's website at http://www.ed .gov can also provide lots of links for those strong enough of will (and stomach) to pursue them. Of course, Education Week does as good a job as any for journalistic analysis .
19 . Dante, Divine Comedy, Inferno. I'd especially mull over Circles 2-10, inclusive .
20. Personally, I have no problem with private schooling, but decent people do not promote it in ways that hurt kids and teachers. Ever . See my 2005 article "The Other Side of School Choice," Educational Horizons 83 (2): 87-91 .
21. If your customary altruism causes you to doubt this, ask yourself, If it came down to my kid going to college versus somebody else's kid going to college . . .? Are there any further questions?
22 . Articles about the correlation of campaign advertising and vote getting can be informative. Just google the phrase cost per vote and surf awhile.
23 . For a general but restrained and balanced view, see Joe Newman (2006), America's Teachers: An Introduction to Education, 5th ed . (Boston: Pearson), 329-372 .
24. See http://www.gallup.com/home.aspx , accessed September 1, 2011 .
25 . http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/education/01winerip.html . U .S . Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2011) discusses the D.C. scandal in "Cheating Scandals, Testing and Teaching Are Not at Odds" in The Washington Post's On Leadership at http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-leadership/despite-cheating-scandals-testing-and-teaching-are-not-at -odds/2011/07/19/gIQADUb3NI_story .html . Christine Samuels (2011) provides an insightful commentary on these and other school corruptions in Experts Divide on Responses to Cheating, Education Week (August 10):1, 15 .