One of the interesting things about recent educational policy is that the political battles over the direction of education do not fall along traditional political lines. In both the state of California (where I live), from Wilson (R) to Davis (D) to Schwarzenegger (R), and at the national level, from Bush, Sr. (R) to Clinton (D) to Bush, Jr. (R), to Obama (D), the move toward standardized curriculum and the high stakes use of standardized tests has been consistent, as has the message that our schools are deteriorating and destroying the national economy. (The Obama administration’s current position is particularly disheartening considering that he campaigned on a platform advocating the opposite).
In this essay, I will be addressing the three-pronged agenda of the present Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, that continues these policies and is based on these same assumptions. I will leave off for this essay addressing the two myths I mentioned above, that somehow the quality of our school directly effects our economy (no evidence exits for such a cause-effect link—in fact the cause-effect is probably reversed), nor the myth that our schools have gone downhill (Richard Rothstein’s book The Way We Were does a great job of myth busting on that score).
Duncan’s three-prong strategy consists of nationalizing educational standards (and the high stakes tests that go with them), implementing merit pay based on student achievement, and the increased use of charter schools. I will argue here that not only are none of these proven to be effective, but actually much evidence exists demonstrating their lack of effectiveness.
I will start with National Standards. Duncan has already started convening state governors to discuss these standards (leaving educational organizations out of the discussion). Having national standards assumes that there is a national consensus on the purposes, goals and means for effective education. Throughout the history of this nation, we have resisted such nationalization precisely because it was felt that such goals and means should be left up to local communities. Does such a consensus now exist? I say not. One little piece of evidence: Every semester for the past 5 years I have taught a class on learning theory. At the beginning of the course, which is during their first semester in the program (before they have been influenced by our beliefs and ideas), I have them do an exercise asking them to come up with their priorities for public education. I have them discuss these and try to come to a consensus. Then I have them compare their goals with what they see as the goals of the schools in which they observe. Not only do they disagree somewhat with each other, but I have found every time that there is very little overlap with their goals and the goals they observe in the public schools. It is possible that the students in this non-selective public university are somehow very different from the average citizen, but I somehow doubt it. In other polls of teachers, their views do not tend to vary dramatically from the general public.
Think of the debates you hear around you, talk to your friends, neighbors. Do you all agree on what should be taught in the schools and how it should be taught? In a pluralistic, multicultural, rapidly evolving society such ours, such a consensus seems unlikely. National Standards and standardized tests force such a consensus upon the public, and upon the education of every public school student. This does not seem to me to be the proper role for a democratic government to play in education. In human civilization, just as in nature, variety and differences are healthy and help create a more vibrant thriving sustainable society.
The expansion of charter schools is another of Duncan’s strategies. This is despite extensive research on charter schools that over and over have shown that such schools, as a strategy, have not shown themselves to be any more effective at raising achievement levels or closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students than traditional public schools. There is a fair amount of research that, as a whole, they are less likely to be serving the most needy students, especially students with special needs.
In some ways, the charter school strategy could seem to be in contradiction with the first strategy of standardization. One of the original purposes of charter schools was to allow schools to break away from the standardization of the traditional pubic school system (charter schools are public school, however, in that they receive public money, may not charge tuition, and are supposed to be non-selective in their enrollment). That charter schools could set their own goals and methods, based on the desires of the parents, students and teachers that made up that school was seen by many as their advantage. There are many such charter schools that are dear to my heart, and appear to be having tremendous success with their students.
The seeming contradiction is explained by what Duncan’s idea of support for charter schools is: Standardization. He wants to fund a few charter school chains that he sees as effective at raising test scores, and make such models standard. These are not charters that are created by local groups of parents, teachers or local communities and answerable to them. These are chains with their own pre-set agendas, methods and goals. It is really an attempt to give organizations that are outside of public control, control of public schools, on the assumption that “the public” is the problem with public schools. This is a dangerously anti-democratic belief system (reminds me of the anti-National health care debate where people are afraid of the “government” making health decisions, while not seeming to be afraid of corporate CEO’s making those same decisions for them).
His third agenda item is Merit Pay. This is based on the intuitive assumption that offering rewards for success will motivate teachers to work harder and more effectively. It is based on the assumption that the problem with schools (a commonly held belief) is lazy teachers. While some lazy teachers may exist, I know of no evidence to support this as a workable theory for the problem with schools as a whole. While the public seems to accept this theory for other schools, they do not believe it about the one’s where they send their children, the one’s where they can see the evidence of hard working caring teachers with their own eyes (see the Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll in the September issue of Phi Delta Kappan on the public’s opinion about public schooling).
Bonuses do not work even in the private sector, as recent studies have shown. They may, in fact, be counterproductive. Such schemes are no more likely to be effective in education. One explanation for their lack of success is to look at research on motivation. When we offer extrinsic (external) rewards for activities that people are already motivated to do, we actually make them less motivated. Find me the teacher that did not go into education because they truly wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. There may be some, but they are the exception that proves the rule. External rewards tend to lead us to do only what we need to do to get the reward, and attempt to game the system to “look good.” It might work for the worst teachers, but it is likely to have the opposite effect on the rest of the teachers. Most teachers teach because they find teaching rewarding. They find being unsuccessful at it unrewarding. What they need is help in being more successful, not prizes for beating out their colleagues.
Merit pay is also likely to lead to teachers resenting the difficult and hard to reach students, as they will bring the test scores down, and lower the teacher’s pay. These are the students who need the most attention and care. In addition, it can lead to teachers working against each other in pursuit of limited resources, rather than collaborating and supporting each other. In general external rewards sends a message that teaching and learning are not worth doing well for their own reward, but only when bribes are offered (or the other side of the same coin—punishments threatened). Is that the message we want to send to teachers and students?
All three of the approaches promoted by the present administration continue to follow the same failed policies of the last several administrations. With all of the insistence of teachers using “evidence based” strategies in their classrooms, none of the policies promoted by Arne Duncan are evidence based, and in fact contrary to the most compelling evidence that we presently have. Interestingly, one policy they have not considered is equaling the resources between those with the most (who actually have always done quite well in national and international comparison), and those with the least. In fact, we are the only developed nation that funds in such an unequal fashion, where the most advantaged and privileged, get significantly more resources in their schools than the disadvantaged students (for an extensive expose of this read Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities).
What is the alternative? Providing strong support for good teaching and teachers. Providing adequate resources with which to teach. Trusting the people closest to the kids to make the important decisions about the best way to educate them, especially those who have the training and experience to do so, and who also know and care about those particular children, in close collaboration with their families. Yes, they need to be answerable, answerable not to standardized curriculum and tests, but answerable to the parents of the children and to the local community by demonstrating meaningful results. This is the meaning of true democracy, with a small “d”: Trusting people to govern themselves, including their schools. Are there risks in doing so? Of course. Will they always make the “right” decisions? Of course not. But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst possible form of government until you consider the alternatives.