School Deform

Regarding the current moves of so called school “reform” at the national level. The aspect of this is toward a nationally standardized curriculum (i.e. Common Core). And it is standardization, not standards that are being mandated—make no mistake about it. Standards refer to the quality of something. There is little about quality in the national curriculum—rather what is mandated is the content. The only mandate about quality is about competition—that students have to score above certain cut off scores (and teachers being paid according to those scores). But scores do not equal quality—they equal quantity. These scores tell us virtually nothing about the qualities of the work that students (or teachers) can perform, certainly not about work that matters beyond testing.


What mandated curriculum means is that what we want from public schools is a standardized citizenry. It really is that simple. We cannot teach innovation, creativity, and certainly not democratic citizenship in a school system where one answers to test scores on a curriculum to which those carrying out and engaging in that curriculum have virtually no say.

Those that are enacting this know that those with resources have a way out—schools for the rich still allow for creativity and self governance. That is what the privatization movement, along with the charter school movement is about (at least in part). This, as we know of everything else that is privatized, leads to a system in which the quality is based on one’s ability to pay for it. Those with the most resources can and do pay for schools that still allow for creativity, choice and abundant resources.

So really, the question is simple—if we want a system that teaches one group of children (and their teachers) to be obedient and standardized, and another group educated to be creative and powerful, then we should continue these current reforms. If we want democracy, then we need to democratize schools, and give them the resources and freedom that the rich seem to feel their own children deserve. It really is that simple. Have we or have we not given up on the idea of democracy?

The Undermining of Democracy

I just got one of those “Surveys” from the Democratic National Party, asking my opinion about the Republican Party and Obama’s record. It also asked me to prioritize my top issues. The issue it did not include is the undermining of and attack on democracy itself in our country.

These attacks come in many forms. While the Republican party and corporate America has led these attacks, the Democrats and Obama have been complicit in most of them as well.

The influence of money on elections and the ludicrous protection of Corporations as “people” are a couple of the most blatant. The attack on public institutions in general is another.


There are the attacks on the public aspects of public schooling—topics I have written much about— such as NCLB and Common Core undermining the democratic running of our schools. The charter school movement (charter schools select their own boards of governance) and vouchers, and the privatization of public schooling in a myriad of other ways is another way public schools are being undermined as public democratic institutions.

The U.S. Postal  Service is another public institution being undermined. The supposed fact of the post office losing money is a complete hoax. If the post office was allowed to use the accounting methods of its competitors it would be in the black, but they are required by Congress to use accounting methods that make it appear to be losing money. The purpose—to reduce the services of the post office, slowly eroding it—as well as to undermine the union—an issue I will discuss more in a bit.

Part of the attack on the public sector is that corporations and the Republicans truly want to replace democracy with a complete “free” market economy (free meaning those with the most money and power are free to do what they want, with no one to rein them in). To do this they are undermining the main organized force against them—unions. And the only really large unionized force left is in the public sector. By undermining this force in both public opinion and in law, they leave themselves with almost no large force to oppose them. Teachers are demonized. Public employees are blamed for being greedy and ruining the economy—such a blatant falsehood, yet when repeated often enough it gets believed. As anyone who remembers our latest, and virtually all, of our economic collapses, they came directly from corporate greed and the lack of corporate and banking oversight.

One way the unions are undermined is through privatization. By privatizing public schooling or many of their services\, the teachers union is demolished. (Very few charter school teachers are in unions—and even less in private schools.) Destroying the Post Office as another major source of unionized employees goes along with this.

Where they cannot destroy public employee unions outright, they take away their bargaining power, as was done in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Then there are the attacks on voter rights, making it more difficult for students and minorities and the poor to vote. The claim is a voter fraud that there is no evidence exists. We have one of the lowest voter turnouts of any democratic nation, and the strategy is to make it even harder to vote? (Where voter fraud is most likely is in vote by mail—which the voting suppression laws do not affect—and is a population that in general is more conservative).

This is not even to mention the attacks on our civil liberties—spying by the government, changing rules on search and seizure, and on advising us of our rights being just a few of them.

The struggle for democracy is ongoing and we can never rest on the victories of past generations. We either exercise what power we do have, or lose it.

Whatever it is you do, and wherever you are, you need to join organizations that are countering these trends and to let your representatives know how you feel!

Taking the Public Out of Public Education

I recently went to a talk by my old professor and mentor, Art Pearl. Art has been a political activist, writer and teacher, focusing on issues of democratic education for over four decades. Now in his 80s, he is still teaching, writing and acting on his beliefs. He spoke about the attack on public schools, on unions, and the need for democratic education. In this column, I am going to use his talk as a springboard for expanding my own ideas on the current attack on public education and the unions representing public school teachers.

One can trace the beginning of this movement to the report, A Nation at Risk, written in 1983 written by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, at the behest of then Secretary of Education Bell. The report was really a call to arms to reframe the debate about education. It made a rhetorical claim that the mediocrity of our educational system put our nation at risk—equating it with an attack by a foreign country. No evidence was provided to support this claim. In fact, while every decade throughout the history of public education, headlines have proclaimed that it is going to hell in a hand basket, and bemoaning the loss of the good old days, most evidence we have only points to continual progress, at least up through the 1990s (see The Way We Were? by Richard Rothstein, and The Manufactured Crisis by David C. Berliner and Bruce Biddle for extensive discussion and data on this topic).

School_ChoiceOne aspect of this effort to undermine public education has been to reframe the purpose of education as purely preparation for the workforce. In the past, public schools have been considered to have multiple purposes—socialization in its many forms, citizenship in its many forms, and providing students with a well rounded general education—cultural and “academic,” meeting both individual potential aims as well as societal aims. Since that report, the public media discussion of education, including the U.S. Department of Education, has cast the purpose of education purely in terms of its economic impact. They, as did the report, describe the threat of a failing educational system as a threat to our national economy. They sell education for its ability to get one a better job, a better income—using educational attainment to income correlation data. Today, one virtually never hears mention of any other purpose for schools in the mainstream media or from government spokespeople.

Even if we accepted that schools should be about job training, the economic argument used by the government and media is mostly based on lies and false information. The claim of A Nation at Risk, (one that has constantly been repeated since) is that our mediocre schools are leading to our economic downfall. However, there is no causal link in developed countries between schooling and the health of the economy (such a cause-effect link does exist in developing countries that do not already have a basically educated population). If there were such a link, why didn’t we hear those same forces cheering what a great job our schools must have been doing when we had an economic boom in the 1990s? In fact, that would have been the work force that was in our public schools during the time to which A Nation at Risk referred. If this cause-effect relationship were correct, then our schools could not have been as bad as they claimed.

In fact, the relationship between schooling and the economy in developed countries is mostly non-existent, or the reverse of that claimed. To some extent, schools do respond to the job market. For example, in the early 1990s almost nobody studied computer technology in school. The early dot-commers were often self-educated in terms of technology. However, soon colleges and universities were establishing new programs in the computer sciences, quickly filling up with students. Then when the tech bust hit a decade later, the job market was flooded with these new graduates and the recently laid off workers.

However, for the most part, having an educated workforce neither creates nor destroys jobs. We now live in a global economy where such things have more to do with larger economic forces. Job loss in the U.S. has mostly been due to outsourcing, first of manufacturing jobs, and lately other technical and professional jobs as well. The driving competitive force is that people in certain countries will work for less, often much, much less. The way we can compete with them in a free market economy is to take lower wages, less benefits, and accept other reductions in workplace quality and safety, as well as lowering environmental protections. Having better educated people to compete for these jobs will not bring them back to the U.S.

The only area of the job market that is increasing (at least in numbers that are significant in terms of the size of the U.S. workforce) is in the service sector, jobs that actually require little in the way of schooling, and certainly not a college education. However, employers of such workers do want workers who are obedient, punctual and docile—just the sort of education that children in schools serving poor and minority children are receiving, even if they do get low test scores (WalMart, for instance, is one of the largest employers in the U.S.).

While getting a “good” education may make you, as an individual, in a better position to compete for what jobs do exist, there is no evidence that a better-educated population would in any way lead to job creation. If however, schools are just job training sites, then while it is clear that I want my child to get the best education possible, it is less clear why the “public” should care or even want good schools for all. This may be especially true if all children getting a good education means they might out-compete my child for those scarce good jobs! This promotion of schools as the pathway to better jobs makes the free market and student as consumer mentality for schooling more appealing. I need only concern myself with finding the best school for my child at a price I can afford.

However, thinkers as different as John Dewey and Horace Mann from the early days of public education, to more recent thinkers as disparate as Deborah Meier, Ted Sizer, Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch, have all argued that what and how children are taught at school matters for the survival of a democratic society, not just solely for how well trained for the workforce the students will be. Schools are the place where children move from the private sphere of the family to the public sphere of the larger society. It is the habits and knowledge formed and developed in these public institutions that in part frame students’ understanding of their larger place in society. When public schooling is about preparing students to be citizens for a democratic society, then clearly we all have a stake in what it means to be an educated citizen, in what habits and understandings are promoted there, in what knowledge is imparted there.

Another connected strand to this attack on public education is an attack on unions. We have lost a large segment of our skilled workforce to other countries, and we have had several Federal administrations unfriendly to organized labor. Due to these forces, the U.S. (once the leader in organized labor) now has among the lowest percentage of unionized workers compared to any other democratic industrialized nation. However, the one place where organized labor is still strong is in the public sector. The attack on public school is part of an attack of that last bastion of organized labor, the last place where workers can speak in a unified manner as a counterpoint to the powerful voices of corporate interests.

More and more, teachers and their unions are being blamed for the supposed failure of our public school system. It is brought out in a way that connects to the general public’s emotions and immediate experience. There is a lot of current fanfare in the media that incompetent teachers are hard to fire and teachers unions block reforms (both claims central to the premise of the movie “Waiting for Superman” for instance) Do they provide evidence? Very little. An easy way to check the validity of their claim would be to compare non-union states to union states, as many states do not allow teachers to unionize. There is either no correlation or a positive correlation between states that have unions and academic success as measured by high school completion and test scores. In addition, most of the reforms that are touted as successful by the administration and think-tanks have taken place in cities with strong teachers unions.

While it may be true that it is not easy to fire poor teachers, no evidence is provided that too many poor teachers really is a major problem. Moreover, the principals I talk to all tell me that, while not being easy, they have always been able to get rid of the poor teachers they had. Is my sample of principals unrepresentative? Maybe—but then one could say that the problem is poor principals (though I hold them no more to blame than the teachers). When you make it easier to fire bad teachers, you also make it easier to fire the good ones as well. What “tenure” provides is not a guarantee of a job for life, but that the teacher cannot be fired without cause, and it puts the burden of proof for that cause on the employer. The question framed that way becomes, do we believe in due process? It is just such due process that teachers unions and the “tenure” process protect.

Charter schools and vouchers are currently the “reforms” of choice. Charter, private and parochial schools typically do not have teacher unions. These schools also bypass publicly elected school boards that oversee their vision, mission and curriculum. They often also exclude unionized or public employees for many other positions in schools—such as custodial and food services. The normal checks and balances of the democratic process are bypassed in the name of “efficiency” and the advantages of “market forces.” These forces see charter chains, and private forms of education, which answer to their own private boards, as competing for the students. Parents and children are merely consumers of this commodity, and the more effective and efficient schools will get a bigger market share. The only thing left that will be public is that it is the public’s money being used to pay for them.

This attack on the public nature of schools is in line with other current agendas of the free marketers—such as the privatization of Social Security and undermining public health care reforms. These are all part of a clear and premeditated mission to have this country run only by the dictates of the “free-market” economy (read as: run by trans-national corporations and financiers). Schooling is just one of these fronts.

The only thing that can stand in their way is a truly democratic citizenry that takes action and speaks out. That means you!

Duncan’s Three-Pronged Attack on Education

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.