With apologies to Charles Dickens, “It is the best of times (to be an education reporter); but it is the worst of times (to be in a classroom).”
Why a field day for reporters? Let me count the ways: The ‘war’ that I wrote about in The Influence of Teachers in 2011 is far hotter today. Michelle Rhee and her non-profit advocacy organization, Students First, have been instrumental in persuading 25 states to use test scores to evaluate teachers. She also wants restrictions on collective bargaining and teacher tenure.
Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice have declared a national emergency in public education and have called for more “rigor,” a term I tend to associate with death (rigor mortis).
The other side is punching back. Diane Ravitch, the most prominent opponent of privatization, Rhee, Klein at alia, has formed a new organization, The Network for Public Education, which will, its press release says, “give voice to the millions of parents, educators, and other citizens who are fed up with corporate-style reform.” The organization’s treasurer is the less-well-known activist Anthony Cody, a passionate and eloquent defender of his chosen profession.
Echoing Rhee’s organization, which evaluates states according to their adherence to her principles, The Network for Public Education says it intends to evaluate political candidates based on their positions on charter schools, excessive reliance on standardized testing and the like.
There’s more: The Common Core has become–depending on one’s perspective–either an unstoppable bandwagon or a runaway freight train.
Education’s money spigot is attracting attention from those who would sell schools the latest technology and siphon off some of the money–and those who would privatize the entire enterprise and make away with all the dough. What a great story!
No Child Left Behind is still hanging around, although Education Secretary Arne Duncan seems to have replaced its onerous restrictions for his own set of rules. He’s granting waivers to states (and now to Districts) that will agree to do things his Administration’s way.
Some thought the lesson of No Child Left Behind was that Washington–regardless of political party–wasn’t equipped to run public education. We know who did not learn that lesson.
That’s the big picture. The contradictions make things even more fascinating. We know that 75% of young people ages 17-24 don’t even qualify to take the test to get into the military because they haven’t finished high school, have criminal records or are physically unfit. But 25% of those who qualify to take the test cannot get a passing grade. a few cannot find ‘X’ in the equation 2 + X = 4, but many more apparently lack the so-called softer skills: being able to gather and make sense of data, work with others and communicate effectively. The business community has the same complaint. So what would many in the business community and the military suggest be done to produce more graduates who measure up? Do they want the ‘rigor’ that those on the right are clamoring for, or would they endorse ‘deeper learning’ and more self-directed, project-based learning? A good story to report, for sure.
So it’s the best of times for reporters, who have hundreds of great stories demanding to be told. However, I believe it’s probably the worst of times for those in classrooms, by which I mean both teachers and students.
Start with teachers: We continue to be test-obsessed, but with a twist. Tests used to be used to evaluate students, but now teachers and administrators have their heads on the block. The people in charge seem clueless. By putting all their eggs in the bubble test basket, they are making a mistake that basic social science warns against. “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” That’s Campbell’s Law, formulated in 1976 by esteemed social scientist Donald Campbell (1916-1976) .
Applied to education, it might go this way: “If you base nearly everything on one test, expect some principals and teachers to cheat.”
Sadly, some have. Atlanta remains the poster child, of course, but scandals have emerged in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore and Houston, not to mention a number of states.
It’s tough to be a teacher in Washington, DC, a district I know fairly well, both as a former parent of students there and as a reporter who has covered the District pretty carefully. Six years after Michelle Rhee was given a blank check to ‘fix’ the schools, classrooms seem to have become a revolving door for teachers. Half of all newly hired teachers (rookies and experienced teachers) leave within two years; by contrast, the national average is said to be between three and five years.
Is it the worst of times for students? Graduation rates are up, which at least proves more students are hanging in. They may be going to school because they know that there aren’t jobs for dropouts or because they want to hang with their friends, but being in school has to count for something.
I think these aren’t good times for kids, because their school experience is increasingly irrelevant to their needs and to the realities of the world outside of school. They are growing up surrounded by–saturated by–information. Because of the internet, they swim in a sea of information, 24/7/365. They ought to be in classrooms where they can learn to sift through that flood and determine what is true–because ‘information’ is not knowledge. They ought to be learning how to ask good questions, but most often they are expected to regurgitate answers.
They ought to be practicing production–making stuff and gathering information–but instead their habits of consumption are encouraged.
Come to think of it, it may be the worst of times for reporters, because we have to watch this tedium from the sidelines, instead of shouting to the kids, “Wake up! Playing games on your phone and killing time will not solve this problem. Demand more from your teachers, not less!”