Education Nation or Education Corporation?

10/21/2011 06:25 pm 18:25:47 | Updated Dec 21, 2011

Once again this past few weeks, the ongoing education debate in the United States occupied the headlines, bylines and cable news scrolls. NBC launched its second annual "Education Nation Summit," billed as a way "to engage the country in a solutions -- focused conversation about the state of education in America."

Meanwhile, President Obama, approaching warp speed on the campaign trail to try to convince us he's actually the transformational guy from 2008 -- as opposed to the chary chap we've found running our country since -- made a fresh pitch in his weekly radio address for his version of education reform. Obama tied it to the economic future of our country, and discussed waivers to allow states to opt out of provisions of his predecessor's much-maligned legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Of course, the problem is that we're not having an honest conversation about education in the U.S. because many of the broader trends degrading our overall political culture are also at work with this issue. Although some people really want to improve the system for our children, there are also those who see our schools as a way to bring about their vision of a 21st century America -- which sometimes looks a lot like 1984.

This whole cast of characters will seem familiar -- much like that coffee stain you just can't get out of the carpet, or overacting in a Nicolas Cage movie.

First, there is the science-despising Christian right, who think school is for fairy tales and the teachings of the unimpeachable sources at their weekly snake handling. If their Bible said that gravity didn't exist, it wouldn't. If you walked off a building and fell straight to the pavement à la The Happening, it would be your fault for a three-martini lunch you had in April of 1996, or for being married as many times as Rush Limbaugh.

Don't fool yourself into thinking these people don't have a lot of influence. If you don't believe me, see: "Texas Board of Education" and "textbooks."

So is it any wonder, then, that in December 2010 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a study showing the U.S. ranking 17th in the world in science and 25th in math?

Just spitballing here, but it would appear that there is this strange relationship between teaching kids math and science and their learning...maths and science. Who knew?

But those who would put "intelligent design" on par with scientific theory are not the only problem.

Predatory corporate entities have jumped head-over-heels onto the education reform bandwagon. It provides numerous benefits to investors -- in the form of a huge tax windfall known as the New Markets Tax Credit - realized by investing in the infrastructure of privately-owned charter schools. Bonus: there's always the more-fun-than-foosball opportunity to bash public-sector unions comprised of teachers, which has occurred in states like Ohio and Wisconsin.

This is not to say that there are not genuine reformers pushing for positive changes to our education system. I have a friend I knew growing up who came from a working-class section of Staten Island who is passionate about education. He started a charter school in East Harlem that has been thriving.

Additionally, I've worked with an education expert named Dr. Steve Edwards, nationally recognized for his leadership of East Hartford High School in Connecticut. During Edwards' tenure, violence at the school has dropped by 50 percent and dropout rates have fallen below two percent.

His firm, Edwards Education Associates (EES), emphasizes cultural factors in its programs to improve schools, such as facilitating communication between teachers, students, administrators and parents, and teaching leadership skills to students that instil them with the confidence to succeed. Overall, EES uses data-driven methods to individually address the myriad different challenges at different public schools. It may not be as sexy as testing -- but it works.

In fact, to Edwards and his associates, the testing fad that has become as ubiquitous as bad cafeteria food is a faulty one-size-fits-all solution, often leading teachers to "teach to the test". According to Edwards, "testing should be about 20 percent of the pie, not 90 percent as some want it to be. Testing simply can't capture many significant factors that need to be addressed to turn around schools."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that whole industries have been erected, much like Roman arches, in homage to the glory that is testing and test preparation -- just another reason some in the corporate boardrooms may have suddenly (hallelujah!) seen the light in the school classroom.

But here is something with which it is hard to argue. In the Toledo, Ohio public school system, EES worked with 47 high schools out of 61 overall. The ones that hired EES accomplished 75 percent of the goals set by the district, while the others achieved about 10 percent of them. Elementary students working with EES reached maths proficiency nearly 50 percent of the time; those not working with EES accomplished this just five percent of the time. No, that last one is not a typo.

Meanwhile, science proficiency in high school students showed much the same pattern: At high schools that worked with EES, 60 percent of students were found to be proficient; in other schools, just 35 percent were proficient.

There is a lesson in this, not just for education, but for the political culture that helped spawn its slippery slide downwards. From this issue, to health care, to the environment and beyond, we must repair our fraying culture, and good policy will follow. Only then might we once again become what Puritan settler John Winthrop saw as "a shining city upon a hill."

This column was first published at Al Jazeera English.

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