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Educating for Democracy: A Dangerous Proposal

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A number of recent news items on education should demonstrate to educators how little attention the political establishment has paid to the legitimate concerns of teachers. That is because the so-called "educational reform" movements that were initiated during the Clinton Administration, codified by the Bush Administration's "No Child Left Behind" program, and intensified by the Obama Administration's "Race to the Top" have little if anything to do with improving education. They have to do with creating the illusion that they are improving education.

To improve education would mean also improving the social and economic life of young learners who are disadvantaged because of racial, ethnic and class discrimination by an economic system that is consistently failing to provide good-paying jobs to an increasing number of working class and lower middle class workers. This is a systemic problem and using the schools as the whipping boy for its failure is one way in which politicians deal with serious problems: distract the public with a simplistic solution instead of a challenging one. The fraudulence of the "Educational Miracle" that improved test scores since Michael Bloomberg took control of the New York City schools system was revealed in a report by Daniel Koretz and Jennifer Jennings of Harvard University ( "State's Exams Became Easier to Pass, Education Officials Say." NY Times. 7/20/10). The findings of the study which included such practices as "test[ing] a narrow part of the curriculum, particularly in math, and... [that] questions were often repeated year to year..." exposed the manipulation of test scores to create the illusion of improved learning. The "higher standards" that Chancellor Klein is promising will be no more valid than the present "lower standards" the NYC school system has been promoting since the emphasis will continue to be on test prep instead of education. The following day (7/ 21/10) The Times reported that 27 states are adopting "National Standards" for their education curriculum so as to be eligible for some of the "Race to the Top" funds by August 2. Laudable as it might be to have "national standards" (France has them), what procedures are going to be used to measure the success -- or failure -- of schools to "educate" their students up to these standards? Will there be penalties, as there are now, of school closings, student dislocation, loss of tenure, seniority, and, as a consequence, experienced teachers as a product of establishing and testing for these "standards?" If they are so important, why shouldn't they be required for all schools in the country, private as well as public? Although I know of no systematic study on the practices of private schools, from their literature and my discussions with private school students and teachers concerning testing, these educators do not spend any significant amount of time, if at all, "prepping" their students for standardized tests. It would be an interesting project to find out exactly how many private and elite public school teachers actually take these programs seriously, especially if they are left alone to teach and not play the role of bookkeepers. Steve Nelson, the School Head at one of the more prestigious private schools in New York City, The Calhoun School, whose alumni include Ben Stiller, Wendy Wasserstein, the late playwright, and Peggy Guggenheim, the philanthropist, is cited in the school's website:

"While Steve acknowledges that standardized tests can help schools determine which content areas of their programs need strengthening, they fail to benefit students in any real way and can actually cause harm. By measuring a very narrow range of abilities -- most notably, the ability to take a standardized test -- the tests provide a mere snapshot of the student, and cause him or her to be defined by test scores alone. The tests do not account for different learning styles."


This statement echoes that of thousands of educators across the nation; the only difference is that The Calhoun School recognizes and limits the potential abuses of standardized tests while public school teachers are increasingly at risk in doing so. Having been born to wealth or privilege is in itself an advantage for any young learner at a private school. The programs spreading throughout the country that will cripple public schools only increase the disadvantage of others.

In the research I've done on a pamphlet I'm preparing for those who read my blog, "Why Our Economic System Is Unsustainable (And What You Can Do About It)," one of the many statistics I've discovered is that 43% of working people earn less than they spend and that the average family is going deeper into debt every year since long before the present Recession. This is due, in large part, to the stagnating wages that have, at least for men, remained very much the same as they had thirty-five years ago. By deflecting this wage stagnation through blaming the public schools, the political and economic leaders in this country have an excuse for the increasing trend toward economic -- and I would add political -- inequality.

The two principal initiators of these school "reforms," Rod Paige under the Bush Administration and Arne Duncan under the Obama Administration, have been shown to be failures, if not frauds in the case of Paige, in the programs they administered as the superintendents of schools in Houston and Chicago. In Paige's case, the improved test scores were found, in some instances, to be the product of cheating, and many of the statistics were skewed by not counting drop out rates. In Duncan's case, some of his "reforms" proved even more lethal as rival gangs, forced to share the same "turf" because one of their schools was closed, began to wage gang wars, reflected in the rise in the recent murder rate in Chicago. Yet there has been no serious re-examination of the validity of Paige's and Duncan's programs in view of their actual records as "educators."

The issues I've raised in this blog have been discussed and debated for almost a decade in one form or another as teachers have become more aware of the danger to their profession: its quality, integrity and the respect it should receive as these repressive, anti-intellectual and sorry excuses for "educational innovation" seem to be taking hold throughout the country. The issue of the rise of charter schools would be the subject for another blog but suffice it to say that from what I can see, they do not provide a solution to the problems of school learning and, in many cases, exacerbate them. Diane Ravitch's study, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, is an excellent analysis of the way in which what might have been a good idea has turned into a nightmare.

But what is to be done? Instead of a Modest Proposal, I would like to offer a Dangerous Proposal. The only way the leaders of this country and enforcers of this policy are going to realize that they have to rethink their agenda is by teachers getting their attention. I believe that evidence of the strength of teacher opposition to testing instead of teaching is through a "Sick of Testing Sick Out": a national "teacher sick out day" that would be organized andpromoted by education activists and those among the three million teachers in this country who recognize that these destructive practices must stop. The teachers should also offer "teach-ins" in which they present to the public alternatives to standardized testing and a clear explanation as to why the programs that emphasize it have been bad for students.

I am a retiree with a pension and so I realize that there is a danger in organizing a national "sick out" for the future careers of young as well as experienced teachers. But I remember when my parents felt that they had to have a union to protect them from arbitrary treatment by principals and school boards and risked their jobs and pensions to go on strike with Albert Shanker back in the 1950's. A one-day "sick-out" might be the only way to get the attention of politicians who assume that "business as usual" is the way to solve a serious social issue. In Florida, a "Right-to-Work" state, the Republican Governor, instead of signing a bill that would have stripped teachers of almost all collective bargaining rights, vetoed it as a result, in no small part, of a teacher "sick-out" that was supported by a majority of the parents in the state. Yes, this is a "Dangerous Proposal," but I believe that doing nothing more than discussing and debating issues we know are ruining our public school system and the future of democracy in this country is even more dangerous.

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