01/06/2012 02:29 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2012

Education "Reform" -- Garbage In, Garbage Out

GIGO. This acronym seems to be out of favor these days, but it certainly describes the essence of education policy debate. (GIGO stands for "garbage in, garbage out," a reference in computer science to the fallibility of results when initial assumptions and/or data input are flawed.)

Most "education reform" is predicated on two myths:

1. That America is a meritocracy where equal opportunities are available for the taking.
2. That the incentives of a competitive free market system assure that for-profit organizations will perform more efficiently and effectively than government or non-profit ones.

It can only be these assumptions that drive policy makers and their well-heeled funders to continue beating their heads against the wall of evidence that America's educational system is getting worse. If this is not the case, then the motives are far darker -- that those with political or economic power are more than happy for the system to fail. I know that many readers of the Huff Post Education section believe this to be true, but I think the intentions are less conscious than that -- even if the outcome may ultimately be the collapse of public education. It's rather like Christian Scientists, who don't want their children to die, but will follow their faith wherever it misleads them.

Myth One

Powerful politicians and wealthy folks (often one and the same) are compelled to embrace the myth of meritocracy for to question it would be to question their own success. It is uncomfortable to think that your success in life is partly or primarily due to the circumstances of your birth or to simple good fortune. This is among the reasons that rags-to-riches fables are so appealing. These exceptions are used to "prove" the otherwise unsupportable myth of equal opportunity.

But any objective analysis yields a very different conclusion: That skin color and social/economic class will be among the primary determinants in one's life. This does not mean that if you are black and/or poor that there is no possibility of success. It does mean that success will be hard won against long odds.

Unfortunately, in a system controlled by folks who scored primarily by being born on second or third base, objective analysis is rare. To acknowledge your own privilege, particularly white privilege, requires at least considering giving some of it up . . . and that's a wildly unpopular notion in today's America, where you get what you deserve and you deserve what you get. And to acknowledge that some Americans suffer from deep structural disadvantages carries the inevitable corollary that you might have benefited from structural advantages -- another idea that is contrary to the myth of meritocracy.

Translated to education, this myth means that any child in America can and should do just as well as any other. And so the poor performance of children in many communities, particularly poor communities of color, must be explained in some other way. It's the lousy teachers. It's the union. It's irresponsible parenting. It's the public education "monopoly."

The problems with education also can't be racism. We live in a post-racial society. Look! We have a black president! Anyone claiming racism is just "playing the race card" or engaging in victimization. And it can't be poverty either. Poverty is a character flaw, not a social problem. "If only those black kids would learn to work harder they could be just like me." (Gingrich et al) And so we set about making them work harder: Charter schools with Marine Corp mentality. Longer school days. More homework. More tests.

Myth Two

The myth that free markets and profit incentives lead to efficiency and effectiveness has always been questionable, but it gained nearly religious status beginning in the Reagan era. According to Reagan and his acolytes, governments, including public schools and other institutions, are the problem and freedom to make money is the solution. While a free market economy is a reasonable (albeit ethically blind) system for trading goods and services, it is a horrid way to provide for basic human needs, particularly education.

Whether in education, prisons or health care, free market incentives work directly against the purposes of the human service being provided. It is what made New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent pronouncement so incredible: Just fire half the teachers and give the good ones twice as many students, as though teachers are robots in a high tech factory and children are interchangeable widgets to be manufactured for some further economic use. This showed, again, that the "Education Mayor" doesn't actually know much about education.

The incursion of profit motives into education has had only negative effects. The widely discredited era of "phonics-first" was instigated through lobbying by the publishing companies that produced the instructional materials and made millions. Read Denny Taylor's brilliant book, Beginning to Read and the Spin Doctors of Science for a detailed and frightening glimpse into the world of education lobbying.

Recent New York Times articles have provided similar evidence of the extent to which Pearson, McGraw Hill, Harcourt, Kaplan and others have lobbied for educational testing policies from which they profit. For-profit "universities" look more and more like outright scams. Kaplan is the most profitable arm of the Washington Post, which means, among other things, that one shouldn't believe much of anything the Washington Post writes about education.

And yet, despite all of the evidence arguing against the "profit model," the individuals who are currently having the most impact on education (it's called bang for the buck) are Bill Gates and Eli Broad, two extraordinarily wealthy products of the profit model. Because of the dual myths of meritocracy and free market magic, these otherwise unqualified men are treated like education oracles.

Yes, garbage in and garbage out. As long as we hold on to these two myths, all the testing in the world is just rearranging the deck chairs.

The problems with education in America will be addressed only when we recognize that it's all about race, class and inequity.