Education is really not worse (or better) now than in previous generations. Diane Ravitch and others have made that case with abundant evidence.
But the political hand-wringing over low achievement in poor urban schools has unleashed a torrent of really bad policy and practice that is washing over schools everywhere. It is a bit like trying to put out a fire in the closet by turning the hoses on the whole damn house. Which would be bad enough, but the policies are pouring gasoline, not water, on the fire.
Just in two days this month, I heard reports from several family members on the hot flames of reform licking at schools far removed from the neighborhoods targeted by reformers.
My daughter is a wonderful teacher, trained in the Steiner (Waldorf) philosophy. For more than a dozen years she worked in several progressive Waldorf schools, engaging children in play-based activities, rich in the arts and lively, creative experiences and all the other things a good progressive education provides. Then, in fall of 2014, she began work at a semi-rural public school in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. There, she encountered the slightly diluted, but still pointless, expectations of educational reform. Testing, standards, rubrics, accountability. She teaches pre-school, so the impact is less severe. The superintendent and principal clearly hired her because of her more progressive sensibilities. But she and they must work around the requirements of federal and state policy in order to do the work they love.
My sister-in-law, a music teacher for many years in Madison, WI, reports being at the end of her rope. What has been, and should be, a joyful experience has been made increasingly tedious by regulation, standardization, assessment rubrics and other nonsense that adds nothing.
The expectations and requirements emanating from No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and the Common Core are making life more difficult for teachers all around America -- for absolutely no reason. Their schools are not failing, their students are doing no worse (or better) than they've ever done before, their communities aren't concerned about the schools and yet, the tentacles of mindless "reform" are strangling the life out of their schools.
The MetLife Survey of teacher satisfaction reports that teacher morale is plummeting. In 2008 62 percent of teachers reported being "satisfied" with their work. In 2012 that percentage shrank to 39 percent. This tragic fact is due to the policies and practices of so-called traditional educational reform and to the decreasing resources available to teachers.
The mixed success of traditional schools in decades past was due, at least in part, to the autonomy of schools and their faculty to do many things that were essentially progressive; things like field trips, fun projects, musical theater, science experiments, debate classes and other experiential, sensory rich activities.
Now, with the stringent, all-consuming expectations imposed by NCLB, RTTP and Common Core, good teachers simply don't have the time or freedom to do those progressive things they might have done in the past.
These are only the educational reasons that "reform" really means "deform." The political ramifications are equally or more damaging.
Funding for public education has declined. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
States' new budgets are providing less per-pupil funding for kindergarten through 12th grade than they did six years ago -- often far less. The reduced levels reflect not only the lingering effects of the 2007-09 recession but also continued austerity in many states; indeed, despite some improvements in overall state revenues, schools in around a third of states are entering the new school year with less state funding than they had last year. At a time when states and the nation are trying to produce workers with the skills to master new technologies and adapt to the complexities of a global economy, this decline in state educational investment is cause for concern.
The phrase "trying to produce workers ..." diminishes my enthusiasm for the Center's point of view, but the facts are alarming nonetheless. The reasons for the decline are complex, including the "lingering effects of the recession" they cite. But this trend will continue despite the clear economic recovery. In part this is because the tide of "economic recovery" has floated all the luxury liners -- not so much the middle class rowboats. Most schools are still funded by a stagnant or shrinking property tax base. Finally, although a relatively small factor, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of households in America with children under age 18 has been in steady decline.
These economic factors are exacerbated by constant political rhetoric, which is parroted by educational reformers and conservative commentators.
Here are constant themes echoed on various political and education forums:
• Money doesn't fix education. We spend more than (choose your nation) and get worse results.
• Class size doesn't matter. (Which is true to a certain extent in the grim industrial model of this era)
• Teachers are overpaid and don't even work all year.
• Teachers unions are only interested in the status quo and ripping off the rest of us.
• The reasons schools are bad is because parents are irresponsible. It's their problem. I'm not paying to raise their (usually black) kids.
There are many similar bits of bitter propaganda one can discover in an hour or two on Huffington Post or in other education discussion settings.
The fascination with economy of scale and the use of technology also contributes to the erosion of funding. If one believes that technology can make education leaner and meaner, they certainly have a point. Schools have indeed gotten leaner and meaner.
And most of all, the rise of charter schools, the mirage of school "choice," and the hundreds of millions spent by hedge funds and foundations to fund a very small percentage of America's schools, create the illusion that we don't need a strong base of funding for the public system. The education reform cartel has largely succeeded in convincing the public of the bullet points above, leading to civic resistance to proper funding of local schools. The strategy of reformers seems to be to starve public schools so that increasing numbers of families will flee to the charters and voucher-funded private schools. Whether or not it is their intent, it is the clear result.
For these reasons it is not hyperbole to claim that educational reform has made nearly all public schools worse.
This post is excerpted from a "book in progress."