What about education reform?

“A distinguishing characteristic of our nation – and a great strength – is the development of our institutions within the concept of individual worth and dignity. Our schools are among the guardians of that principle. Consequently . . . and deliberately their control and support throughout our history have been – and are – a state and local responsibility. .
. . Thus was established a fundamental element of the American public school system – local direction by boards of education responsible immediately to the parents of children. Diffusion of authority among tens of thousands of school districts is a safeguard against centralized control and abuse of the educational system that must be maintained. We believe that to take away the responsibility of communities and states in educating our children is to undermine not only a basic element of our freedoms but a basic right of our citizens. ” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower

I found the above quote on Susan Ohanian’s website. She’s an activist Vermont teacher who’s been speaking out in opposition to the testing craze that has swept our nation. She has written several great books on the subject and I encourage you to check out her site.

What does testing have to do with education reform? Very little really except the Bush administration believes that tests are a way of holding schools accountable for what students must learn. On the surface it sounds like a good idea but it is more complex than that. The idea assumes that in the market place of schooling schools have enough money and enough resources they just need to try harder and the threat of competition (through vouchers) will make them shape up. Parents have good choices their child’s individual needs. It assumes all students are essentially the same and if schools apply the necessary resources to each child the child will learn and a test will show what the student learns. This assumes that learning is essentially filling a bucket with knowledge that the student can pour out. But learning is not that simple and none of these assumptions hold up. In fact it has recently been revealed (NY Times) that Houston, the school district where Education Secretary Rod Paige used to be Superintendent, was caught cheating to win acclaim for its high graduation rate.

This kind of scheme does not give the public what it needs it only sets up the potential for fraud. The idea is that if school want to continue to do business they better show steady improvement or they’ll shut down. Sounds good on paper but in practice it is a disaster. For more info on the testing debate visit Fair Test.

The ‘standards’ issue in education, as defined by the Bush administration is a huge one because it demands vital resources be put toward assessment and standardization in a time of severely restricted resources. Standards are important as they ask students to achieve, to reach beyond where they thought they might be able to achieve. But some believe this is better achieved through challenging ideas and engaged learning not by following a script.

Assessment, of course, is a part of every teacher’s daily work, but the purpose of assessment as presented by the current advocates is allegedly to determine if teachers and schools are doing their jobs. Job performance is a very complex issue than can’t be determined by a few test scores. Yet we are led to believe that if we publish in the paper a list of schools determined failing by an arbitrary test based on ill-conceived set of assumptions ‘education reform’ will occur. I believe schools should be held accountable and they should be open to the public and to parent and public involvement and scrutiny, but these tests do nothing to further these goals. The schools should inform and listen to the public they serve.

But as every teacher knows, in every classroom you can have as many different needs as there are students, and as many assessments of whether or not you are meeting those needs. These are by nature subjective and painstaking assessment. As teachers and as a society, we shouldn’t run from this responsibility, nor should we accept or pass off improper measures of the work of the school system as a magical cure for an undefined malady. Jerry, of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, had it right when said recently to a Carleton audience, “You only get what you measure.” It’s true in business, and it’s true in the schools. If we only measure schools by test scores and not other measures of quality, schools will become test preparation mills with little if anything to do with education.

On the other hand, the Eisenhower quote points to an important but frequently forgotten aspect of the standards debate. This federal initiative takes away local control and stifles the possibility of local reform initiatives, which have a better chance of success than the top down reform of No Child Left Behind because it is reform growing from immediate and identifiable needs. As a result of NCLB, Minnesota will forfeit $112,964 (a portion of what the State receives) in federal education aid because Minnesota does not comply with a portion of the No Child Left Behind education law.

It was to use the first time test scores in high schools to measure whether or not high schools were underperforming schools ‘underperforming’ based on a federal definition based on an arbitrary criteria (test scores, attendance and graduating on time) not taking in to account any special considerations for students or parents. This is a punitive model based on similar assumptions to debtors prison pay up or go to jail, improve or get shut down. They don’t care how you improve on the criteria just show improvement. It doesn’t matter if students test well or have language difficulties or have health problems.

Minnesota has long been a leader in progressive education reform. Charter Schools and such things as Open Enrollment, Post Secondary Enrollment Options and Public Alternative Schools got their start right here. (One of the most progressive public alternative schools in the country started right here in the 60s, The Wilson School, in Mankato Minnesota.) Each of these measures open doors to reform they don’t mandate it from a distant bureaucracy. There have been some thoughtful discussions the past few months about this in the Citizens League’s MN Journal.

A new organization on the scene interested in reform is one formed by Ted Kolderie and Joe Graba called Education Evolving. For a number of years now they have been arguing that one cannot reform education from the inside out. Reform will come from experiments still to come.

IALA (The International Association for Learning Alternatives) is an organization I helped start a few years ago with Wayne Jennings, Dan Daly and Bill Zimmniewicz to support small scale school reform through networking and organizing by helping alternative and innovative schools form state organizations and offers information to start up schools.

When conservatives complain about the cost of education and suggest we should privatize or charge a fee for service, which is just a tax by another name, they aren’t engaging the public in a conversation about educational needs, about what a different public education system might look like, or whether or not the public would want it. They aren’t looking at societal needs or the needs of students or educators. They are looking to accomplish a specific agenda, which is to privatize education, do away with labor unions and reinforce a system which promotes privilege and elitism.

The public nature of our schools is a fundamental characteristic that demonstrates our investment in community. Schools should provide the training for a healthy democracy. In bringing that about, we need to involve parents to a greater extent in decision making, and provide choices in education that meet the needs of a variety of learners.

What do you think? What does ‘educational reform’ mean to you? What do you think it means to testing advocates? Can we reform the system locally or do we need the guidance of federal government? If we need reform, don’t we then need investment to make that reform happen? Should schools should be more democratic? More dictatorial? More rules, and who should set those rules? More control? of what and by whom? Should we scrap what we have and make every school a charter school? Should we scrap what we have and make every school a private school? Should we end any public subsidization of private schools? Should we make every school the same and guarantee everyone the same education? Are we shifting towards that with ‘No Child Left Behind’? How does this mesh with our notions of ‘American individuality’?

Want to know more about Charter Schools, Alternative Schools, or various public choice programs such as Open Enrollment, and Post Secondary Enrollment Options?

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