What's so scary about our nation's schools? Reign of Error part 2

What's so scary about our nation's schools? Reign of Error part 2








This is the second installment in my meandering, Chicago-centric serial review of Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error. You can find the first post here.

Do you ever wonder how we got to where we are? Where Kindergarteners take bubble tests ( "Can I bubble? Yes I can!") and preschoolers get homework and anxious parents feel their 2-year-olds should be writing their names or else they'll be off track for Harvard?

It may surprise readers to learn that this primary-bubble-testing, preschool-homeworking, college-and-career readying, anxiety-wracked-parenting phenomenon is very recent.

Diane Ravitch's book, Reign of Error, takes as its first task explaining how we got to where we are today, who did this, and how.

Chapter 2 gives a concise history of education policy since 1983's federally-commissioned report A Nation at Risk. Chapter 3 identifies the players in corporate ed reform. Chapter 4 introduces the reader to the rhetoric they use.

These are extremely significant chapters in the context of Chicago because our city is a living lab where the efforts and consequences of 20 years of education reform as described here can be clearly seen. I'll write about that in my next post.

First: the history. Ravitch draws a compelling timeline of what's happened since 1983's A Nation at Risk raised the spectre of the US falling behind the rest of the world on account of its poor test scores. (Ravitch notes that the US has made a poor showing since international testing began in the 1960s.) Federal education policy has been shaped since then by the threats and anxieties raised in this report.

The George H.W. Bush administration sought to avoid a large federal role in education and turned to voluntarism. 1995 saw Clinton's Goals 2000--money given to states to develop standards. In 2001, George W. Bush passed No Child Left Behind--a huge change in the federal role in education, implementing testing in grades 3 through 8 and requiring "100% proficiency" by 2014.

Schools not achieving 100% proficiency were labeled failing schools. This led to many failures, such as in Massachusetts--which has the highest-performing students in the country, yet saw 80% of its public schools labeled failures under the terms of NCLB in 2012.

The goals of NCLB were actually unachievable--actually statistically impossible. But a side effect of NCLB was a whole new industry: educational entrepreneurs--tutoring companies, consultants, data analysts, all sorts of folks to help fix your failing school.

The same time period saw the origin of charter schools and a change in their purpose. The first one opened in Minnesota in 1992 as a teacher-led model with freedom to try new ideas for use on a larger scale. In 2001 they were written into NCLB as the recommended response to failed public schools.

Despite NCLB's many critics at the time of Obama's election, the law was untouchable. Race to the Top, the new administration's signature education policy, went further than NCLB, requiring that all test scores rise every year and tying greater funding to better test performance. Now there was a federal directive to draw on private money to fix the schools. Common standards developed at this time served to unify testing efforts and had a nice side effect for the new business class: "The adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale," wrote a sympathetic analyst of the Obama administration policies.

Predictably, one outcome has been that now panicked, cash-strapped states are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on standardized testing and test prep annually, and 20% of the school year on testing and test prep.

Ravitch has given us here a clear-eyed view of the last 30 years in federal education policy--and its disturbing commercial side effects, which have now become the unquestioned ground of being for education reform.

Who did this? This is the question taken up in Chapter 3. Ravitch suggests they're a pretty scary lot with a radical agenda. "'Reform' is really a misnomer," Ravitch writes, "because the advocates for this cause seek not to reform public education but to transform it into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy."

The "reform" movement is really a "corporate reform" movement, funded to a large degree by major foundations, Wall Street hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and the US Department of Education. The movement is determined to cut costs and maximize competition....It seeks to eliminate the geographically based system of public education as we have known it for the past 150 years and replace it with a competitive market-based system of school choice. (19)

"Choice" came onto the scene in 1955 via Milton Friedman's voucher idea, capitalizing on an anti-government ideology which sought to take back institutions from government control. Despite segregationists' immediate use of vouchers to avoid mixed-race school settings, and despite their failure ever to be approved in public voting, the idea still has many proponents and has most recently been trumpeted by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who

wants the money to follow the child to any school....any online corporation, and for-profit vendor...regardless of experience, quality, or qualifications. (21)

Ravitch, formerly of the H. W. Bush education department, adds: "There is nothing conservative about replacing a...traditional community institution--the public school--with a marketplace of privately run schools and for-profit vendors. This is a radical project."

And it is a radical project overseen by a very few power brokers in the US today. The main advocates include the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Foundation. They fund many organizations to carry out their vision of privatization and testing and are joined by business icons such as Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos, and Reed Hastings.

Gates is the largest player here, granting hundreds of millions annually to charters, test-based teacher evaluation schemes, corporate reform school board candidates and reformers nationwide. Gates also had a heavy hand in the creation of the Common Core State Standards and is now partnered with Pearson to create online support for CCSS.

The Broads run an unaccredited academy to train school leaders, hoping to place superintendents in every city who can implement their corporate reform ideals. The Waltons fund voucher efforts and charters.

Something interesting has happened to the reformers. "When you combine the wealth of the big foundations with the financial and political clout of the US Department of Education, they are a mighty force. The 'reformers' are the status quo." (25)

"The public," writes Ravitch, "is only dimly aware of the reform movement's privatization agenda."

The deceptive rhetoric of the privatization movement masks its underlying goal to replace public education with a system in which public funds are withdrawn from public oversight to subsidize privately managed...schools and other private vendors. (31)

Chapter 4 outlines the language used by the corporate reformers. After all, they need some pretty strong rhetoric to support all this heavy-handed pro-corporate cash-flinging and policy creation. It has to be persuasive because

the public is not yet ready to relinquish its public schools to speculators, entrepreneurs, ideologues, snake-oil salesmen, profit-making businesses, and Wall Street hedge fund managers. (31)

The charming thing about history is knowing that there's really nothing new under the sun. Folks have been complaining about failing schools since the early 1800s, and looking back to a better time. Reformers now look back to a sunny time of successful public schools. They wish to "restore" public schools to their former high standards. But much is left out of this vision. They

speak fondly of an era when most schools were racially segregated; when public schools were not required to accept children with physical, mental, and emotional handicaps; when there were relatively few children who did not speak or read English; and when few graduated from high school and went to college. (33)

Pointing to data from schools which now educate all kinds of children, they claim "failure" and insist that children must "escape" from their "traps." They insist the US is "falling behind" and will no longer be globally competitive; that "we may be in jeopardy as a nation if we don't buy what they are selling." (34)

The purpose of schooling has changed in this new rhetoric. Education is now "preparation for global competitiveness, higher education, or the workforce....[S]tudents (are) 'human capital' or 'assets.'" (35) There is no talk of how education supports or fits into a democracy or develops citizenship.

There is a problem with all this anxious talk of falling behind and global failure and desperately declining public schools. It isn't true.

The scores on no-stakes federal tests--the National Assessment of Education Progress--are at an all-time high for students who are white, black, Hispanic, and Asian. Graduation rates are at an all-time high. More young people than ever are entering college.

Despite this, our Department of Education, education reform philanthropies, and a huge growing sector of our economy--education-reform related products and marketing--are all based in and driven by fear of and anxiety about failure. Failure on a global scale.

Fears and anxieties are, as most folks know, the main drivers behind much of the marketing in our consumer culture today. In her analysis, Diane Ravitch illustrates how education has been transformed into just another consumer commodity. That's the scary thing.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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