On Ed Reform—The False Hypothesis
—a conversation on Facebook between my friend (DR)and myself (AJ). He teaches in a college and I teach in a high school. I have edited and added to my comments in places, for the sake of language and clarity.
AJ (preface to post): We're caught between the Republicans and the "corporate Democrats", such as this specimen below—Rahm Emanuel, once Obama's right-hand man in DC, now back in Chicago as its mayor. Here in New State, we have Governor Andrew Cuomo—a politician whose views differ markedly from those of his late father, Mario. Both are into their second terms in office, with electoral campaigns and ongoing positive publicity funded by powerful backers with deep pockets.
DR: Think of the alternatives...
AJ: The alternative in Chicago was not a Republican (Chicago long having been a Democratic stronghold) but Karen Lewis, the unusual leader of the CTU (Chicago Teacher's Union). The teachers in Chicago had been radicalized by the damage Arne Duncan had wrought there, and they finally had thrown out the old, compliant union leadership in union elections and brought Lewis' CORE caucus into power in the union.
After he was elected for his first term, Emanuel went after the teachers’ union. So Karen Lewis found that her only chance of effectively pushing back lay in running in the primary for mayor when he came up for his second term. She was quite popular. But she had been under extreme stress for several years and finally could not run in the primary, because she was stricken with brain cancer. She supported Chuy Garcia, a relatively unknown entity, who did well at first, thanks to the increasing realization that Rahm Emanuel was a "corporate Democrat" who had aligned himself with the affluent elite and worked to further their interests
However, big money and the Democratic machine came to Emanuel's aid, and he defeated Garcia. Typically, Emanuel then went after the teachers even more, firing 2000 of them as his opening salvo.
It is open war now in this country against teachers and their remnant unions and against public workers and their tattered unions in general. The charge is led by Republicans, but many Democrats are not far behind. With Bloomberg gone, our Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo (who fell rather far from his father Mario's tree) has been the attack dog at the New York State executive level, with Rupert Murdoch and others egging him on.
After 28 years in the profession, I am more than ready to call it quits before I drop dead on the job, but I might have to struggle on (an understatement) for another term.
DR: You have a point. But I expect that even a Karen Lewis or Chuy Garcia wouldn't have a feasible answer for real educational reform which I think needs to be done through something like the Finnish model...
AJ: In my time, I solved what appeared to be intractable problems in physics, not because I was "smart", but because I had gone through my years of study, and went about my work systematically, diligently and with quite a bit of thought and care. But after having worked most of the last 28 years in a school system, I think that the problems here haven't even begun to be acknowledged, let alone addressed. Instead, there has been one distraction after another, each contributing to the problems and tending to create chaos. The latest reform movement, involving highly aggressive and powerful political and financial forces, might end up giving the death blow, in the cities, to education at the K-12 level. This might then also happen in suburban and rural places in this country. In short order, this will also affect the universities.
DR: As mentioned before, the lack of preparation is apparent in my introductory economics classes. Many students cannot understand simple graphs or do simple calculations like a percentage change in a variable from one year to the next. Colleges spend a large amount of money on remedial programs, especially in math. It's a huge waste of resources; doing the same thing twice or more. The U.S. spends a huge amount of money on education at all levels. That alone isn't the problem.
AJ: It's exactly the same story at the high school level, and probably in junior high and elementary as well. At each level in the sequence, the teachers tend to blame the teachers before them as not having done the job—and in the schools they also blame the parents.
Meanwhile, the school teachers as a whole have been targeted as incompetents who should either improve or be fired. Many teachers are being forced out. As the word gets out about the impossible pressures on teachers in the schools, I predict there will be a teacher shortage—unless the economy tanks and no other jobs are available.
The hypothesis behind most past educational reforms in this country, especially the current one, is that the causes of the alleged or real problems in K-12 education lie mainly in our weak curricula, our outdated methods of teaching and in the poor quality of our teachers. Increasingly, there has been a focus on teacher incompetence, although things like Common Core try to address the curricula, while the obsession with “teaching methods” continues on its perennial, unproductive course.
I could say a lot about the curricula and about the teaching methods. But let me say that the traditional curricula in NY State and city, thirty years ago, were hardly "weak" by any standards, or at least in comparison to what I experienced during my fairly rigorous (though still of course flawed) education in India. I should also say that the teaching methods in use then and earlier, while surely not perfect, were effective then—and still are.
Subsequent misguided efforts to strengthen curricula and to improve teaching methods have greatly hurt whatever strengths there were in K-12 education in this country. On the curriculum front, these efforts include, especially, the ill-thought-through Gates-Feds-Common Core (which the leaderships of the teachers’ unions—the AFT and the NEA—embraced) and its hurried and awful implementation. On the pedagogical front, one should point to such things as the “Workshop Model” that was made into a diktat for quite a few years in the NY City schools, and the “Danielson Framework” that has more recently been adapted to straight-jacket and punitively assess teachers in NY State and also in other places.
The main reason for this harm was that there has been little or no provision for input, feedback and correction to educational policies forced down the throats of teachers and students.
When one takes what might possibly (in certain circumstances) be a good idea and makes this into a rule to be followed no matter what, then one kills whatever good there was in that idea. One also gives birth to a great number of evils.
But more and more (and indeed throughout our history, but never so viciously and wrong-headedly as in this century), the working hypothesis for educational reform has been based on the assumption that the root of the problems in K-12 education lies in the incompetence of teachers and the recalcitrance of their unions. This is what has been broadcast daily through all the media, and what has been embraced by politicians and even by a considerable segment of the public.
Once one accepts this hypothesis, then the solutions being applied follow:
(a) identify the "incompetents" and fire these;
(b) try to "improve" the “marginal ones” and also the others, via on-the-job training—what is called, in the schools, "professional development".
This is, imho, a classic case of a mistaken hypothesis (as to the cause of an ailment) that is reapplied, time and time again, to affect a "cure", although experience has shown us that the past cures based on this hypothesis failed to work. This should have led, in a logical and sane world, to some suspicion regarding the validity of the hypothesis. But we don't live in such a world.
So what are the real problems in K-12 education? And how can they be resolved?
I have, in the past, categorized and listed the major problems and then suggested how to go about resolving them. But no one pays attention to teachers--including, sadly, teachers themselves.
All of society has to be involved in this, and that has to start with teachers educating the public (something that by training they should be good at) as to the reality in the schools—and the origins of that reality.
By the way, there are many bright spots in that reality, along with the shadows.
Unless the basic respect and the feedback-and-correction mechanisms are restored, there will be no progress in K-12 education in this country. One need not go running to look at other countries' models, no matter how successful these might appear. One can of course try to learn from them. The basic genius, experience, wisdom and knowledge within each country—indeed, within each community—can be utilized. But this cannot be done in an atmosphere of fear and coercion.
Criminal insanity seems to be the hallmark of much of what we hail as "progress". It's only when we actually come, with open hearts and minds, to live, work and compassionately observe what goes on in the killing fields of the wars, or in the farms, factories, schools and offices, that we begin to see the full horror of the situation, along with the idiocy that led to it. We will then also surely notice the things that are to be admired, which yet get little or no attention.
We might then also begin to see, in all humility, what needs to be done to end the idiocy and the horror and to further what there is of good. This cannot truly be done by others than those who are in the midst of it themselves. However difficult that might appear, anything else is at best a patch-over, a temporary fix that will not hold for long. More often, it is something that will worsen the situation.
DR: I don't blame the teachers. It's varsity sports!
DR: I got into serious trouble for failing an athlete...
AJ: I think that big-time, high-pressure sports are more of a problem at the college level than in the schools. I have had no big issues with most of the kids on the teams—except for some of the football players. I had a few cases where the boys went home so tired after long hours of grueling after-school practice, plus a long commute by train and bus, that they could do no homework. I also had some football players in my lower-level classes who spoke English fine, like high school teenagers, but when I looked at their written work, it was at 2nd grade level at best.