All the reviews of last year’s top education news stories are out and the consensus view is 2013 was a “pivotal year” for the nation’s education policy, to quote Texas superintendent John Kuhn.
The pivot from what to what has various interpretations, but 2013 was a year when “an education uprising” made many left-leaning people’s lists of positive developments.
Just like what’s happening in the economic arena, where a populist rage against inequality and systemic unfairness is causing even President Obama to take notice, anger over inequity and unfairness of policies labeled as education “reform” has stirred the masses into action and sent a clear warning sign to policy leaders in 2014, an election year.
You know 2013 was a rotten year for the nation’s public education system when the best thing many people can remember is that sequestration ended and we stopped kicking little poor kids out of their preschools.
Bad education policy practiced nearly everywhere led at least one nationally prominent broadcaster to declare there was a national program to “kill public education.”
Signs of dysfunction abounded:
In January, Michelle Rhee’s group StudentsFirst issued a “Report Card” that gave good grades to states like Louisiana and Florida – which have notoriously been among the worst school systems and lowest test scores in the nation – and crummy grades to states like New Jersey and Massachusetts, which have the nation’s best test scores and well respected school systems.
In keeping with austerity, most states continued to spend less on education than before the recession. Teachers were increasingly reduced to begging for money to buy paper and pencils. One district in Pennsylvania – a state where funding cutbacks have been particularly ruthless – lacked supplies of pencils students needed to take the required state tests.
A report from an Equity and Excellence Commission – a diverse group of prominent experts commissioned by Congress to advise the U.S. Dept. of Education – called the U.S. an “outlier nation” for its extreme inattention to the needs of a growing population of poor children.
Meanwhile, one of the nation’s largest school districts blew over a billion dollars on Apple iPads. In other ed-tech news, many realized the new online learning sensations known as MOOCs were pretty much a bust – even the guy who invented them.
From coast to coast, there were loud complaints that American students pre-K through college just weren’t learning enough. Policy leaders responded by cutting larger chunks of the curriculum including art, music, science, physics, and a great deal of the humanities.
In cities across the country – New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland – local leaders committed to “school choice” decided to shut down masses of schools in neighborhoods where poor black and brown children live, thus depriving those parents of sending their children to the schools of their choice.
Education “reform” proponents in Washington, D.C., who claim to speak for a “civil rights” cause, came face to face with civil rights advocates from urban centers across the nation who opposed reform. Beginning with Journey for Justice event in D.C. in January, widespread protests broke out across the nation, – predominantly in urban communities of color, but spreading to white suburbs too – to demand a change to failed policies.
According to a recent analysis, grand plans to address these troubled schools in place at the beginning of the year remained that way at the end – just plans, with little to no impact on students’ lives. In Indiana, – a “reform star” that saw its former state school chief Tony Bennett humiliated and driven from public office – a $30 million effort to turn around struggling schools produced no gains. In North Carolina, also high on the reform-fave list, a $43 million effort had done very little to alter children’s classroom experiences.
Nevertheless, in December, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan decided to direct $43 million more into these very same sorts of programs.
Out Of Chaos, Into What?
The potentially threatening outcome of all this dysfunction is more confusion.
For the past decade or so, education policy-making has pretty much been about reacting to the latest “crisis” news with yet another anxious call to “let’s try this!” Hardly ever is there very much regard for what ordinary Americans think.
For instance, in one recent op-ed, the editorial board of The New York Times, responded to a recent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showing American workers scored “below average” on mathematical and problem-solving skills by sounding the alarm, “Other countries teach better … students do better overseas.”
With all due haste the writers declared, “The lessons from those high-performing countries can no longer be ignored by the United States if it hopes to remain competitive.”
The prescribed “lessons” were that the nation’s schools must rapidly adopt policies hailing from someplace else – namely, teacher training programs from Finland, funding practices from Canada, and a top-down directed redistribution of resources enforced in Shanghai.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with examining how other countries go about educating their students, what’s become the tendency is to take comparative results from international assessments and read from that information whatever one wants.
This happens time and again as policy leaders take results from whatever is the latest assessment – more recently the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), for instance – and use it as “proof” we must quickly adopt the reform fad of the day – regardless of what ordinary Americans think.
So with this NYT editorial, here we have yet another example of pulling from survey results what the authors are predisposed to value to begin with – not for instance, that Finnish children start formal schooling at age 7, or that students in Shanghai go to school late into the night and on weekends, or that Canada has practically universal health care and a much lower child poverty rate compared to the U.S.
For sure, Americans want to be Number One in the world, but that doesn’t mean Americans much care about what other countries do. Has anyone ever built a winning political campaign based on the “Finnish Platform”? Or let’s adopt the Shanghai plan? Note, for instance, that the national debate over health care didn’t produce a policy anything like the Canadian system.
True, Americans have that “exceptionalism thing.” But also there’s the very nature of this country’s peculiar system that isn’t based on “what works” as much as “what’s right.” The nation’s foundational documents don’t propose a nation based on equality, liberty, and freedom because there’s proof those “work.”
So rather than declaring allegiance to yet another technocratic “solution” sold as “reform,” policy leaders should take the current disruption in the education debate as an opportunity to listen.
The Main Street Consensus Arises
Discontent is everywhere.
The Huffington Post reported that a new survey has found half of Americans think our system of democracy needs either “a lot of changes” or a “complete overhaul.” And 70% of the citizenry ‘”lack confidence in the government’s ability ‘to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country.’”
In the realms of foreign and economic policy, there’s a growing belief that a new “main street consensus” has emerged which rejects the past 60-year status quo governing national policy.
Writing at Talking Points Memo, Jonathan Taplin explained, “During the course of 2013 citizens, from liberals to libertarians, have turned against the collective wisdom of both Wall Street and the Council of Foreign Relations.”
At The New Republic, Noam Scheiber has tracked a “group of writers … documenting the growing appeal of economic populism and the rising influence of its practitioners.” He wrote, “Populism can’t be ghettoized in a single issue like entitlements or financial reform. It touches pretty much every economic issue.”
Many are seeing the election of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as harbinger of a rising populism affecting education policy in the year ahead. The Nation’s Dana Goldstein claimed that electoral outcome had “changed the conversation about education
“Bill de Blasio’s proposal to provide universal pre-K and after-school programs for all middle-schoolers – and to pay for both by taxing the rich – struck such a chord with the public. Finally, here was someone promising to address the problems pressing on the minds of New York parents.
“People appear to be waking up,” she concluded.
De Blasio promptly made good on his campaign claims by picking as school chancellor Carmen Farina who will, according to experienced observers at Education Week, take education policy in a “different direction” away from the status quo reform “hallmarks” of “rapid expansion of charter schools, the closing of underperforming schools, and an increased use of student test scores for high-stakes decisions.”
At least one outlet for education opinionating has declared, “I predict that this year – 2014 – is the year that reforms driven by teachers and parents take center stage, and reforms driven by hedge-funders and ex-governors finally get gonged.”
Another noted, “2013 will be remembered as the year the free-market education reform movement crested and began to subside. After a decade of gathering momentum, reform politics began to founder in the face of communities fighting for equitable and progressive public education.”
Could it be 2014 is the year we finally get a public education policy in which the “public” have a serious and respected role in most important decisions?