14 March 2010

Cheering Education Follies at The Times

"The countries that have left the United States behind in math and science education have one thing in common: They offer the same high education standards — often the same curriculum — from one end of the nation to the other. The United States relies on a generally mediocre patchwork of standards that vary, not just from state to state, but often from district to district. A child’s education depends primarily on ZIP code.

That could eventually change if the states adopt the new rigorous standards proposed last week by the National Governors Association and a group representing state school superintendents. The proposal lays out clear, ambitious goals for what children should learn year to year and could change curriculums, tests and teacher training."

Those are the opening paragraphs of this editorial at The New York Times today. The folks there are very enthusiastic about the newly proposed standards. Let's just say I am dubious. I don't know the details of the proposal the editorial endorses. One can only imagine. But I have some views about the general, persistent, wrong-headed clamor for standardization.

First, it may well be true that a "child's education depends primarily on ZIP code." But the most obvious way that dependence occurs is in terms of financing. In the U.S. we rely on local property taxes to fund schools. The resulting inequalities are shameful. Standards will remedy neither that underlying problem nor the educational s it generates. What might is an overhaul of educational funding. If you are searching for something to make uniform, to standardize, nationalize the formula for education expenditures per pupil.

Second, I've not checked, but will give odds that the "countries that have left the United States behind in math and science education have" more than "one thing in common" beyond national education standards. I will bet the vast majority also have considerably lower rates of childhood poverty. I'll bet too that they have considerably less dramatic inequalities in the distribution of wealth and income. Go look. You can read the results into my first point.

But let's not follow the money. Surely, that would be too crass and would lead conservatives to crow that I simply have low expectations for poor kids and the schools that serve them. Pointing out that educational attainment reflects economic inequalities is simply an excuse, right? Wrong.

The first thing to note is a bit of rhetoric. Proponents of national standards, and the institutional uniformity - in terms of curricula, testing, teacher training - they would impose, engage in a none-too-subtle bit of persuasive definition. Their proposal is for "standards," making them hard-nosed and realistic. By contrast those of us who think that program of reform is misguided must, of necessity, be opposed to standards, right? Hence we support what? Laxity, coddling students, soft-headedness? No, we support democracy and educational attainment. The language of conservative reformers seeks to hide that.

The second, related thing to note is that the standards movement is fundamentally authoritarian and anti-democratic. Here is educator Deborah Meier on educational standardization:
"Even in the hands of sincere allies of children, equity, and public education, the current push for far greater standardization than we’ve ever previously attempted is fundamentally misguided. It will not help to develop young minds, contribute to a robust democratic life, or aid the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens. By shifting the locus of authority to outside bodies, it undermines the capacity of schools to instruct by example in the qualities of mind that schools in a democracy should be fostering in kids–responsibility for one’s own ideas, tolerance for the ideas of others, and a capacity to negotiate differences. Standardization instead turns teachers and parents into the local instruments of externally imposed expert judgment. It thus decreases the chances that young people will grow up in the midst of adults who are making hard decisions and exercising mature judgment in the face of disagreements. And it squeezes out those schools and educators that seek to show alternate possibilities, to explore other paths.

The standardization movement is not based on a simple mistake. It rests on deep assumptions about the goals of education and the proper exercise of authority in the making of decisions– assumptions we ought to reject in favor of a different vision of a healthy democratic society."

On the view Meier advances - and that she and others have implemented, repeatedly, in innovative schools located in decided un-affluent neighborhoods** - standards and the alternatives that ground genuine school choice emerge from local debates about the aims and organization of education. What she argues for are the sorts of standards that experimentation generates and it is difficult to see how standardization will promote that.

The third thing to note is that the standards movement is parasitic on a narrow understanding of the aims of education. Hence, the editorialists at The Times assert blithely that there is some consensus that schools ought to deliver "the skills students will need," but they do so without forming the question - skills for what? Roberto Unger***, for instance, identifies the importance for economic development and democratization of implementing "a form of education addressed to the development of generic conceptual and practical capacities rather than mastery of job-specific skills." He goes on to insist that such education be "administered in youth and made available throughout a working life." And he summarizes his view in this way:
"The distinguishing traits of such a form of education are to be analytical and problematic rather than informational; to prefer exemplary selective deepening to encyclopedic coverage; to encourage cooperation rather than isolation or authoritarianism, in learning and teaching; and to proceed dialectically - that is to say, by the exploration of contrasting methods and views rather than by appeal to a closed canon and right doctrine."
I suspect that this broad set of features is not what the conservative reformers who peddle standards have in mind. But Unger surely would agree with Robert Moses about the need to teach kids - all kids - algebra, not because they need to know algebra per se, but because learning algebra affords them practice in the sort of abstract thinking that is required if they hope to be productive citizens and creative workers capable of navigating the increasingly treacherous labor market. As Meier proposes, it might be that learning statistics could perform a similar function. The point is that mathematical literacy is important not just for its own sake but because it has political and economic consequences.

Oh, and finally, the folks at The Times editorial page might try reading their own paper. In recent weeks the news on the "education" pages has highlighted: (i) The apostasy of Dianne Ravitch, one of the leading proponents of conservative educational reform, who's become persuaded that the reform agenda she preached is deeply misguided. The source of her change of heart? She apparently looked at the evidence. [1] [2]; (ii) The financial disaster in Kansas City Missouri and its effects on the public schools - especially on the matter of school size (conservative reformers typically discount the importance of small schools and small classes) and racial and political-economic inequities. [3] [4]; And (iii) the concerted efforts of conservative fundamentalists in Texas to hijack educational standards in pursuit of a reactionary ideological agenda [5]. Thus far all I've suggested is that "standards" proposals are deeply flawed even when properly implemented. Let's not forget that - in the real world - they are ripe for precisely this sort of abuse as well.
* Deborah Meier, et. al., 2000. Will Standards Save Public Education? Boston: Beacon Press, and Deborah Meier. 2002. In schools we trust: Creating communities of learning in an era of testing and standardization. Boston: Beacon Press.
** For example, Deborah Meier. 1995. The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem. Boston: Beacon Press, and Robert Moses. Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project. Boston: Beacon Press.
*** Roberto Mangabeira Unger. 2009. The Left Alternative. Verso.

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Blogger Public Squalor said...

Kudos, Jim. This is spot on.

~ peace

15 March, 2010 19:10  

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