Time to Invoke Reagan Directive: “And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education”

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).
R.E.M.
The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.
James Baldwin

Speaking as a witness from within the bowels of the Ronald Reagan administration when President Reagan gave the committee responsible for A Nation at Risk their prime directives, Gerald Holton ended with Reagan’s emphatic “And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.”

About thirty years later, we must now admit it is time to invoke the Reagan directive because the USDOE cannot be any other kind of government than the very worst kind: All uninformed bureaucracy that seeks always to dig deeper from the bottom of a very deep and fruitless hole.

While Reagan’s characterizing the USDOE as an “abomination” may have been premature in the early 1980s, we must admit now that Reagan was prescient.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, states scrambled to “fix” public education through a series of accountability-based bureaucratic mandates built on standards (and new standards) and high-stakes tests (and new high-stakes tests).

By the turn of the century, we witnessed the tipping point that would prove Reagan right—No Child Left Behind [1], the ultimate shifting of know-nothing bureaucracy from the states to the federal government, specifically the USDOE.

Few could have been brave enough to predict that the George W. Bush 8 years of horrible education policy could be trumped by the Obama administration, but we are now solidly in the reality that the USDOE is a total Obamination—relentless failed bureaucracy piled on top of failed bureaucracy.

Under Obama and the appointee-leadership of Secretary Arne Duncan, public education has been bombarded by competitive grants, teacher bashing, union bashing, and a series of policies at the state and federal levels that are neither supported by research nor appropriate responses to the very real problems facing public schools (many of which are beyond the walls or control of those schools).

The two latest abominations are calling for expanding value-added methods (VAM) into teacher education and ranking colleges and universities.

Even those along a wide spectrum of ideologies who believe in the promise of VAM have consistently demonstrated that VAM is not as effective as policies claim and that VAM should not be used in any high-stakes contexts for schools, teachers, or teacher education.

Those of us who see no promise for VAM add that all this expanded testing is a tremendous waste of time and money—most notably because grasping at measurable data is missing the greatest problems burdening our schools, social and educational inequities (ironically, all circumstances that could be addressed effectively if government would behave as government as demonstrated in many other countries around the world).

As Gerald Bracey explained in numerous contexts, ranking itself is fool’s gold—and in education, ranking is particularly caustic since it creates competition where we should be in collaboration (this is also a fundamental problem with VAM as a mechanism for sorting teachers, schools, or schools/departments of education).

The two most recent abominations are not unique, however, but lie in a long line including Race to the Top, Opting Out of NCLB, and Common Core.

Simply stated, these policies are designed and promoted by people with no or little experience or expertise in the field of education. Their advocacy remains plagued by the bi-partisan political tactic of simple saying things that aren’t true and then using the bully pulpit of election or appointment to plow ahead (and thus, beware the roadbuilders).

Maybe this will sound outlandish, but let’s consider what people who have taught, studied, and researched the field of education recognize about the proposal to hold colleges/departments of education accountable for the test scores of students being taught by graduates from those colleges/departments (holding grandparents responsible for their grandchildren’s behavior, in effect):

Ridiculous I suppose—like asking the legal profession to weigh in on jurisprudence or the medical profession to craft health policy. [2]

Many people have called for the ghost of Ronald Reagan, and I never counted myself among them until now. But in the waning days of 2014, I welcome that ghost of administration’s past to ramble into the room and, as Holton paraphrased, make the call once again: “And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.”

[1] The irony is NCLB called for scientifically based policy in education, and we have gotten anything except: Whatever Happened to Scientifically Based Research in Education Policy?

[2] Education has a very long history of being ignored as a field in terms of policy, and public education has also long labored under a misguided business model; see from Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press:

For while schools everywhere reflect to some extent the culture of which they are a part and respond to forces within that culture, the American public schools, because of the nature of their pattern of organization, support, and control, were especially vulnerable and responded quickly to the strongest social forces. . . .The business influence was exerted upon education in several ways: through newspapers, journals, and books; through speeches at educational meetings; and, more directly, through actions of school boards. It was exerted by laymen, by professional journalists, by businessmen or industrialists either individually or in groups. . ., and finally by educators themselves. Whatever its source, the influence was exerted in the form of suggestions or demands that the schools be organized and operated in a more businesslike way and that more emphasis by placed upon a practical and immediately useful education….

The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened. (pp. 1, 5-6, 246)

One comment

  1. Arthur Camins

    What is the evidence the devolution of power in education policy to the local level will lead to better results?
    Great advances for economic and social justice, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and civil rights laws are the result of federal legislation and Supreme Court decisions. All of these benchmarks of progress been initiated by local social and political action, but they have been achieved nationally. In effect, the emergence of national progressive movements pushed federal authorities to impose its will on pockets of local resistance while redistributing resources.
    See:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/13/u-s-educatio…
    We do not need the federal government to specify teacher evaluation mechanisms, rank teacher preparation programs based on the test scores of their graduates students, fund privately operated charter schools or promote education entrepreneurs. But, we do need the proper role for the federal government, to be the guarantor of justice and equity.

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