Education Pendulum? No, Meat Grinder

The irony of apt analogy is that when a comparison works it becomes overused, and thus, tossed eventually like so much waste in the cliché bin.

In education, possibly the most enduring metaphor is the education pendulum that represents the swings in educational policy since at least the beginning of the twentieth century.

However, the education pendulum metaphor represents the analogy that is enduring while also being horribly misleading; its power comes from the political and public misconceptions about education, in fact.

The education pendulum suggests relatively wide swings along a fixed continuum, one that implies an ideological left and right.

From historical examinations of education—such as Kliebard and Callahan—the evidence is overwhelming that U.S. public education committed in the first decades of the 1900s to efficiency and core knowledge, and schools have been governed within those ideologies (traditional, conservative) unto this day.

Progressivism, associated with John Dewey and vilified at mid-twentieth century, has only held weight in academia, but as Alfie Kohn carefully details, progressivism has never garnered any real value in official educational policy. Even when inklings of progressivism (such as whole language) have occurred, we have been left with “progressive in name only”; for example, when whole language was the official reading policy of California, the system failed whole language, but whole language did not fail students.

The only way to make the education pendulum analogy work is to envision the swing as minuscule, barely ticking back and forth along a technocratic continuum. Consider, for example, the pendulum swinging back and forth in fruitless pursuit of better tests between the SAT and ACT or between any state’s old high-stakes test and the new high-stakes test.

Here, then, in my home state of South Carolina, as I have documented before, educators in the state have been informed that due to the passing of new federal legislation, ESSA, State Superintendent of Education Molly M. Spearman has announced:

Under ESSA, states no longer have to tie educator evaluation to student growth as formerly required under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). South Carolina has already begun to implement an educator evaluation system, ADEPT for teachers and PADEPP for principals, that is partially tied to student learning objectives (SLOs). Student growth will continue to play a role in educator evaluation but it will not be tied to the results of high stakes testing.

As part of Superintendent Spearman’s proposal, the South Carolina Department of Education will be conducting focus groups to determine additional details surrounding educator evaluation and a thoughtful implementation timeline. Changes must be approved by the State Board of Education (SBE).

SC is not alone, but I think we are a powerful cautionary tale for the nation. SC dove into state-based accountability early and deep. The state has changed standards about 8 times in thirty years—changes that forced different tests; different training for teachers; different evaluation systems for schools, administrators, and teachers; and (not surprisingly) the exact same pronouncements about SC education—failure.

If we turn to literature, Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” or Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” for example, we can approach more closely the appropriate analogy for education, but here, and with over a hundred years of public education in view, I offer that we are suffering under an education meat grinder—one that destroys education but creates political and financial profit for those turning the churn.

There simply are no right standards, no better tests, and no legislation poised to be the saviors of U.S. public education.

To remain there, as we most certainly have with ESSA, is to acquiesce once again to the education meat grinder—or if you must, the education pendulum of the Poe variety.

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3 comments

  1. Marion Brady

    I’ve argued for years that subject-matter standards reflect the process of “institutionalization” and lead inevitably to stasis. Academic disciplines and the school subjects based on them are tools–means to an ends. Proper standards attach not to school subjects but to the personal qualities of mind and spirit it’s hoped schooling promotes.

  2. Chuck Jordan

    I’m thinking gyres are more appropriate and accurate, as in:
    Turning and turning in the widening gyre…
    The center will not hold…

  3. Gary Gruber

    “Official policy” seems like some kind of conspiracy of control, usually missing individual needs on many fronts, whether education, health care, environment, and politics itself at the national, state and local levels. Rife with examples of incompetence, corruption, and a commitment to the status quo, standing still in the face of a changing world is regression. There are numerous exceptions and we should look to those for guidance and not to those in charge.

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