The Political Crisis Machine and Education Reform Ad Infinitum

We must imagine that if we were able to peak inside the imagination of politicians in the U.S., we would see only one scene on a loop:

Especially when our political leaders are addressing education, they cannot resist the urge to wallow in crisis discourse and to promise Utopian outcomes.

As I have documented before, the rush to declare public schools an abject failure and then offer prescriptions for bureaucratic reforms began at least in the 1890s with the Committee of Ten. Periodically, the exact same scenario repeats itself—not unlike the inevitable rebooting of superheroes that plagues the comic book industry, which can retell only the same origin stories over and over again.

In recent history, education reform experienced a Hulk-like transformation with A Nation at Risk (“We are in CRISIS!!!”) under Ronald Reagan—although it was a lie—spurring the accountability era.

Education reform over the past thirty years has been an endless parade of NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests as well as a silly string of inane names for political policies that appear to have been generated by an Orwellian computer program: Goals 2000: Educate America Act, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds Act.

At their core, however, has been the same-old-same-old: Education is in CRISIS!!! but here is the reform solution (just like the last reform solution).

If politics is anything in the U.S., it is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.

And thus: No Time to Lose How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State:

This first report explains why there’s no time to lose in rebuilding state education systems. However NCSL’s study group still has questions—and surely the reader does too—about how to design and implement these systemic changes in the states. Where should legislators begin—teacher recruitment or preparation, standards, assessments, early learning? How should states realign their resources? Do some of these policies fit together better into an actionable package? There is still much to learn and discover.

This report combines the CRISIS!!! we have come to expect with the breezy tone of an NPR story on education.

The opening of the Executive Summary reads like a brilliant parody from The Onion— filled with false but enduring claims:

The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Fact Check: Decades of evidence have proven that there is NO CORRELATION between measurable educational quality of a state or country and that state/country’ economic status. As well, NAEP data and all standardized testing (notably PISA, which is central to this report’s claims) has been repeatedly proven to reflect mostly socioeconomic status of those students taking the tests—not school, teacher, or standards quality.

Therefore, the grounding CRISIS!!! of this report once again suggests there is little to gain from this report.

This report is fatally flawed by crisis discourse, simplistic international comparisons based on high-stakes test scores, linking measurable education quality to economic health and workforce quality, and remaining trapped in the ignored bitter lessons from chasing better tests.

Like the 87th retelling of the Batman origin, this report is doomed by a total lack of imagination—trapped in a narrative that politicians think will change each time they tell it. But also like those superhero reboots, there are kernels of potential buried under the scrambling feet of movie goers fleeing the (manufactured) Blob as it squeezes into the theater.

So, what about the reform solutions offered here?

Let’s consider the report’s primary focus on Elements of a World-Class Education System:

  • “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” As linked above, and since this report highlights Ontario, Canada, this element is extremely important because the socioeconomic status of any child’s home, especially in the first years of that child’s life, powerfully predicts educational outcomes. The appropriate response to this element is calling for social reform addressing equity and then exploring education reform driven by equity and not accountability.
  • “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” The real problem in the U.S. regarding teacher quality is equitable access by all children to experienced and certified teachers. Poor and black/brown students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced/new teachers (see here). But we must acknowledge, even if we address (and we must) equitable student access to experienced and certified teachers, the likelihood we will see dramatic changes in test scores is very low since teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of measurable student learning.
  • “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” While a credible concern, the tension between academic and technical (career-oriented) education has a long and complex history (see Kliebard). Regretfully, playing the academic/technical card by political leaders and embedding that in education policy has never worked—and likely never will. This remains a tired and recycled (and renamed) part of the lack of imagination when politicians address education reform.
  • “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.” By this fourth element, we see the gradually erosion toward superficial political/business thought: empty change-speak. But more troubling is that the political/bureaucratic/business response to education is always driven by prescriptions and structures that ignore the essentially unpredictable and complex act of one teacher teaching a classroom of unique students.

Before returning yet again to a new round of international comparisons (o, precious Finland, Ontario, and Singapore!!! [1]), the report ends with more crisis and hyperbole:

As state legislators, it is our responsibility to provide our citizens with a world-class education. We cannot let another generation settle for anything less. Our future workforce, national defense, economic vitality and democratic foundation depend on our ability and willingness to get this done.

If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.

No Time to Lose is yet another round of the political crisis machine—perpetually trapped in Utopian promises that have never and will never result from our blind faith in NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests.

Two of the four Elements highlighted in the report offer a small promise—but I fear they cannot survive the trampling of perpetual crisis.


[1] In the early 1960s, it was the powerhouse threat of Swiss schools!!!

2 comments

  1. Lloyd Lofthouse

    PISA shows that socioeconomic status predicts outcomes in every country where PISA tests.

    From a Stanford researcher:

    “There is an achievement gap between more and less disadvantaged students in every country; surprisingly, that gap is smaller in the United States than in similar post-industrial countries, and not much larger than in the very highest scoring countries.

    “Achievement of U.S. disadvantaged students has been rising rapidly over time, while achievement of disadvantaged students in countries to which the United States is frequently unfavorably compared – Canada, Finland and Korea, for example – has been falling rapidly.

    “U.S. PISA scores are depressed partly because of a sampling flaw resulting in a disproportionate number of students from high-poverty schools among the test-takers. About 40 percent of the PISA sample in the United States was drawn from schools where half or more of the students are eligible for the free lunch program, though only 32 percent of students nationwide attend such schools.”

    http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/january/test-scores-ranking-011513.html

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