The Real Education Crisis?

For Education Week‘s Quality Counts 2015, Christina A. Samuels opens a piece on early reading with the following:

Children who are not reading proficiently by 3rd grade are widely seen as being in academic crisis. Educators are increasingly looking for actions they can take in the younger grades—even as early as preschool—to head off failure later in a child’s school career.

Framing 3rd-grade reading proficiency as a crisis is about as enduring (and suspect) as the uncritical belief in the literacy deficit among children raised in poverty.

Later in the article, Samuels notes that many states have implemented grade retention policies based on high-stakes tests in 3rd grade, adding:

Student retention as a part of a strategy to support early literacy has vocal critics as well as supporters. But no one is arguing against the importance of ensuring that children are reaching reading milestones throughout the early grades.

Modeling once again the central flaw of education journalism, Samuels represents grade retention as nothing more than a tug-of-war between “vocal critics” and “supporters”—with word choices that clearly skew the reader toward the more reasonable “supporters.”

Despite the intentions of this piece about the importance of early literacy in children, we must acknowledge that the real crisis in education is both how the media covers education and how politicians design and implement policy.

First, “crisis” is the worst possible description of any educational condition since a state of crisis forces urgency when deliberation and patience are warranted. Think about the differences between emergency rooms and doctors’ offices. (See a discussion of crisis here also.)

Impoverished children have overwhelming life conditions that inhibit their ability to learn at the same rates and in the same ways as their more affluent peers. Children in poverty do not need harsh and intense educational experiences (harsh and intense often characterize their lives, and are thus the conditions muting their learning); they do not need high-stakes tests and punitive consequences.

And that leads to the ultimate education crisis: Confusing grade retention with reading policy.

That is not only a crisis, but inexcusable since there is no debate about grade retention, despite the breezy framing above.

Decades of research show that grade retention is often harmful and other strategies are always more effective (Note: the evidence-based alternative to grade retention is not “social promotion,” the great ugliness tossed out by all who embrace grade retention).

I suppose the great irony here is that it appears many in the media and most political leaders are not capable of reading the research and have a really limited vocabulary themselves.

So let me make this simple: There is no crisis in reading, and grade retention hurts children.

Now let’s address and fully fund rich and evidence-based reading for all children throughout their formal education in our public schools and make genuine commitments to the lives of all children so those policies can work.

For Further Reading

DRAFT NCTE Resolution: Grade Retention as Flawed Education and Reading Policy

Florida Retention Policy a Blight on Literacy, Children across US

Grade Retention Research

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

First, Do No Harm: That Includes the Media

Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina

Keeping children back a year doesn’t help them read better

Education Accountability as Disaster Bureaucracy

The puzzle isn’t hard to put together because the pieces are in clear sight and fit together easily, but political, media, and public interest in facing the final picture is at least weak, if not completely absent.

Gerald Bracey (2003) and more directly Gerald Holton (2003) exposed that the stated original intent under the Ronald Reagan administration was to create enough negative perceptions of public education through A Nation at Risk to leverage Reagan’s political goals:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. (Holton, n.p., electronic)

The accountability formula spawned after A Nation at Risk swept the popular media included standards, high-stakes testing, and increased reports of pubic school failure.

While the federal report created fertile ground for state-based school accountability, that proved not to be enough for political leaders, who within 15-20 years began orchestrating national versions of education accountability. The result was No Child Left Behind and then Common Core standards and the connected high-stakes tests—both neatly wrapped in bi-partisan veneer.

About thirty years after Reagan gave the commission that created A Nation at Risk the clear message about the need for the public to see public education as a failure, David Coleman, a lead architect of Common Core, exposed in 2011 what really matters about the national standards movement; after joking about having no qualifications for writing national education standards, Coleman explained:

[T]hese standards are worthy of nothing if the assessments built on them are not worthy of teaching to, period. This is quite a demanding charge, I might add to you, because it has within it the kind of statement – you know, “Oh, the standards were just fine, but the real work begins now in defining the assessment,” which if you were involved in the standards is a slightly exhausting statement to make.

But let’s be rather clear: we’re at the start of something here, and its promise – our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation….

There is no amount of hand-waving, there’s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don’t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do. Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and it‟s hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention.

The pieces to the puzzle: Education accountability began as a political move to discredit public schools, and next the Common Core standards movement embraced that above everything, tests matter most.

And now we have the final piece; Gerwertz reports:

In a move likely to cause political and academic stress in many states, a consortium that is designing assessments for the Common Core State Standards released data Monday projecting that more than half of students will fall short of the marks that connote grade-level skills on its tests of English/language arts and mathematics.

Like Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism—the consequences of which are being exposed in New Orleans, notably through replacing the public schools with charter schools—the Common Core movement is not about improving public education, but a form of disaster bureaucracy, the use of education policy to insure the perception of educational failure among the public so that political gain can continue to be built on that manufactured crisis.

Yes, disaster bureaucracy is an ugly picture, but it is evident now the accountability movement is exactly that.

Common Core is not some unique and flawed thing, however, but the logical extension of the Reagan imperative to use education accountability to erode public support for public schools so that unpopular political agendas (school choice, for example) become more viable.

The remaining moral imperative facing us is to turn away from political claims of school and teacher failure, away from their repeatedly ineffective and destructive reforms, and toward the actual sources of what schools, teachers, and students struggle under as we continue to reform universal public education: social and educational inequities that have created two Americas and two school systems that have little to do with merit.

Accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing (not Common Core uniquely) is the problem because it is a designed as disaster bureaucracy, not as education reform.

References

Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621.

Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A nation at risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49(33), B13-15. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from OmniFile Full Text Mega database.

Daily Kos: Living and Learning in Perpetual Crisis

Daily Kos: Living and Learning in Perpetual Crisis

What do the fiscal cliff and Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have in common?

For the answer consider this scenario: An arsonist sets a home on fire, and then risks his life fighting the blaze—but the house eventually succumbs to the flames. The media and the public praise the arsonist a hero, choosing to consider the heroic effort to fight the fire while ignoring that he caused the disaster.

This scenario is not far-fetched and captures exactly the “manufactured crisis” (Berliner & Biddle, 1996) in both the fiscal cliff discourse and CCSS advocacy.

America is trapped in a state of perpetual crisis, and that crisis mentality maintains the public gaze on the self-proclaimed heroic acts of corporate and political leaders without allowing time to consider that the conditions under which Americans live and learn are the result of the decisions of those in power.

continue reading at The Daily Kos