Over the last few months on this blog I have been wishing for a politics that is more educational, more worthy of the citizens in a democracy. Well, wouldn’t you know it, some of the most uneducational political discourse of the last month or so emerged around the selection of Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education. I hope this is not a sign of the national discussion of education to come.
One example of the quality of last month’s discussion was the use of the word ”reform” or “reformer,” in the media campaign and reporting related to the selection of the secretary. As things played out, there were two camps vying for the position.
Camp One labeled themselves the reform camp, and they in essence favored a continuation of high-stakes testing as our primary accountability mechanism—and, depending on the person or advocacy group, also supported alternatives like charter schools and/or non-standard teacher certification. Top contenders here were people like New York Chancellor Joel Klein and, the eventual nominee, Arne Duncan of Chicago.
Camp Two was in effect a camp of one person, Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of Education at Stanford, who was a primary author of Barack Obama’s campaign platform on education and led his education transition team.
In the jockeying that preceded the selection of the secretary there were letter-writing campaigns and the internet was abuzz with charges and countercharges. At times, more heat was shed than light. But what is worthy of our attention here was the Orwellian way that Camp One claimed the reform mantle and characterized Darling-Hammond as a “traditionalist” and an advocate of the “status quo.” The labels stuck. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times calling for a synthesis of the policies of the two camps—a reasonable compromise stance—still used the labels: People like Mr. Klein are reformers and Professor Darling-Hammond is a traditionalist.
It’s hard to know where to begin to unpack these labels. For starters, the attempt to measure complex human activity (like learning) with a single statistical measure (like a standardized test score) is a century old, and has long been criticized in so many fields on so many fronts as reductive, inaccurate, outdated, etc.. In what sense is this a new approach? It is new to education only in its scale and consequence, but not at all in its innovation or creativity, or—as NCLB has made clear—in its effectiveness.
And Darling-Hammond as a champion of the status quo? She has pushed from the beginning of her career on issues of equity, the education of underserved populations, the structure of schooling, teacher development, and reform of the teaching profession itself. Her work is certainly open to scrutiny, and one can take issue with particular studies or initiatives, but to label her a traditionalist is a distortion of her record and of language.
In fact, there is something Rovian in all this. “Reformer” became the new “patriot,” a term of assault that constrains and distorts and shuts down further discussion. Come on, people; we have to do better than this, especially where education is concerned. Such use of language is not only inaccurate and unfair, but also keeps us from creative analysis and, yes, with coming up with fuller, richer reforms.
Another term we need to consider—one that I hope we will be able to think collectively and publicly about—is “accountability.” Accountability is central to effective governance, and a citizenry has the right to demand accountability of its institutions. The reigning model of educational accountability is high-stakes standardized testing, and it so dominates mainstream educational policy that few other models are given any consideration.
A new book provides the occasion to rethink accountability. Written by Richard Rothstein with Rebecca Jacobson and Tamara Wilder, Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right begins with a blistering critique of NCLB and offers a more comprehensive state-based accountability model that includes a richer array of tests combined with school inspections. This new model goes hand in glove with a call for a broader—and more traditional—set of goals for American education that include basic skills in math and reading (NCLB’s focus) but, as well, proficiency in science, history, writing, critical thinking and the arts and literature. As well, education should address social and ethical development and preparation for citizenship and for the world of work.
Some readers may be put off by the authors’ take-no-prisoners criticism of NLCB and their call to abandon it completely, but even those folks should read the central section of the book: a summary of some of the areas (health care, job training, criminal justice, corporate incentive systems) where reliance on solitary quantitative measures to assess institutional quality have failed. It is a sobering, thought-provoking history lesson. And that history should be part of our discussion of accountability as educational policy is drafted in 2009.
As I was finishing this entry, I heard one of National Public Radio’s “Letters to the President,” a spot in which various experts weigh in with advice for President Obama on pressing topics: health care, national security, the economy, the environment. This one was on education.
There were three people interviewed. A person from a conservative think tank led off with a call for standing tough on NLCB-style accountability and for alternatives to the public education system like charter schools and vouchers. She also took a swipe at teachers’ unions. Then one of Obama’s education advisors said the president needs to avoid the stale skirmishes, e.g., over NCLB, and put forth a bold initiative, like merit pay for teachers. The third speaker was from another advocacy group and spoke to the need to change our beliefs that poor kids can’t achieve in school.
Regardless of the merits of what each person said, I couldn’t help but notice that all three were from the policy world. There were no teachers or principals interviewed for this “Letter to the President.” There were no parents interviewed (though of course the three speakers might have kids in school, but they didn’t speak in that capacity.) There were no youth workers, no one from social services. There were no educational researchers. And there were no artists or writers or scientists or diplomats. And there were no students.
The NPR spot illustrates a big part of the problem with our national discussion of education, such as it is. It is dominated by policy analysts and advocates, by institutes and think tanks. And those folks have the ear of media; it’s part of what they do, part of the professional network. No surprise, then, that the labeling of the two camps I mentioned earlier made its way so readily into media accounts of the scramble for the top job at the Department of Education.
And there’s a bigger issue here, one that has to do with the nature of policy formation itself. Public policy in the United States is grounded in a technocratic managerial ideology that privileges systems thinking, abstract models of human and institutional behavior, finding the large-scale economic, social, or organizational levers to pull to initiate change. This broad view has its value to be sure—is rich in legislative, legal, and economic knowledge—but it is often accompanied by an unfortunate and counter-productive tendency; the devaluing of on-the-ground, local, and craft knowledge. In the case of education, pedagogical wisdom and experiential knowledge of schools is at best tolerated but more often dismissed as a soft or irrelevant distraction.
Though “qualified teachers” are praised in public documents and speeches, teachers are often pegged as the problem. And classroom knowledge is trivialized. Teaching or running a school is characterized as just not that hard. And the field of education in general is bemoaned as bereft of talent. I’ve heard these phrases. The sad and astounding fact is that at the state and federal level there is little deep understanding of the intricacies of teaching and learning involved in the formation of educational policy.
The trivializing and distorting of Linda Darling-Hammond’s record was made possible by this disdain for education knowledge coupled with the media’s overreliance on the policy community for news about education.
Barack Obama wants to build bridges, to build consensus. He’ll need to work some magic or exert some will in the Washington education policy community, will need to open up that culture to the wisdom of the schoolhouse. For the history of public policy failure—in health care, in agriculture, in urban planning, in education—is littered with cases where local knowledge and circumstance were ignored.