By Mike Rose
Education is moving to domestic policy center stage. The first round of competition for federal “Race to the Top” funds is over, and that competition generated a flurry of school reform activity across the nation. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia were selected and are now preparing for a winnowing round two.
In addition, the Department of Education just released its proposal to revamp the important Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is up for reauthorization. (Its last incarnation brought us No Child Left Behind.) This proposal is already fueling local and national debate about the particulars of school reform: how to assess teacher quality, for example, or the promulgation of charter schools, or how to remedy failing schools.
So far, our discussions and debates about education have been focused on these particulars, frequently sparking more heat than light. But there seems to be little alternative thinking in the approach to school reform itself. And both elite and mainstream media have pretty much fallen in line with the reigning policy talk about the problems with our schools and how to fix them. As well, no one in power is asking the more fundamental questions like: What is the purpose of education in a democracy, and are our reforms enhancing—or possibly restricting—that purpose?
I wrote the following essays over the last year to address some of these broader questions.
Part One: Education ‘Miracles’ Don’t Survive Scrutiny
Despite a childhood of incantations and incense, of holy cards and stories of crutches being tossed, I don’t believe in miracles. So it is with less than wonderment that I watch as a language of miracles—along with a search for academic cure-alls and magic bullets—infuses our educational discourse and policy.
We started off the new century with the Texas Miracle, the phenomenal closing of the achievement gap and reduction of dropout rates through a program of high-stakes standardized tests. (The Texas Miracle would then spawn the federal No Child Left Behind Act.) Politicians and media-savvy administrators have also found the miraculous; the governor of my state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, referred to an Oakland charter school as an “education miracle.” And the pundits have appropriated the lingo. A recent New York Times column by David Brooks on the charter school of the Harlem Children’s Zone was titled “The Harlem Miracle.” And so it goes.
Upon closer examination, some of these miracles turn out to be suspect, the result of questionable assessments and manipulated numbers. The Texas Miracle didn’t hold up under scrutiny. And some, like the Harlem Children’s Zone—which is a commendable place—gain their excellence through hard work along multiple dimensions, from teaching and mentoring to utilizing outside resources and fundraising. There’s nothing miraculous about their successes.
Along with talk of miracles, we have the belief in educational wonder drugs and magic bullets—single-shot solutions to complicated problems: high-stakes testing, standards, charter schools, small schools, alternative teacher recruitment, slash-and-burn CEO management and so on. Each of these solutions has potential merit. Standards can bring coherence to a curriculum; small schools can result in increased student contact; alternative recruitment and credentialing bring new blood into the teaching force; some districts need the serious administrative shake-up that managerial housecleaning can provide. All good. But for these efforts to work, to increase the quality of education, other factors have to be present as well.
The structural change that leads to the small school needs to be accompanied by a robust philosophy of education, a set of beliefs about ability, learning, knowledge and the purpose of education. As well, you’ll need a decent teaching force with opportunity built in for ongoing development. And what about curriculum? Or a set of ideas on how to connect school with community? The structural move of creating the small school may be central in all this—truly important—but, at its best, it will be a necessary but not sufficient condition for educational renewal. As small-schools pioneer Deborah Meier once said, you can have crappy small schools, too.
Research on charter schools—most recently a comprehensive study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes—demonstrates the kind of variability you would expect if you didn’t believe in miracle cures: Some charters are terrific, some are average, and some are awful. The same set of issues I raise for small schools applies here: What you do within the new school structure matters immensely.
The kick-ass-and-take-names managerial cleanup that we’ve seen in places like Washington, D.C., and New Orleans has indeed disrupted the status quo, and I’ll leave it to those who know those districts well to judge the legitimacy of the shakeup. But what interests me is what happens once the new broom sweeps clean. Then the same weighty questions emerge, questions involving curriculum, teacher quality and development, remediation, school-community connections and the like. To address these crucial issues, the school manager will need knowledge of human development, of teaching and learning, of the wisdom of the classroom. Because few of the new CEO types possess such knowledge, you have the rush to the magic bullet.
Let me consider one more magic bullet, since recently it has been making its way through opinion pages and commentaries: alternative teacher recruitment, most notably Teach for America. (See, for example, Thomas Friedman’s April 21 New York Times column or the “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” for July 7.)
I admire Teach for America and the public service spirit that drives its recruits. In the early ’90s, I met with founder Wendy Kopp and participated in TFA summer training in Los Angeles, and I’ve taught students who have gone into the program or came out of it. Furthermore, my own introduction to education came via an earlier alternative program, Teacher Corps. So my concern is not with Teach for America itself but with the way it has been defined as yet another wonder drug, the ingredients of which are the idealistic energy of youth and an elite education. Sadly, Teach for America has become a weapon in the education wars, rather than a laudable vehicle through which young people can contribute to the education of a nation.
I’m all for idealistic, hardworking enthusiasm, and I welcome into the nation’s classrooms these graduates of fine schools. But most of them teach for two years (and possibly a third) and then move on to the careers they went to college to pursue.
I’m troubled by two more issues related to the magic-bullet discourse here. First, many who champion TFA seem to affirm an idiosyncratic model of professional development: that these young people’s elite undergraduate educations and their energy trump extended training and experience. There is no other kind of work, from styling hair to surgery to the pro football defensive backfield, where experience is so discounted. No TFA booster, I’d wager, would choose a med student fresh out of a cardiology rotation over a cardiologist who had been in practice for 15 years.
I also want to consider the assumptions about knowledge and teaching here—or more precisely the use of the status of one’s undergraduate institution as a proxy for being able to teach what one knows. Knowing history or chemistry or literature is essential to teach these subjects, but—again this is common sense—knowing something does not mean you are able to teach it, as countless undergraduates who have sat through bad lectures can verify.
Let’s consider this elite-school proxy for pedagogical expertise from one more perspective. I went through two books that profile first-rate teaching: my “Possible Lives” and Karin Chenoweth’s new “How It’s Being Done.” I also looked at the Council of Chief State School Officers’ National Teacher of the Year program. Only a handful of these top-flight teachers got their bachelor’s degrees from institutions typically defined as elite. A number hail from state universities. And a considerable number come from small local colleges with teacher education programs. Expertise in teaching is more than a function of one’s undergraduate pedigree.
What miracle talk and magic-bullet solutions share is the reduction of complexity, of the many levels of hard, creative work necessary to make schooling successful in the United States.
More so than many other domains of public policy, education is bedeviled by a binary polemics, a tendency to define an issue in either/or terms and then wage a pitched battle over the (exaggerated) differences. So we have the math wars, the whole-language versus phonics explosion, the knowledge versus process clash, and so on. These are fierce battles in which each side reduces the other’s argument—often to the point of caricature—and then assails it.
The miracle/magic-bullet discourse plays right into this state of affairs, and both emerges from and contributes to it. Part of believing in this single-shot causality requires a simplification of difficult issues and a dismissal of other possible variables and remedies. If you have the single truth, then everything else is a target.
There’s one more concern, and that has to do with failure. What happens when the miracle fades, when the magic bullet doesn’t cure the disease? For some who are ideologically inclined, there is despair, a throwing up of the hands and retreat to the dismissal of public education that we’ve witnessed over the past two or three decades.
I propose that we leave the holy cards at the schoolhouse door, that we admit that educational excellence is achieved through dedicated effort along multiple dimensions—structural, curricular and pedagogical—and that we call a moratorium on the demonizing either/or polemics that create more heat than light. Unfortunately, that moratorium would probably require a miracle—but it’s one I’m ready to pray for.
Continued: Business Goes to School
Part Two: Business Goes to School
This is an excerpt from Mike Rose’s book “Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us.”
Before the emergence of high-stakes accountability systems—and then developing in synergy with them—American business has been a major player in contemporary school reform efforts. The motivation is straightforward: to urge the preparation of a skilled workforce. Different segments of the business community have been involved in curriculum reform via blue-ribbon reports, or have fostered ties with schools leading to internships, or have donated money and equipment. Some, like the Gates or Broad Foundations, have launched major philanthropic initiatives aimed at creating particular kinds of schools. And some have donated and lobbied for overtly political causes like school vouchers.
Though each of these responses is distinct, they can all be seen—and are framed—as attempts to improve American education and create opportunity for young people. And many of them do. The language of business involvement often includes a criticism of (mostly public) schools, some deserved. But the
Part Three: Blinded by Reform
It’s gotten lost in the splashier news, but big things are going on at the U.S. Department of Education.
Following on the unprecedented federal reach of No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration is extending further and putting serious money behind its education initiatives, inviting states and districts to compete for federal dollars. The department wants to increase the community college graduation rate. For K-12, it wants to stimulate the production of better state standards and tests, measure teacher effectiveness, turn around failing schools and increase the number of charter schools. Through a third initiative it wants to spark innovation and scale up the best of local academic programs.
This is a moment of real promise for American education, from kindergarten through college. It has even created the season’s oddest political couple: With the Department of Education’s blessing, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the Rev. Al Sharpton are about to tour the country for educational reform.
Reform is in the air. But within many of these reforms are the seeds of their undoing.
For example, the Education Department is putting a lot of stock in charter schools as “engines of innovation”—in fact, it will not consider a state’s proposal if the state has a cap on charters. Yet a number of research studies—the most recent from Stanford—demonstrate that charter schools on average are no better or worse than the regular public schools around them. Some charters are sites of fresh ideas and robust education, but so are magnet schools, and career academies, and—we seem to have forgotten this—regular old schools with strong leadership and a critical mass of good teachers. But the reformers’ overvaluation of charter schools seems to dim their view of these varied manifestations of excellence.
Another example is the department’s attempt to link evaluation of teacher quality to student performance. (Merit pay could also follow.) And, again, the department will not consider a state’s proposal if the state outlaws such linkage of evaluation and student performance.
This linkage has a common-sense quality to it, especially what is called “value-added” analysis: that is, the degree to which a class’ test scores improve from the beginning of the school year to the end. Yet among experts in educational testing and measurement, there is a good deal of disagreement over the legitimacy of using these techniques to judge teacher quality. There are a host of factors that can affect scores: the non-random mix of students in a class, the students’ previous teachers, the lobbying of senior teachers for higher-scoring classes or the assignment of such classes to a principal’s favored teachers. There are also technical issues with the analysis of the test data. And there are significant conceptual concerns about exactly what the tests are measuring. In fact, the National Research Council, the prestigious, nonpartisan government agency, has just issued a statement reinforcing all of these concerns.
The Department of Education champions “evidence-based” and “data-driven” practice. Why, then, does the department espouse approaches that warrant scrutiny?
I think there are three interrelated reasons.
Given the immense pressure in politics for a quick result, there is a tendency in social policy toward single-shot, magic-bullet solutions, solutions that are marketable and have rhetorical panache but are simplified responses to complex problems. Charter schools will transform American education, or the linking of student test scores to teacher effectiveness will pressure teachers to change the way they teach and their expectations for what students can achieve.
This magic-bullet thinking is enabled by the paucity of schoolhouse-level knowledge of teaching and learning in the formation of educational policy. Not many policy analysts have taught school and, with few exceptions, those who have taught spent only a youthful year or two in the ranks. More troubling is something I have witnessed over the years: On-the-ground, intimate knowledge of teaching and learning is not valued, and is seen as an imprecise distraction from the consideration of broader economic and management principles that lead to systemic change. It’s like setting up a cardiology clinic without the advice of cardiologists.
The third element involves the rhetoric of reform. The advocates of the current model of test-based accountability have been very successful in depicting their critics as “anti-reform traditionalists,” as “special interests” or, the kiss of death, as members of the “education establishment.”
There is a lot to say about the accuracy of this depiction, for many who are tarred as establishment traditionalists have a long history of challenging traditional school practice and working to change it. But for now I want to focus on the way this demonizing rhetoric can jeopardize the work of the reformers themselves.
Take, for example, the concern expressed by teachers’ unions about linking student test scores to teacher evaluation. It is easy to characterize these concerns as special-interest pleading, but some of the evidence cited by the unions comes from researchers with no vested interest in teachers’ bread-and-butter issues. (One such researcher is a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.) When legitimate concerns about reform techniques are easily dismissed as “anti-reform,” then you have a closed policy system, one shielded from self-correction.
It is good news indeed that school reform has become a top national priority, that the ways schools are structured, children are taught and teachers evaluated have become issues worthy of federal attention. But for reforms to be effective and sustained, they need to be grounded on the best we know and examined carefully and from multiple perspectives.
Continued: 21st Century Skills: Education’s New Cliché
Part Four: 21st Century Skills: Education’s New Cliché
In all the current talk about school reform, there is one phrase that you will hear in every proposal, whether it comes from the president or the local school board. That phrase is 21st century skills. Provide students with 21st century skills for a 21st century economy. The label is a powerful one, heralding a new era, high-tech and prosperous.
But like so much in education reform, an idea that has some merit can quickly get reduced to a cliché. In one document I read, the phrase 21st century skills was repeated 25 times in less than two pages. And once you make your way through the cant, the 21st-century-skills approach has some troubling implications for education.
What are these skills? There are a number of definitions and lists, some running up to nine pages. Here’s a summary drawn from the Southern Regional Education Board. Twenty-first century skills include the ability to use a range of electronic technologies to access, synthesize and apply information. The ability to think critically and creatively and evaluate the products of one’s thinking. The ability to communicate effectively and collaborate with others, particularly in diverse and multicultural settings.
The range of skills is admirable, as is the intention that they apply to all students—an equity imperative. But what’s new about them? They sound like the skills one would have gotten from a good 20th century education—or from a lot further back than that.
You’ll find discussion of evaluating evidence or communicating effectively in Aristotle. The exception would be the emphasis on electronic media, but even here the underlying competencies—evaluating sources, synthesizing information—are good old-fashioned ones.
Why begrudge the 21st-century-skills advocates their use of the politically effective mantle of newness?
The characterization of these skills as new implies that they haven’t been taught before. And this characterization plays into the inaccurate claim—popular in some conservative reform circles—that America’s schools have failed on a grand scale. This dangerous claim keeps us from drawing on what we already do well, and creates a false separation between one educational era and another. The rhetoric of the new plays into our easy dichotomizing of “old is bad / new is good” and our fetish for the next big thing—the examination of which ought to be a 21st century skill.
Of broader concern is the philosophy of education embodied in this reform.
As extensive as some of the lists of 21st century skills are, there are topics you won’t find: aesthetics, intellectual play, imagination, the pleasure of a subject, wonder. The focus of the lists—even when creativity is mentioned—is overwhelmingly on utility and workplace productivity.
The irony is that a rich engagement with the subjects that are central to this skills-based reform—mathematics, science, electronic technology—involves for many young enthusiasts (not to mention experts) these same imaginative and aesthetic qualities. But the utilitarian concentration of the lists on production precludes these less tangible, but intellectually important, aspects of a good education.
The 21st-century-skills philosophy of education is an economic one. The primary goal is to create efficient and effective workers. Twenty-first century skills for the 21st century organization man and woman.
The economic motive has always figured in the spread of mass education in the United States, but recently it has predominated, edging out all the other reasons we send kids to school: civic, social, ethical, developmental. Even those 21st century skills that do deal with the civic, such as cross-cultural understanding, are expressed in terms of workplace effectiveness.
Take, for example, these items drawn from the advocacy group Partnership for 21st Century Skills:
- Understand, negotiate and balance diverse views and beliefs to reach workable solutions, particularly in multicultural environments.
- Leverage social and cultural differences to create new ideas and increase both innovation and quality of work.
These are worthy, and we certainly could benefit from their spirit of cooperation. But the focus is very much on getting something done in the workplace. There are other important educational and civic goals related to interacting with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. For starters, there is knowledge of cultural practices—of the very notion of culture—along with the appreciation of our common humanity. There might be nothing immediately “leveraged” from such understanding, but it has great civic and personal value.
This is a promising time for education. Reform is a priority in a number of states, and the federal government is about to infuse an unprecedented amount of money into the schools. All this is happening at a time of great anxiety about the economy, so a focus on the workplace has understandable appeal. But we need to be careful to not let that anxiety narrow the purpose of education in America, regardless of what century we are in.
Continued: Race to the Top of What? Education Is About More Than Jobs
Part Five: Race to the Top of What? Education Is About More Than Jobs
The race is on. Forty-one states have just finished the mad dash to submit proposals for the Obama education initiative, Race to the Top. Now that the first round of competition is over we should be asking the basic questions that got lost in the flurry: What is the true purpose of all this reform? What should it be? Why do we send our kids to school?
The answer given for decades, from the national to the local level, from Democrats and Republicans, is that education prepares the young for the world of work and enables the nation to maintain global economic pre-eminence. There is an occasional nod to the civic purpose of schooling in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, but that goal pales next to the economic justification.
To be sure, economic prosperity has long provided a potent incentive to fund and improve schools in the United States, but it is only one of multiple goals of education in a democracy. The architects of public education knew this. In a landmark report to the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1848, state Secretary of Education Horace Mann did make the economic argument—original at the time—that education is the great equalizer, fostering social mobility and national prosperity. But this economic goal was embedded in a celebration of the physical, intellectual, civic and moral goals of schooling.
We need to reclaim that broader vision, for we have terribly narrowed our thinking about school. Our tunnel vision is dangerous because the reasons we give for education affect what we teach and how we teach it. Vocational education provides a cautionary tale of what a strictly economic focus can yield.
When vocational education was being formulated in the first decades of the last century, some proponents had an egalitarian conception of a curriculum that integrated the manual and mental to foster intellectual, social and civic development. But as VocEd materialized, much of that ideal was lost to a strictly functional job-training curriculum that, ironically, wasn’t very successful at preparing students for the new work of the day. A major effort of recent reforms of vocational education (now called career and technical education) has been to recapture some of those earlier goals. The best education for work is one that is broader than job preparation, that emphasizes literacy, quantitative reasoning, problem solving, creativity—and that gets at all of this through a range of human expression, from mathematics to the arts.
Economic preparation is a primary goal of every nation in the world today, repressive societies included. Shouldn’t education in a democracy have a richer set of goals? Even if our policymakers seem to lose track of this broader purpose, students and their parents on the whole do not.
I’ve taught for 40 years—kindergarten to graduate school to adult literacy programs—and one thing that has become very clear to me is the multiple purposes and meanings that education can have for all involved. To be sure, even young people are aware that school will affect their chance of getting ahead. “Math will take you a long way in life,” a middle-school student tells me. But there are many other reasons that people take to education. It provides intellectual stimulation (“She’s teaching us new things that we couldn’t do before,” another middle-schooler observes). Students enjoy the protected social setting and the connections they establish with adults. Many people, young and not so young, discover a passion. Our worlds get bigger. School is one of the primary institutions where we define who we are.
What is telling is that even in programs explicitly targeted to economic advancement—community college certification programs, for example—there is typically much more going on than job preparation. Students report that they are going back to school to be better able to raise their kids, or to feel better about themselves, or to open up new options—economic options, but intellectual and social ones as well. In fact, one of the things that strike me about working with adults returning to school is how often the experience leads them to re-evaluate themselves, to see themselves in a new light.
The way we express the purpose of schooling shapes our collective definition of the educated person. If we want our youth to thrive and stay in school, the goal of all current school reforms, then we need an education policy that embodies the full range of reasons people go to school in a free society.
Mike Rose is on the faculty of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and is the author of “Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us.”