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Too big to (be made to) fail: Part III

Publication Date: 2009-12-03

This fine commentary is from State School News Service, which is an e-mail update of school news in Illinois. But as you will see when you read this commentary, what's happening in Illinois is happening across the country. And Jim Broadway offers thoughtful commentary.

Schools are windows through which the conditions of the community are most clearly visible. Trying to fix the achievement gap solely with school "reforms" is like seeing dirt and debris and trying to make it go away by washing the window.


By Jim Broadway, Publisher, State School News Service

[Today we complete our analysis, directed to the educators of Illinois and the nation, suggesting they are part of something "too big to fail." I appreciate all who have commented on Part I[pdf] and Part II [pdf] of this series. It has been an interesting conversation.]

To recap, for a variety of reasons, public education has proven difficult for the private sector to capture or for any central authority â" even the government of the United States â" to fully control.

You are too big for that. You serve one of every six American citizens; one of every 30 citizens between 20 and 60 years of age is a public school employee; your total budget is so large (you spend 1 of every 7 dollars spent by all government entities in the U.S., including the feds) that efforts to control you with fiscal incentives have had marginal effect.

You are the epitome of decentralized governance, with 17,000 school districts with elected boards and effective access to more than 7,000 state legislators and a social consciousness steeped in reverence for the concept of "local control of the public schools."

The breadth of your responsibilities â" you stand in place of the children's parents â" is far greater than the private sector would want or be entrusted with. And we are only now glimpsing the complexity of the "raw material" you work with â" a childâs brain.

There is another dimension â" that of time â" in which the concept of revolutionary change does not seem to apply to the U.S. educational system.

Time runs out on industrial model

Perhaps the corporate dreamers are thinking back to World War II, when U.S. manufacturers shifted in a flash from making cars to making tanks and Jeeps. Surely schools could be transformed as quickly.

They assert an industrial model: Raw materials go in the factory door; they are âprocessedâ according to rigid standards; quality is measured by standardized tests; out the door come widgets, all just alike.

Even assuming some validity of this model (which for reasons beyond the scope of this analysis would be totally insane), it takes 12 years to manufacture a graduate, not including one or two years of prep time. The assembly line runs continually. Can it just be stopped while the factory is re-tooled?

Mistakes are also problematic. When a corporation applies a faulty spec, the flawed products are simply discarded or, if they've already reached consumers, they can be re-called and then disposed of. But in a process that takes 12 years, mistakes may not show up quickly. Damage could be widespread. And what is to be done with the defective products?

Ron Gidwitz, a leading manufacturer, was named by Gov. George Ryan as Chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education (after he gave Ryan $22,000 for his political campaigns), even though neither he nor his children ever attended a public school.

Gidwitz advocated the industrial model. I asked him at the time about the wisdom of the experiment. "What if you're wrong?" His response: "The public schools are so broken there is nothing we could do that would cause any further damage."

Is there nothing good about âreformâ?

One of the nationâs leading education 'reformers' is Microsoft founder Bill Gates. He seems a nice guy. But his professional challenges have been simple. All he ever had to worry about was one operating system at a time. (And his reviews are spotty.)

A teacher may deal with twenty or more operating systems simultaneously, all of them infinitely more complicated than Vista® or Windows 7®, and each of them unique. Gates' job is a comparative breeze.

But few doubt his good intentions. And the reform struggle does seem relevant to some worthy goals, driven by some facts that deserve consideration.

Whatâs been good about NCLB?

Educators consistently praise the federal lawâs focus on low-performing students and the importance of holding higher expectations of them than was true, generally, in the past. One wonders if it should have been necessary to turn the educational system on its head to achieve that goal, but the consensus on this point remains favorable.

What about the achievement gap?

NCLB also focused heavily on the disparity between the learning of affluent white and Asian-American students and that of racial minorities and those who for other reasons live in high-poverty areas.

"Reforming" schools seems so much cheaper than ameliorating the poverty-related conditions that are documented by decades of research to be the cause of most of this "achievement gap."

In this respect, schools are windows through which the conditions of the community are most clearly visible. Trying to fix the achievement gap solely with school "reforms" is like seeing dirt and debris and trying to make it go away by washing the window.

The work of dedicated educators certainly benefits the students profoundly, but the failure of society at large to address the out-of-school-factors makes test-score gaps the least harmful of consequences.

Reform response to changed economy?

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich warned of a coming "two Americas" situation, one where 20% live comfortably in gated communities and 80% in third-world conditions of marginalized squalor.

Corporate leaders have long known the effects that the change from a national to a global economy will have â" "working class" jobs exported; decent wages available only to the solidly educated; most citizens subjected to near-poverty in menial jobs.

For humanitarian reasons, they would want to think improved education will help Americans participate in the global economy. The alternative would be to distribute more equitably the benefits of what is left of our national economy. No one proposes that.

In any case, they prefer to blame a "failed" school system for America's rapidly growing disparities of income than to blame their own greed.

What course of action is available?

There are strong voices of resistance, researchers pointing out the flaws in the industrial model and the harm inflicted on students, teachers and schools by heavy reliance on high-stakes testing.

In our view, however, this is not a war to be "won" but a struggle without an end. The corporate sector will always seek profits; the political sector will always pander. When the incentives are permanent, so will be the cycles of grasping and exploitation.

Educators have no choice but to respond honestly about pending policy and then comply with the law no matter how twisted an enactment may be. And, ultimately, do what you have always done â" teach as effectively as you can despite the obstacles often placed in your path by non-educator "experts."

Above all, keep your communities informed. That is the source of your enduring strength. In time, the panderers will turn their attention elsewhere and let you get on with your mission, at least for a while.

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