Sunday, March 09, 2008

Education's Diseased Culture; the American Toady Farm

The perversion of education in America is so pervasive and complete that we are in the golden age of reform-speak blather. The Bush administration has managed to destroy public education by simply subverting the mission of the federal Department of Education from serving the best interest of children to performing the unholy act of subjugating the best interest of children to moneyed special interests.

Yesterday I was having a discussion with an old acquaintance about the Department of Education at UConn. She made the startling assertion that UConn's Department of Education was one of the best in the country! This came as quite a surprise to me since I have yet to meet a UConn teaching graduate who is advocating changing the curriculum and metrics applied to public education. In fact, I've had the opposite conversation with teacher union representatives who question why Universities are not better preparing teachers for the 21st century.

I don't mean to pick on UConn's education department because I think that Education Departments across the country are wholesale frauds. In major educational issue after issue, you can search google till you turn blue and not find significant research on homework best practice, classroom technology, student learning best practice, and so on. What are Education Departments in Universities doing? What?

The answer is obvious. The federal funding that has traditionally streamed to states and universities is now coupled to a government extortion scheme that eliminates all scientific research into what is best for children. Some of the funds have been diverted to the war, others are misdirected toward ever more testing propaganda, and Universities have happily floated downstream for over forty years.

A recent education forum in California hosted by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation pondered the utter failure of educational reforms to impact the reform-sanitized public schools.

last month, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation sponsored a forum on education reform featuring Marshall "Mike" Smith, the program director for education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Smith has been the dean of the school of education at Stanford University as well as acting deputy secretary of education in the Clinton administration. Panelists for the discussion that followed were Ken Wilcox, president and CEO of SVB Financial Group, parent company of the Silicon Valley Bank; Manny Barbara, superintendent of the Oak Grove School District; and Kilian Betlach, a seventh-grade teacher at Mathson Middle School in the Alum Rock school district. Mercury News editorial writer John Fensterwald moderated. Excerpts of Smith's opening remarks follow:

The title of my talk, "More Than Just A Firefly Blink: Creating Reform That Lasts" comes from experiences I had growing up in the East. In the spring, you'd see a yard full of fireflies. They'd be blinking on and off. After a while, they were gone.

Researchers studied districts that had carried out interventions and showed gains over three years. Two years later, they found that almost none of those districts and schools had retained their effects. They were like fireflies; they blinked on, they blinked off and they left.

The metaphor reflects something important about public school systems: They are not small businesses. They can't fail at the rate of 70 or 80 percent. They have to be stable. But stability does come at a cost: Most reforms have to fit within the system, acceptable to unions, school boards, superintendents. By and large, those reforms have small effects. They may change achievement a little bit for a little while, but they don't change it very much.

The Gates Foundation spent an absolute fortune on something that has small effects. That is, changing the size of schools without changing what's going on inside of the schools. Reducing class sizes and most curriculum changes produce very small results. Most spending on professional development doesn't jar things much at all.

Small effects don't travel. If you move reforms from one school to another, sometimes they don't seem to work at all. The teaching force is different, the students are different, there was a different curriculum that it's being laid on top of.

We'd like to get bigger effects. We know a lot about learning and about motivation. And, yet, our schools aren't changing very much.

We've got strong evidence now that we can accelerate learning using good technology. With technology in high school courses, community college courses and other settings, kids can learn what they typically learn in a semester from a teacher in half the semester and learn it better. We don't do that because it begins to jar the system.

Standards were introduced into California in the late '90s. Gains were considerable until about 2003-2004, particularly in math, some in reading. And, then came No Child Left Behind in 2002. It's a great irony that NCLB, the Bush administration's modification to the largest education programs, is a command-and-control legislation in a Web 2.0 era. The gains did slow after 2002 - not necessarily due to NCLB, but they have slowed. In California, every subgroup is behind national subgroups. We have an equal-opportunity society. We don't do well by anybody.
While many of the issues that forum addressed were specific to California, the questions raised are heroic.

Public schools must change radically to keep pace with an ever-impatient future of technological, biological, and medical transformation. If we do not begin to address the best interests of the child, we risk the extinction of our country and culture. The words "change" and "reform" have become the refuge of reactionary scoundrels.

It is time for Universities to return to their mission to explore and illuminate the richness of learning and unconditionally reject the Bush administration's misology as unacceptable and for state Department of Education to stand up for the best interests of children against the forces of self-serving corporate misopedists.

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