Choosing a non-education president
The Founding Fathers were wary of giving their new federal government too much power. They’d endured too many decrees from too many experts in London, who didn’t know how things worked in their villages and towns. As a result, they weren’t eager to hand the reins over to new experts in New York or Philadelphia, and eventually in Washington, who also didn’t know how things worked in their villages and towns.
That’s partly why they reserved so much power for the states and the people. Education, for example, isn’t mentioned in the Constitution. History teachers and textbooks have cited it for generations as the classic example of territory that doesn’t belong to the federal government.
This, of course, makes it difficult to explain how there’s a secretary of education. We sidestep this awkwardness by making federal education programs voluntary, as in, “You don’t have to cooperate, but if you don’t, you won’t get any federal money.” Other education programs get filed under civil rights. Unfortunately, the 40-year ledger of our national education experts is written in the red ink of our national report card.
Early in his first term President George W. Bush invited politicians and other experts who don’t teach to his Rose Garden for the expressed purpose of “getting it done.” The kick-off ceremony for “Education Week” gathered “about 100 advisers and representatives from Washington think tanks.”
It’s an inauspicious start when you once again lay plans to save our schools without consulting the real world. No wonder we keep recycling the same pipe dreams, bad ideas, and resuscitated slogans.
Speaking of slogans, the president touted his that day: “No Child Left Behind.” It sounded nice, but like every other “success for all students” incantation, it was a lie. We’re one year away from NCLB’s impossible deadline for making every student proficient in reading and math, and according to the law’s equally ridiculous mandated testing, roughly 80 percent of the nation’s schools are failing.
In case you’re thinking that 100 percent success had always been an absurd goal, by 2010 The Washington Post was reporting that most policymakers and experts also regarded it as “unreachable” and “unrealistic.” Of course, they were the same policymakers and experts who’d hailed it as a great idea eight years earlier when a bipartisan congressional majority had endorsed NCLB, a feat which proves that bipartisanship, however desirable, doesn’t guarantee that the government won’t do something stupid.
President Obama’s education blueprint has featured a flurry of NCLB waivers and some procedural changes, but schools are still evaluated based on ever-burgeoning reams of expensive, time-consuming, unreliable standardized testing. Instead of requiring “highly qualified” teachers, his plan calls for “highly effective” teachers. Instead of expecting schools to ensure that every student is “proficient” by 2014, his plan expects schools to render every student “college and career ready” by 2020. Unlike NCLB’s 2014 line in the sand, Mr. Obama’s target isn’t “an absolute deadline,” which is good because we won’t be meeting that one either.
The President’s signature “Race to the Top” initiative rewards states whose reform proposals incorporate “standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace,” “data systems that measure student growth and success,” and strategies to employ “effective teachers and principals.”
Does anybody seriously believe that schools haven’t been trying to prepare students for college and jobs, or that school boards have been trying to hire ineffective teachers and administrators? Where’s the magic wand that can transform the testing industry from an avaricious embarrassment to a reliable source of information? How can the same reforms and reformers who have plagued schools for 40 years save them now?
Across the aisle, Gov. Romney has an agenda, too. While Mr. Obama makes some provision for “public school options,” Mr. Romney views public and private “school choice” for every parent and child as a key plank in his education platform. In fact, it was the only plank that made it into his convention acceptance speech. While both candidates endorse including student test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations, Mr. Romney would amend NCLB regulations so teachers are designated “highly qualified” and ultimately licensed based on their “results in the classroom.” In addition, Republican policymakers pledge to “push accountability” for parents. They also favor “rigorous academic standards,” “full-day school hours,” “year-round schools,” and character and abstinence education.
It’s laughable to suggest that school systems that aren’t permitted to discipline students will somehow muster the power to require anything of those students’ parents. It’s tough to find anyone who isn’t theoretically in favor of rigorous academic standards — until some students fall short of them. It’s difficult to understand how the party that bills itself as the guardian of family values now prescribes keeping kids in school and away from their homes for all their waking hours, morning to night, from September through August. It’s nakedly hypocritical for politicians who crusade to keep government out of people’s lives to also demand that the government’s schools teach character and take a position on contraception.
Both parties have staked out their rhetorical turf. President Obama pledges to “make education America’s national mission.” In a less than stark contrast, Gov. Romney touts education as the key to “opportunity for the next generation.” While Mr. Romney does complain about money that’s been wasted on ill-advised reforms, it’s unfair for Democrats to charge that Republicans only “see education as an expense” and not an “investment.” While Mr. Obama does recommend spending more money on schools, it’s just as inaccurate for Republicans to depict his education platform as “don’t mend it, just spend it.”
Both parties are wrong on a host of crucial issues, from their willingness to rely on outrageously costly, unreliable standardized assessments as evidence of anything, to their paradoxical promise of rigorously high standards that all students will attain. Both grant too much credibility and too much power to experts who don’t know anything and education conglomerates with a product to sell.
Neither party or candidate has the answer to saving our schools. Even more to the point, our schools can’t save the rest of us.
Our essential school problem resides in us, in the children we send to school, and in the responsibility, commitment, diligence, and good conduct that characterize those children as students and people when they’re there. When and if we solve that problem, then and only then will our schools be able to do their job, too.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.