Sunday, April 6, 2014

Politicizing Education


I am not a teacher, administrator, legislator, technocrat , bureaucrat, parent, or student, but I did go to school and I believe education is a matter of national security.  Economic national security to be exact, and many of the stakeholders have lost site of the objective.  Instead education has, like everything else, become politicized.  Keeping prayer out of the public schools is hard enough and an ever-increasing distraction without the battles between states and the federal government, teachers and administrators, unions and charter schools, democrats and republicans, science and intelligent design, and so forth.  The grip of politics has taken hold of education, like it has healthcare, infrastructure, defense, civil rights, guns, and fracking.

Sadly, one of America’s crowning achievements, Public Education, has become the latest political ground zero.  The great Progressive John Dewey of the Progressive Education Movement said the purpose of public school: “to prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities."  During this Progressive period more Americans received a secondary education as high school became compulsory, igniting America’s economic engine.

Every aspect of education seems to create a full blown argument.  Debate is necessary and healthy, it promotes change and it generates innovation.  But what is lacking is mutual agreement of the ultimate objective.  Too many of the stakeholders are focused on their own agenda and worse, many of those sponsors championing change are less altruistic than it seems.  But who is right?  What is right?  What is the goal and how do we get there?

I believe in meritocracy, oppose “last in first out”, understand charter schools have their place, think unions protect bad teachers, but still support teachers and believe they are grossly underappreciated.   The adage “that there is no substitute for experience” is not necessarily true, after all aren’t we warned that “past performance is no guarantee of future results”?   The fact that holding any of those stated positions makes me the enemy exemplifies how the mix of organized labor with education turns a logical debate into emotional conflict.  A conflict fueled by millions of dollars on both sides.

Standardized testing needs to be part of school, but it shouldn’t be the most important part.  Instead focus needs to be on creating an environment where learning and the quest for knowledge are planted, nurtured, and developed.  The controversial Michel Rhee, founder and chief executive of StudentsFirst, wrote in an Washington Post opinion piece on April 4th We don’t need to opt out of standardized tests; we need better and more rigorous standardized tests in public schools. Well-built exams can tell us whether the curriculum is adequate. They can help teachers hone their skills. They can let parents know whether their child’s school is performing on par with the one down the street, or on par with schools in the next town or the neighboring state.”

I never understood why we spend so much time analyzing and studying failure, when should study success.  We hear about failing schools and try to find someone or something to blame when we should studying success and mimicking it.  Organizational Development teaches to find the best of the best and make it the new standard.  Borrow from a district that excels in math and science, look somewhere else for the best in teacher development.  Who excels in developing problem solving and critical thinking?  Where are children the most engaged?  Copy, borrow, steal and above all keep an open mind.  Yes standardized testing can be a good metric to determine progress and evaluate teachers, but it cannot be the only metric and it certainly shouldn’t THE focus.  Teachers and unions shouldn’t afraid of teachers’ performance ratings and they need to realize that the union’s fortunes are not the ultimate objective.  Likewise, privatization isn’t the answer either as plenty of private enterprises fail every year.

No Child Left Behind or Race To The Top were well intentioned federal government initiatives to revitalize education.  The problem, national solutions to dynamic problems where state , local, cultural, and other factors are at play are usually unsuccessful.  States’ rights is a legitimate concern and federalism with respect to education is real.  Perhaps someday politics and money will no longer be part of education and the focal point won’t be tests and unions, but students, kids, and families.  This problem cannot be solved by money alone.  It requires adaptability, flexibility and not just a common core, but a common goal.


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