Sunday, December 5, 2010

Business-Based Reforms and Foucault's Pendulum

Back and forth, back and forth. In the middle of the city of Paris, a pendulum swings back and forth over a table. Foucault's pendulum, named for physicist Leon Foucault, works with the rotation of the earth; in fact, the pendulum is one of the first experiments that visibly showed that the Earth rotated on an axis. So now, there it sits, strung up in the Pantheon in Paris, swinging back and forth, ad nauseum. That is the way with cycles: seasons, calendars, water, business-based reforms in schools.

Efficiency has long been a by-word in our profession (and several other human service professions), but efficiency is not the way of schools. There is no efficient way to teach students because they are people with flaws and faults that are all their own. Larry Cuban's book, The Blackboard and the Bottom Line, includes the story of an executive who found his assumptions of business-based educational reforms challenged. This executive, the owner of an ice cream company, was addressing a group of teachers about their learning. During the question and answer session at the end, a veteran teacher asked him what his most famous favor is. "Blueberry," the exec replied. "What do you do with the blueberries that aren't up to your standards?" "We toss them out." "We can't toss out our bad blueberries," she replied.

At this year's NCTE convention, this story came charging back into my mind. I was sitting in a room at the Yacht and Beach club convention center and I began to remember why I got into the classroom. But, that happened a lot at this year's convention. I think that is why I get so excited in November; NCTE is my oasis of educational nirvana, my moment of zen in a year of otherwise tenuous situations at work.

The business-based reform crowd does have something to contribute to education, but more often than not the focus on efficiency grinds educators down. Why would something that should be beneficial be so destructive? The reason is the focus. The focus for efficiency is time, not people.

According to Cuban (2004), the things that teachers are looking for in a reform are "effectiveness, fidelity [to original goals], popularity, and adaptability." These four are not unreasonable requests. I think people have the conversations about the first and third of the traits listed, but the second and fourth really deserve closer inspection.

First, what are the core assumptions of these "efficiency," or business-based, reforms? They are:
  • Schools are inherently and malignantly flawed
  • Teachers, administrators, and support staff are glorified blue collar babysitters who only bungle our big business reforms
  • Schools should be run like businesses, idols of perfection in the American landscape
  • The strong economic growth, high productivity, long-term prosperity, and increased competitiveness in global markets depend upon a highly-skilled workforce
  • Public schools are responsible for churning out these highly skilled workers
  • All public schools are failing to create highly-skilled workers with urban schools failing the most
  • Business-modeled reforms can be applied to schools to match workers with their jobs, increasing public confidence in schools (does anyone have Ayn Rand's number in the after-life?)
  • Higher tests scores automatically forecast better performance in the workplace (All core assumptions from Cuban, 2004; sarcasm added by the author)
These assumptions resulted in a standard reform model, adopted along Bipartisan lines (now we need to call Gary Sheytengart), that eventually allowed for the national government's hijacking of state and local responsibilities in the public schools. Systemic reform - establishment of curricular standards, imposition of standard texts, merit pay, expanded parental choice, and hostile takeovers of failing schools and districts - was born, leaping unwisely from the brow of a group of business "leaders," politicians, educators, and parents.

Imagine my dismay when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a new non-governmental agency, "cutely" titled StudentFirst, created and helmed by the belle of the business-based ball, Michelle Rhee. That was when I had it.

I have had it, and so should you. I am in a fortunate position (which is unusual) in Virginia. we are obstinately holding out against the Common Core. The more I read of it, the more I am glad we are. The reforms of the Common Core appear to be doing more to fragment and micro-manage our teaching than any set of standards I have seen before. Reading an opinion piece published online at EdWeek's website on November 12th, I began to hear some of my own frustrations and realizations given life in the much more eloquent voice of Kelly Gallagher.

Gallagher, one of those teachers on my people-I-need-to-thank-for-sustaining-me-in-my-first-five-years list, has come to a realization about the proliferation of standards that I thought I was crazy for thinking. Let me syllogize (alright neologisms). Sprinting-and-covering material, while really efficient, does not build learners. Multitudinous and specific content standards create a sea of material that must be covered quickly to ensure students are prepared by the time state tests arrive in January (Semester Terms) or May (Year-Long Terms). Therefore, having a lot of content-specific standards assessed on the multiple-choice end-of-course assessment does not allow for the development of deep thinking we expect from students.

So, driving uniform, efficiency-style reform down the collective throats of educators and students alike is not the answer. What is the effect of fidelity and adaptability to reform movements? Let's consider the fidelity to original goals first.

The original goal of the NCLB reforms was to increase educational parity across every line, but especially the gap between the "rich" students in the suburbs and the "poor" students in the inner city. Yet, from international comparisons of our students with those from other countries to the Condition of Education reports published by the National Center for Educational Statistics, our students results have stayed significantly stagnant. If we were true to our goals, we would not cling to a reform that has had almost nine years of time and no significant difference.

The same applies to adaptability. Reforms focused purely on outcomes run the risk of repeating the same errors because they do not ask about how they got involved. There is no talk of adapting reforms to geographical areas and certain populations in the service of meeting educational goals, there simply is a meeting or not. If you miss the goal, you have not reached adequate yearly progress. You are not adequate. In uninformed hands, the notion of schools literally classified as "inadequate" becomes a dangerous political weapon.

So, what now shall we do? I think Virginia has taken step in the right direction this year. Our state standards have been revised, more unified, and more focused on the academic skills necessary for success in the English Language Arts classroom. What's more, all of the key elements of the Common Core are present in the condensed Virginia standards.

The START treaty has been in the news lately and I think it is time we learned the lessons nuclear war has to teach: keep the infrastructure small and specific and verification can be easily achieved. Just as the START treaties seek to reduce the number of nuclear weapons so that they can be tracked more easily, so we should streamline our standards, reflect and remind ourselves of the goals we have for our students, consider that perhaps the most popular reforms are not those that are the most effective, and keep searching for those reforms which we can adapt to our classrooms to create greater success for students. If we don't get involved and take back what we can of our schools from the business-based reformers now, we cannot be surprised when, as in Max Berry's novel, schools become named for corporate sponsors like Nike, McDonald's, and Office Depot (I wouldn't want to play against the team from Nike High if I went to McDonald's High). And, lest we forget, maybe we should ask Christopher Whittle how those Edison schools have done in the for-profit public school business (think the popular song "Breakeven" by the Script).


Doceo said...

Very well said. This puts into words what I've been thinking and feeling for a while.

If we standardize everything down to the last drop of knowledge, our students learn nothing except how to cram and forget.

Tom said...

Except that step forward in Virginia? Two steps back when you still have tests that are terrible and in some cases archaic and a salary and budget situation that is laughable at best.

The conversation about curriculum and skills that should be learned vs. testing is wonderful and should continue, but has anyone thought to examine the core of the problem, which is funding?

I think that business-based reformers are worth listening to because they are not within the box of the bureaucratic fiefdoms that make up every single school district in this state. For all of the negative press Michelle Rhee got, and in some cases she deserved it, I admire the fact that she had the balls to stand up and attempt to shake up a very complacent group of teachers and union people. And while I wouldn't necessarily adopt every business strategy for the public sector, mainly because you can't exactly run things like corporations because corporations make profits and schools don't, we need to listen to them more.

And we need to rethink our tax model. Sure, Northern Virginia's richer counties with their inflated housing prices and huge property taxes have excellent public schools with opportunities; however, there's a massive inequality that exists between those schools and other schools in poorer areas. That gap is only going to get worse because the people in those areas can't afford to have their taxes raised.

Does anyone else find something wrong with that? Maybe we should have the captains of industry take a look at the situation.

Dan Bruno said...

You are absolutely right about the way Virginia operates - although one step forward eight back might be a better way to say it.

The problem with praise for reformers like Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada is that they are able to "shake up" and that is about it. What about the "Deborah Meier"s of the world who reform, solidify, and then pass it on? anyone can agitate, but not everyone can ameliorate.

That is the problem with business people: they have no problem criticizing and cutting budgets, but they never stop to think about how to reapportion what is there to more useful sectors of the education budget. The reason why? They weren't trained to value textbooks over making buildings look pretty. So, like in my county, we have renovations abounding, but we can't get any up-to-date textbooks. We are entirely too far away from 9/11/01 to have history textbooks that do not mention it.

Captains of industry cannot prioritize the way that educators can because they've not been trained to do so.

Tom said...

No, they can prioritize because if they couldn't, they wouldn't be successful at what they do. The problem is that they see a bottom line that is different than the bottom line that educators see.

Tom said...

Oh, and Dan ... while I see your point about textbooks and 9/11, I think we've all got access to enough 9/11 articles and material that we don't even need the textbook.

I know you've got some good stuff, anyway ;)