Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Reclaiming Education: How to Resist the Growing Threat to Public Education
By Susan Harman and Deborah Meier (online)
AMERICANS HAVE settled on the idea that many of our nation’s problems can be blamed on our school system and that the only way to solve them is through “school reform.” It’s an old story, but it's become the bipartisan line in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk (ANAR). An odd alliance pulled this story together, led by corporate lobbyists, neoconservatives, and the media, and joined by civil rights organizations, union leaders, activists, some institutional liberals (like Ted Kennedy), and some school leaders eager for the attention that brings money. Together they have relentlessly sold a story that has wasted our time, energy, and resources, and pointed us in the wrong direction.
No matter what the question is, these alarmists have the answer. Why is the economy in bad shape? Look at the lousy math scores of U.S. students in the international competitions. Why are so many young African-Americans and Latinos in prison? They didn’t learn how to read in school. Why do poor and minority children score so much lower on tests than better-off white children (the notorious “achievement gap”)? Teachers are engaging in the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and have allowed some students to fail to meet high standards without any consequences. Why are students unprepared to accept the responsibilities of adult citizenship (voting, earning a good living, taking care of their children)? Schools help promote a bleeding heart, welfare state mentality and we need to reform our accountability measures.
Dissent plans on setting this record straight with "Reclaiming Education," a series of articles that will appear in print and online. Many researchers have carefully examined, challenged, and refuted various aspects of this radical reform agenda, and their arguments have appeared in a variety of academic journals and books, but only rarely have they been published in magazines aimed at a general public. As a result, the fact that much of this research calls into question the rationale behind No Child Left Behind remains a well-kept secret.
In these pages, we intend to connect the dots between the many pieces of research and demonstrate that the educational crisis is not what the public has been led to think it is, that there is virtually no research that supports ongoing corporate and federal policies, that the media has been irresponsible and complicit in hiding the truth, that the proposed solutions are unsupported and dangerous, and that the devastating consequences we are now seeing are not "unintended." To the contrary, these radical reforms were intended by a powerful, well-funded wing of the reform agenda to dismantle our public education system and replace it with precisely the kind of marketplace reforms that are by their nature untrustworthy and unaccountable. We hope these articles will mobilize policymakers and citizens to join us in resisting this attack on our public education system and democracy.
The 1983 assault of ANAR is the subject of Gerald Bracey’s opening critique in Dissent's forthcoming fall issue. Meanwhile, Kathy Emery will document the agenda of the corporate wing of the reform juggernaut for the Web.
The corporate agenda was implemented quite effectively under Governor George W. Bush in Texas and came to be known hyperbolically as the “Texas Miracle” because it apparently resulted in high test scores, high graduation rates, low drop-out rates, and a narrowing “achievement gap” between students of color and whites. The “miracle” turned out to be a mirage, as Linda McNeil will argue in her contribution to this series, but before we knew this, Bush exported his “miracle” to Washington, D.C. and forced it on the entire country as the 2001 authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind. False stories lead to false solutions; this is the history of NCLB. There will be other online pieces documenting the destructive impact and current disarray of the coalition that brought us NCLB.
For instance, when President Bush brags about how much money he’s given to education, he is talking about the $6 billion that has come through Reading First grants, a part of No Child Left Behind. The awarding of these grants has been the object of investigation by the Education Department’s Office of the Inspector General. Reading First’s results (or lack thereof) have been well-documented, and Congress has just cut off the project’s funding. In our first Web article, Stephen Krashen provides a critique of Reading First. Soon to follow is another article by Gerald Bracey on international comparisons of test scores and what they do and don’t mean about our schools.
We hope that each of the author’s accounts will help readers make connections between the current wave of education reform and the larger attack on public institutions and life. We believe that while schools cannot do it all there is a great deal to be learned from research about what a progressive agenda for school reform might look like. The slogan about leaving no child behind may be grandiose, but it’s surely worthwhile pursuing such an ambition.
Please check Dissent's Web pages often for this ongoing series that aims to help impact future educational policy and rescue our schools and democracy.
Read Stephen Krashen on Reading First
Susan Harman is a semi-retired principal, teacher, psychologist, and writer, and the Coordinator of CalCARE, the California Resistance to the standards and testing madness. Deborah Meier is currently a senior scholar at New York University, and has spent the past 45 years as a public school educator, activist and writer. Homepage and Feature Photo: A classroom at Detroit Holy Redeemer High School (Wikicommmons).