"Since the formation of the United States of America, there has been debate over the roles and purposes of education." Christopher Tienken & Donald Orlich, The School Reform Landscape: Fraud, Myth, and LiesBecause educational policymakers were so successful in using the Sputnik incident in promoting new education policy and change, it seems we have a new "Sputnik-moment" every 10 years or so, and with Arne Duncan, we seem to have one every time the latest round of PISA scores are released. According to him, our schools have been in a crisis since he came into office. Like education-researchers David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, one can't help but wonder whether or not this is a "Manufactured Crisis" which was the title of their book back in 1996. It would almost seem that Duncan and his fellow corporate reformers are using the same Sputnik playbook to push their tired, worn-out educational reform agenda of more standards, more tests and lots of airy rhetoric. Even in 1996, Berliner and Biddle tackled head-on the myths about declining achievement in national test scores and rising illiteracy rates. They painstakingly pointed out where the media, pundits and policymakers were getting it wrong. Even then, the myths continued unabated and many of them have continued through to this day.
At the heart of all reform efforts today is a both a fundamental disagreement on the nature of schools: it purposes and reasons for existence. Also at the heart of reform efforts by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and many others are what Christopher Tienken and Donald Orlich describe, in their book The School Reform Landscape: Fraud, Myths, and Lies, as the "Eight Self-Evident Fallacies of the Modern Reform Movement." These eight fallacies are at the heart of current education policy from increased standardized testing, using of test scores in teacher evaluations, implementation of the Common Core Curriculum, and our incessant focus on accountability. These eight fallacies, according to Tienken and Orlich have their roots stretching all the way back to the Sputnik incident. I include their fallacies here with my commentary and I've taken the liberty of adding one of my own fallacies.
- "Fallacy 1: Government coercion will accelerate achievement." This myth believes that the only way to get educators and students to improve is through coercion, whether through sanctions or rewards. One would think that this same fallacious thinking would have folded after the miserable failure of No Child Left Behind, but it survives and has only spurred an even more high-stakes environment where teachers and students are now subjected to greater penalties and more testing than ever. At the heart of this fallacy is the belief that teachers and students do not work hard so we have to make them work harder. What government coercion is doing to teaching in North Carolina, and I suspect elsewhere is encouraging more who would might show an interest in becoming a teacher to seek some other more hospitable profession. Who wants to teach with the gun of accountability and test scores stuck to your head?
- "Fallacy 2: Big business values will improve public education." This fallacy puts faith in the business model as a way of saving education. It says that education will improve through competition and an intense focus on the bottom-line. It views teachers as expendable just as business and industry currently views their own employees. In the business model, workers are to do as they're told. In education, the same: teachers are not to question the latest policy, curriculum or reforms. Just do them!
- "Fallacy 3: Intuitively derived standards can replace empirically derived solutions." The standards movement, according to Tienken and Orlich are examples of authoritarianism. The entire thinking is, "We must raise our standards! We must raise our standards! We must raise our standards!" Instead of looking for the difficult solutions to improving education, our policymakers and politicians take the easy way out and develop one more set of standards. The problems in our schools involve child poverty, lack of resources, and a dwindling number of qualified teachers among many other things. Raising the standards in those situations does absolutely nothing to resolve the real issues we face.
- "Fallacy 4: Standards are technical specifications being confused with, but applied to human learning capabilities." The whole philosophy behind the standards movement is that students are passive vessels into which what is to be learned is poured. Standards ignore that students have an active role to play in learning. Learning is a mechanistic process, not an organic process. Under this fallacy, "schools are assembly lines of knowledge" and students are sped through on a conveyor belt and learning is done to them as they pass through. Standards ignore the human side of learning entirely and view it as a process to which students are subjected.
- "Fallacy 5: High-stakes, state-mandated testing and assessment programs will improve student learning." In spite of our country's obsession with testing and accountability, our PISA scores have remained flat. Our College Board testing scores haven't dramatically increased. (That's if testing is the right measure of achievement, which I am not convinced that they are.) Testing has not resulted in higher graduation rates. It has resulted in fostering a massive culture of distrust with teachers as professionals. State-mandated testing and accountability systems have ultimately turned our schools into places where little else matters.
- "Fallacy 6: All high school students will benefit from being enrolled in college preparatory programs." This fallacy just isn't true. While statistically, college degree earners might earn more, it doesn't follow that they do, or that they can even get a job. There are countless college graduates unable to find jobs, and that are working in jobs with no better pay than non-college graduates. Additionally, to believe that every student is capable of doing college level work isn't realistic and ignores reality.
- "Fallacy 7: Students and parents are unconcerned about the psychological abuses by one-sized fits-all standards and testing." Most of parents want what's best for their children. Subjecting all students to a one-size-fits-all standardized education where their individual learning needs are discarded at testing time is malpractice. In time when we're standardizing everything in our schools, we should be personalizing. Assessments given to students that we know aren't going to be successful is idiotic. Our parents should be more upset about all the testing we do in schools., but they are not because our policymakers work hard to disguise all the testing done behind rhetoric, jargon, and even changing the names of tests.
- "Fallacy 8: Centralization of educational decision-making benefits our nation." Education needs in our country have always been specific to locale, and that hasn't changed. Our students need their needs met by responsive local school systems who can meet their needs without being encumbered by a mass of regulations coming from the US Department of Education and state departments of instruction. These bureaucracies may mean well, but they are always too far removed to see the effects of their latest rounds of decrees from on high have in the local school. The only thing centralization of educational decision-making benefits are those hungry for power. Big centralized bureaucratic education systems fail to meet the needs of individual students.
In the interest of all my two-cents worth, I would one additional fallacy:
- Fallacy 9: Success in business means one is an expert on what students should know and be able to do and all matters of education. Educators should consult with leaders in business and industry about the kinds of skills students need to be successful in their industries, but we should not cede control over curricular and other educational decisions to individuals who aren't educators. At the heart of this fallacy is a mistaken American belief that because someone demonstrates success economically they are an expert on everything else. Being a CEO doesn't equip you to make decisions about education. There's also a moral question behind this fallacy. Do we want business and industry leaders pushing economic self-interest deciding on educational policy? I would answer that question by saying absolutely not! Business and industry don't consider the lives of their employees and people long term any more. They will move to where labor is the cheapest, not necessarily where the most qualified are. To see success in business as evidence of knowing what's best for kids and for education is at work at the center of many of our educational reforms and it is just plain wrong.
Arne Duncan's continuous "Sputnikkian Cries of Doom and Gloom" have become just like the fable, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." His reform agenda and that behind all this fixation on standards and testing hold these fallacies as gospel. The purpose of education should never be just about creating productive workers. It should be about creating well-rounded citizens who are capable of making it today's world no matter what. Educators need to stop deferring to Arne Duncan and corporate leaders when it comes to educational policy. We need to end our deference to others just because they might be in a higher position in the education bureaucracy. We need to question these fallacies about education no matter where they come from and question and criticize our leaders when they demonstrate they've bought into them