Visit our Campaign Facebook Page!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A reply to Education Secretary Arne Duncan

While there is a great deal of fine-sounding window-dressing in US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's recent op-ed ("cut back testing that doesn’t meet that bar or is redundant"), the heart of his philosophy for public education is covered in a single paragraph (especially the last sentence):
Parents have a right to know how much their children are learning; teachers, schools and districts need to know how students are progressing; and policymakers must know where students are excelling, improving and struggling. A focus on measuring student learning has had real benefits, especially for our most vulnerable students, ensuring that they are being held to the same rigorous standards as their well-off peers and shining a light on achievement gaps.
Because this is all couched in very high-minded rhetoric, that last sentence has to be very carefully unpacked to understand the baseline assumptions at its foundations.

Please note the three phrases in red; let's look at them one at a time:

"real benefits"

Here are the two paragraphs that support that assertion:
The good news is that, thanks to the hard work of educators, students and communities, America’s schools have made historic achievements in recent years. The U.S. high-school graduation rate is at an all-time high, and the places most committed to bold change have made major progress on the nation’s report card. Since 2000, high-school dropout rates have been cut in half for Hispanic students and more than a third for African-Americans. College enrollment by black and Hispanic students has surged. 
Perhaps even more importantly, educators are taking fundamental steps to help reclaim the United States’ leadership in education. Throughout the country, students are being taught to higher standards, by teachers empowered to be creative and to teach critical-thinking skills. Last year, nearly 30 states, led by both Republicans and Democrats, increased funding for early learning.
OK, one by one

"historic achievements in recent years"  It is important to note what Secretary Duncan claims, and what he does not.  With "recent years" being defined as "since 2000" the Secretary bases all of his student achievement claims on (a) graduation rates; (b) drop-out rates; and (c) minority college enrollment. Note carefully that there is nothing NOTHING NOTHING said about improvements in test scores, nothing said about relative improvements in academic performance, and nothing said about increased readiness for the workplace.  Instead, it is asserted that these results come from--one must assume--the paired Federal initiatives of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

In face, as we shall see, nothing could be farther from the truth.

"US high-school graduation rate is at an all-time high"  This would, perhaps, be something to cheer about if we weren't talking about an "all-time high" of 80%--or that 20% (in some urban areas 35%) of our students do not finish school.  But leave that aside.  Secretary Duncan, who is a firm advocate of the standards drive assessments that drive instruction model, would have you believe by rhetorical sleight of hand that the rise in graduation rates is being fueled by Federal testing policy.  It isn't.  Here, from the National Drop-Out Prevention Center Network, is a list of the twelve most (research-proven) effective strategies for drop-out prevention.  Please note that NONE of them involve "being taught to higher standards" or "receiving the benefits of standardized testing."  Instead, virtually all of them harken back to the days when teachers were allowed to view education as a humanizing process rather than a training ground for corporate entry-level jobs:

"high-school dropout rates have been cut in half for Hispanic students and more than a third for African-Americans"  This is technically correct, but lacks context.  Secretary Duncan would imply that there has been major gap-closing between minorities and white students during the period.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics (which is lodged in Secretary Duncan's own organization) that would be a misleading conclusion:
While the rates for both Whites and Blacks declined during this period, the gap between the rates in 1990 was not measurably different from the gap between the rates in 2012.
Get that?  No measurable difference in the gap between African-American students and White students between 1990-2012.  Not exactly an endorsement of NCLB or RTTT as game-changers, is it?

"College enrollment by black and Hispanic students has surged. "  Two things of note here.

(1) This enrollment surge is generationally driven, not driven by the policies of the past decade.  Again, the National Center for Education Statistics (Mr. Duncan, do you ever read the reports your own people put out?) places the growth in a 35-year-long-trend, not as a product of NCLB and/or RTTT:
The percentage of American college students who are Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, and American Indian/Alaska Native has been increasing. From 1976 to 2011, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 4 percent to 14 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 6 percent, the percentage of Black students rose from 10 percent to 15 percent, and the percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native students rose from 0.7 to 0.9 percent. During the same period, the percentage of White students fell from 84 percent to 61 percent.
You can be assured that if the bulk of that growth had occurred during Secretary Duncan's "tour of duty" it would be reported that way.

(2) There is college enrollment, and college enrollment, as the Washington Post cogently points out:
The nation’s system of higher education is growing more racially polarized even as it attracts more minorities: White students increasingly are clustering at selective institutions, while blacks and Hispanics mostly are attending open-access and community colleges, according to a new report
The paths offer widely disparate opportunities and are leading to widely disparate outcomes, said the report released Wednesday by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. 
Students at the nation's top 468 colleges are the beneficiaries of much more spending--anywhere from two to five times as much as what is spent on instruction at community colleges or other schools without admission requirements. 
Put more simply, as a nation we've created essentially a second tier of colleges and universities for minorities and the poor.  In one sense there's nothing wrong with that (I've spent my career working at one of those institutions, with wonderful kids, and I wouldn't change a minute of it).  But it is the worst sort of misleading propaganda to pretend that all our high school graduates are going into the same types of college and university systems, when the reality is both increasingly separate and already unequal.

"educators are taking fundamental steps to help reclaim the United States’ leadership in education."  The only way you can make this claim is if you define corporate entities and bureaucrats as educators and leave teachers out of the mix.  In Delaware we have seen the truth:  much of our vaunted RTTT grant of $119 million went not to classrooms but corporations, not to teachers but "data coaches."

"students are being taught to higher standards, by teachers empowered to be creative and to teach critical-thinking skills."  Students are definitely being TESTED to different (higher?  good question) standards, but are our teachers--whose jobs now depend increasingly on the single metric of test scores--"being empowered to be creative"?  When I visit Delaware classrooms and see teachers busily downloading Common Core lessons so that if their students don't do well on the test they can say they used approved methods, I don't think so.  The reality is that creativity is slowly being crushed out of our classrooms.

"nearly 30 states, led by both Republicans and Democrats, increased funding for early learning."  Of course, in many cases the increases were statistically marginal, or were directly tied to Federal regulations requiring greater use of assessments K-3.  Did you get that?  Our kids between the ages of 5-8, according to the Federal government, are not taking enough tests to become college-ready.

OK, so all those "achievements" are carefully worded propaganda pieces rather than real achievements.  They are designed to hide (ironically) what the corporate reform movement in Delaware has been going out of its way to highlight for the past several years:  only 27.7% of our graduates, according to SAT scores, are "college ready"; over 40% of them need to take remedial courses when they get to college; our urban students' performance on tests and drop-out rates have remained APPALLING despite two decades of Federally mandated high-stakes testing driving all education reform.  In any other venture, the failure to achieve demonstrable results in TWO DECADES of pursuing a single strategy would be grounds for firing everybody and starting over from scratch.  Not in public corporate education.

But that actually leaves out the most horrifying point about Secretary Duncan's strategy (which is, we are told daily, Secretary Mark Murphy's strategy as well):  the fact that nowhere in his calculations are the impacts of disparate funding, structural poverty, and institutional racism taken into account.

Here's what he says is the answer:  "A focus on measuring student learning has had real benefits, especially for our most vulnerable students, ensuring that they are being held to the same rigorous standards as their well-off peers and shining a light on achievement gaps."

All we have to do (and Secretary Murphy has echoed these sentiments as recently as the Wilmington City Council meeting last week) is hold poor and minority students "to the same rigorous standards as their well-off peers" and everything will be fine.

Do you notice the inversion here?  Once we hold these students to "rigorous standards" it becomes somebody's fault--either the students, their families, or the teachers--if they do not measure up, and the system is let completely off the hook.  Poverty suddenly disappears as an issue.  Race disappears as an issue.  Unequal funding disappears as an issue.

"Rigorous standards" are the Unified Field Theory of Education reform.  If you build rigorous standards, they will achieve.  If you test one day out of five instead of teaching all week, they will achieve.  Poverty is futile.  Racism is futile.  Funding is futile.  The Education Borg will assimilate you all.

The scary part is that the people who believe this are completely sincere and completely unaware that what they are doing is a calculated corporate strategy to (a) maximize profits in the education business; and (b) to keep the status quo with regarding to race, poverty, and funding intact for as long as possible.  Why?  Because it's profitable.  McDonalds and Wal-Mart still need millions of people who can be shuffled forever into minimum-wage jobs (and who can be blamed for not getting a good enough education to avoid them).

The sad reality is that Mr. Duncan's strategy and his public preening are going to ultimately go down in history not as transforming public education, but as perpetuating the worst features of a system that all too often denies the opportunities its teachers are working so hard to provide and its students so desperately are trying to find.

1 comment:

  1. Steve, as always, you shine the light in the darkness for our students. This is a really great article and exposing Duncan as a propaganda baiting fraud is very needed in this education climate!