I was thinking of this as I read Charles McElwee’s March 30 commentary, which offered his usual cogent observations on the “inefficient governance” practices of policymakers who “keep doing what they have been doing and expecting different results.” He’s absolutely right: the refusal of current officials to admit that what they’ve been doing for the past 12 years has so obviously not resulted in the gains they promised is stunning in its obtuseness.
The outcomes, however, are incontrovertible. America’s students, who were supposed to soar to the top of the rankings once we turned their schools into test-taking factories, scored barely above average on the first international test of problem-solving skills. Our 15-year-olds, according to data released on April 1 by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), earned a score of 508, roughly halfway between top-scoring Singapore and lowest-scoring Columbia.
If the testing policies enacted over the past decade had actually resulted in some measurable gains in student learning, perhaps the pigheadedness with which policymakers cling to them would make sense. The fact that they’ve nothing to show for the 12 years they’ve tormented students and persecuted teachers, however, should be ample evidence that they were wrong.
Yet the idea that we should just keep tightening the screws on kids and teachers is one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true. It’s a prime example of what Paul Krugman calls a zombie idea — an idea that should have been killed by the evidence, but refuses to die.
I recently read “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson, which uses the cholera outbreak in Victorian London to study the stubbornness with which people will hang on to what they believe despite mounting and compelling evidence to the contrary. The “best minds” of the day were utterly convinced that the deadly diseases they confronted must surely come from “miasma” — from the smells of the sewers and the decay that surrounded them.
Those best minds insisted they were right despite all the data that proved them wrong and despite the fact that refusing to acknowledge their mistake would lead to tragedy. They continued to act on their unfounded beliefs, never once doubting themselves, and thus consigned even more people to horrible and preventable deaths.
We may tell ourselves that was then, before we knew better — but we appear to remain just as immune to facts and data as were London’s best minds. One would think 12 years of failed policy would give us ample reason to check our assumptions.
One would be wrong.
Johnson asks, as we might ask ourselves, “How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time?”
We should ask because current state education policies are cut from the same cloth as the logic-defying notion that coddling the polluting industries via tax breaks and lax regulatory practices presents no danger to ordinary citizens. Irrational beliefs lead to dangerous mistakes.
Current thinking has united seemingly paradoxical sets of advocates: neoliberals, who advocate market solutions to educational problems, and neoconservatives, who are committed to standardization of curricula and tests. Strange bedfellows to be sure, but of one mind when it comes to their assessment of schools, teachers and students: they’re uniformly bad and getting worse.
Mr. McElwee correctly describes that attitude as the “put-down” that it is from an “uninformed” public. Here, however, is where Mr. McElwee and I differ: I would argue that “uninformed” extends to the very people he calls on to take the reins. Asking the West Virginia Board of Education to take a more active role in policymaking is the equivalent of asking the Koch brothers to take a more active role in the development of Republican policy.
I’m no apologist for the Legislature, particularly after their most recent demonstrations of pandering to the NRA and anti-abortion lobbies, but education policymaking in the Legislature proceeds directly from guidelines issued by the state Board of Education and has done so for years — intensifying during the Manchin administration and since.
The former governor’s appointees continue to dominate the board and virtually all subscribe to the neoliberal philosophy that private sector policies, practices and institutions are necessarily good and public sector policies, practices and institutions are necessarily bad. The market mentality is the ultimate arbiter of the worthiness of any proposal or policy: Is it efficient? Is the cost-benefit analysis favorable? Above all, does it make us more competitive?
It’s an astonishingly reductionist conception of education, but it’s nearly impossible to find a policy at any level of the education enterprise from the past decade that doesn’t take the instrumental perspective that school is but a means to an end. Practically every recent public education “reform” document identifies students’ “ability to compete” in a “global marketplace” as the central goal. Former Gov. Bob Wise’s “Alliance for Excellent Education” articulates this mindset clearly: “[E]xplore how well your state educates its students and learn how graduating more students from high school can boost national, state, and local economies.”
If one views students solely as human capital, fodder for the country’s economic cannon, that may seem a logical posture. On the other hand, if one views students as the next generation of leaders — as the adults to whom we give the responsibility for a cleaner and more peaceful planet — their schools should not be places where they prepare only for the commercial and regimented nature of a lifetime of work.
And yet that is the uninformed and, more importantly, unquestioned underpinning of essentially every proposal or policy to emanate from the state board for the past decade. So the question we should be asking is not whether testing and standardization are working, because we have 12 years of data that prove they aren’t, but whether we want to invest even more power in the cabal that continues to promote a zombie idea whose time to die is long past.
If the state Board of Education truly wants to improve students’ learning, I’ve a novel idea: Read the research. And not the “research” reported by think tanks with ideological axes to grind or popular media opinion polls. I mean real, honest-to-God research conducted by professional academic researchers and rigorously reviewed by their peers before it can be published. I mean the research of people who painstakingly dig through years and years of data, with no preconceived outcomes in mind, to determine what works.
Want a free tip on something that does work? Try small class sizes in grades K-3. After third grade you can pack them back into larger groups, but limiting their first four years of schooling to classes of no more than 15 students provides benefits that extend all the way through high school in the form of better grades, improved test scores, school engagement, reduced grade retention and lower dropout rates.
Educators have known for 25 years that this is a strategy that works, and yet policymakers decline to implement it. I’d suggest it’s time we try something that’s been proven to work as opposed to gambling away students’ futures on policies that have so obviously failed them — and simply giving more authority to the very people who got us into this fix in the first place is hardly the way to make that happen. They don’t need more authority. They need better ideas.