Search This Blog

Monday, May 19, 2008

A nation at risk of distorted school critiques

This was an interesting OP ED in Sundays State Paper.
Posted on Sun, May. 18, 2008
Guest Columnist

The 25th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk,” a sweeping condemnation of public education released under the Reagan administration, brings yet another report on the status of education in light of the reform movement spurred by the public outcry over Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education.

The April release of “Democracy at Risk” continues our perennial need to chastise our schools in this report, noting the failure of schools to reform and succeed despite tremendous and powerful mandates, primarily the No Child Left Behind Act. While “Democracy at Risk” buries some valuable conclusions and data within the report, ultimately it is just the latest in a long string of reports throughout the 20th and 21st centuries that have failed our democracy and our schools.

“A Nation at Risk” was a terribly flawed, politically biased and greatly distorted report. Gerald Holton, a member of the commission responsible for the report, revealed in 2003 that the Reagan administration directly charged the commission with a political agenda not a research agenda.

In the past five years, Gerald Bracey and Tamim Ansary have also explained that the data used in “A Nation at Risk” to suggest the failure of America’s schools actually do not support the claims. SAT data, when analyzed by subgroups, suggested improvement, they explained. Bracey also revealed that “A Nation at Risk” had nine trendlines of data to consider, but only one of those trendlines was included in the report the only one that suggested failure by the schools.

Things haven’t changed much in the past 25 years in the way we evaluate schools. Indeed, the problems in this latest report are the same problems that have plagued a generation worth of broad studies, distorting our perceptions of the schools, and thus warping our public policies with regard to them:

Depending on averages (and simplistic charts) and rankings, which fail to provide any nuanced or substantial conclusions about schools. Averages necessarily distort data, and ranking is itself a fruitless practice when the context and suggestions of the ranking are arbitrary and dishonest. That we can rank does not ensure that we should rank, especially if we compare averages to averages.

Setting out to directly or indirectly discredit some opposing ideology instead of maintaining the integrity of assessing education based on the evidence. “Democracy at Risk” masks an indictment of No Child Left Behind as a discussion of school reform. Decade after decade finds political leaders using schools to promote ideology under the guise of resurrecting failing schools.

Suggesting that schools are in a state of decline, and by inference that some Golden Age of education once existed. Neither is supported by evidence, by the history of public education in the United States. The latest report does point out that it’s not saying schools are worse today than in the “good old days” but it buries that point, and does nothing to disabuse readers of the decades of blaming schools for our social ills. Regardless of political ideology, a political leader always benefits from proclaiming schools are failing so that leader can save them.

Focusing on what we spend, how we spend and how we collect, in the latest effort actually making the very first recommendation about funding. Those who care deeply about the status of public education must begin a dialogue that focuses on teaching and learning without directly or indirectly calling for more funding.

Was our nation at risk in 1983? Is our democracy at risk today? And in both cases, is the primary source of those perceived risks the quality of our schools?

If we place these questions in the broad historical context of the 20th century, we see that at any moment over the past 100 years, such crisis rhetoric about schools has flourished ironically, as the United States stood as the most prosperous and powerful country in the world. Our schools have been called Godless, our graduations rates have been challenged as deplorable, and student achievement always seems to be falling in virtually ever single decade for a century.

These distorted outcries are primarily political and are ultimately of little value to our schools, our students, or our democracy.

Does our democracy need public schools that are excellent? Yes.
Are our schools successful? Often.
Do our schools fail? Yes. In all human endeavors, we will always have success and failure.
But when our democracy is at risk, it is not because of our schools. Our schools are a reflection of that risk, of all in our society that challenges our nation poverty, second-language acquisition, careless and uncivil discourse, apathy about our roles as free people within a democracy.

Dr. Thomas, who teaches at Furman University, is the author of Numbers Games.

No comments:

Blog Archive


Subscribe Now: Feed Icon