Thursday, March 12, 2009

Education Reform Without the Lipstick

Another in the MeanMesa "Lipstick" series. This time: President Obama's Plan for Education Reform. 85

A Little History:

Last week the President made a speech which officially places education reform in the role of a “leg” on his three legged stool for national recovery. That speech, nestled into a daily news cycle of speeches, any one of of which would have induced uncontrolled bleeding twenty four months ago, still arose filled with phrases not dissimilar from those which have filled traditional speeches about education reform at about the same early point in every Presidential term in recent history.

The implied consequences of not “educating better” have trailed along with the string of competitors our nation has faced through the years. There were the Soviets with their relentless, cast iron, collective system which seemed to crank out legions of nuclear physicists, chess players and spies. There were the ambitious Indians who seemed to be able to duplicate the results of even our most expensive efforts with their tin cans and strings. There were the Asian youngsters who seemed to be able to almost effortlessly become industrial manufacturing geniuses whether in the poverty of their ancient homelands or the worst schools the American system might offer their immigrant parents.

Defending our side were the unfaltering voices repeating the mantra, “If they are so good, why are we still richer?” Uh, right. The United States population apparently hit its highest literacy rate in the 1950’s, one of the very few constructive results of decades of US/Soviet MAD geopolitics (Mutually Assured Destruction).

Some commentators (Thom Hartmann) cite the beginning of public education during Freidrich’s Hohenzollern Prussia. The population of orphanages had grown so large that the King became interested in developing the boys there to become obedient soldiers, loyal subjects and profitable, respectful employees. It seems that, once all that had been figured out a few centuries ago, there hasn’t really been much cause to consider the matter any more since then.

Back to the Future: 2009

Perhaps the notable departure from past Presidential education reform speeches is not to be found in the words of Obama’s speech so much as in the incredible inertia of the man who spoke them. And, notably, wrote them. Such words become more credible when we realize that they were not simply handed to the President a few minutes before air time to make sure he could pronounce everything that was going to appear on his teleprompter.

President Obama has done his part. So, let’s set aside the “lipstick,” and do our part. Let’s take a shot at “boiling the thing down to its bones.” What conclusions can we make about the essential necessities required for education reform?

As with most political questions, we immediately encounter that apparently unavoidable human trait, “humiliation avoidance.” We seem to suffer an unreasonable fear of making decisions which will turn out to be less than optimal. Those would be decisions about the nature of a “good education,” about the actual amount of resources we will need to dedicate to the effort and about means and methods of testing our proposition as it goes along. We would very much prefer to know as early as possible -- or better yet, even beforehand! -- if the decisions we have made are really producing the results we seek. Otherwise, of course, we would not be “avoiding the humiliation” of having made such bad decisions.

By the way, this “bad decision” business has grown legs. One might think that our past efforts at education have been so ill conceived and misdirected, that is, so “humiliating,” that any reasonable person would be extremely “gun shy” about even so much as attempting to ever make such plans again. Our present situation, although neither particularly reassuring nor satisfying, is not yet a cataclysmic, world ending, “Death to America” disaster. However, given its tepid results, that historical approach is, most likely, at its end.

One result of this realization has been to discourage any public participation in redesigning the system at all. As with many modern quandaries, the electorate has been carefully groomed to passively accept the idea that the solution, if one exists at all, is far too complicated for “mere mortals” to comprehend. The entire matter must be turned over, along with a very big check, to the “education experts.” Only the hyper-qualified denizens of the educational world have the background to propose some painless improvement, at its best probably only a “little better” than what we have now. We have tried this one already. Several times. Too many times.

Another result is a cowardly and thoughtless appetite to “collapse to tradition.” This plan reverts education efforts to their earlier states. Those “early states of education” might be “the way things were when I was a boy,” or “when my dad went to school,” or “when the nation was young,” or even “back in the old country.” A loftier version might reflect positively on conditions young Alexander encountered while living with Aristotle, or Scian ‘jiou while living with his dark teacher from Abarabia, Mullah Edin. We will need to learn from the past, but there is little future in reliving it.

As a culture we seem to retain plenty of the demand that things should be simplified, our traditionally American, folksy, anti-intellectual tantrum. We have watched enough old movies to have been thoroughly convinced that “good old American common sense, saturated with naiveté and an innocent, ebullient, ‘can-do’ optimism made possible by not knowing our limits” has allowed us to overcome Nazi’s, alien invaders and hopeless, impending cometary collisions. We probably should not be quite so convinced that the same approach has delivered a polio vaccine, a man on the moon, the internet, the United Nations or Viagra. Education did that.

Finally, returning the the “humiliation avoidance” idea, we have grown gangrenously cynical. We have relegated the responsibilities for defining the measurement of our educational system to the most unlikely people. Dirty shirt preachers and southern speaking coaches have been left with the task of defining educational success as they mindlessly transform adolescent boys into leaders, unthinking generals and admirals, more pastors and coaches, national league athletes, Senatorial hillbillies and the like.

We have been listening to those who say that a good education can be measured by high school graduates who are well prepared to work in factories or join the military without rehabilitative training. An occasional “star” who invents something against all odds (even a rotten education), who makes billions of dollars in the stock market or who composes a brilliant symphony drives the “last nail to seal the lid” on this case.

Don’t Trust Anybody.

The “straw man” is comprised of several parts. The most appealing of them is the almost universal insistence to test the education system in any new design to see if it is accomplishing its mission. Closely behind those voices is an unending interest in determining whether or not its product is a “good deal for the money.”

The validation derived from a testing regime has generated significant traction. Because no current educational proposal package can reach media maturity without centering on “credible testing,” elaborate testing regimes have become as central as educational substance itself. The testing systems have risen in importance until they now validate the educational systems more strongly than what is actually being taught.

The missing piece, although conveniently hidden by the testing distraction, remains the definition of the educational goal. Coaches and pastors aside, what are we willing to agree on when it comes to over all objectives for our new educational effort? The “trained up” soldiers and factory workers concept doesn’t carry much water. The “states rights” bigots insisting on education promoting a six thousand year old planet aren’t really anything we are interested in spending federal dollars to sustain.

Where does this leave us? Who will tell us whether or not we are doing the right thing?

Oh dear.

Let’s ask the teacher. That’s right. Let’s ask the teacher if the students in his class are receiving a correct education. Surely the teacher would know something like that.

Wait a minute! We can’t “just ask the teacher” because we don’t trust the teacher. Those darn teachers will trick us! They will tell us that their students are getting a good education so they can have a chance at one of those merit raises. Maybe those teachers don’t really know if their students are getting a correct education or not.

What does this mean? It means that we have teachers we don't trust and who, we think, don’t really know whether or not they are providing a correct education in charge of educating our young ones. Does this mean that we should increase funding and inject merit pay into the mix or just spend lots more money devising testing regimes that these tricksters cannot manipulate?

After all, the prevailing religious mythology has continuously promoted the idea that men are evil opportunists who can’t be trusted. Why would we expect these teachers to be any different than the rest of humanity? They’re not saints, so we can’t trust them. Since we can’t trust them, we must try harder and harder to expose their trickery (or be humiliated by winding up with kids the army doesn’t want and who can’t work in factories). It isn’t our fault if we have to work so hard on exposing them that we simply haven’t got time to worry about what kind of education is being accomplished.

We can’t even agree on a few guiding principles which might define what kind of education we want to accomplish! When that question is placed on the table, every vested interest emerges from the culture swamp to enjoy a bite of lunch! There are speciously useless text books for a $100 per copy, the products of dithering committees of experts and consultants, contracts based on political favors and “certified” by someone as being precisely the books which are absolutely, critically essential to a “good education,” whatever that is.

There are confused college students marching through a numbing chaos of education classes which avoid any relevance to the essence of the teacher’s motivation beyond the capture of merit pay, tenure and union membership. There are bellowing, cracker politicians snapping worn out harangues about waste and frivolity in the schools, all imposed by some sinister parasites with no interest other than extracting tax money.

Ideologically, we see the vacuous hilarity of those bemoaning a lack of “critical thinking.” In dull moments we can always “tune in” to the latest spectacularly depressing news about sex education or school violence. We can find common cause with those who would like to blame parents, civilization itself, poverty, teen sex or video games.

What in the hell are we doing?

This rapacious maelstrom of default thinking is not anything that will benefit from more “education reform.” Its stench has grown far, far too strong for that generosity. This is both an unavoidable wake up call and an opportunity surfacing in the teeth of calamity.

The problems we face in education seem to be incomprehensible because the grotesque thing we have created under that name is, well, incomprehensible. (Doubtful? Try to envision a future history which explains how we reached this failure state. Does your history make sense?) It is a monster consuming huge tax resources, brazenly diverting all its assets to its own protection, producing terrifyingly dismal results and worst of all, denying American youth the opportunity of their birth right to have a chance to develop themselves into something they might actually want to be.

It is clearly the intention of Great Nature that parents assist their children in every possible way to reach the age of responsibility, self-sufficiency and individualism. No amount of persuasive details or comforting, mitigating expertise exonerates a failure to accomplish that parental obligation. Parental obsessions with the goal of perpetuating religion mythology, aging, unexamined ideas or the ambitions of somehow converting their children’s futures into ideological, social or political currency are criminal.

This is childhood’s end.

But not childhood’s end for the children. Their childhood has already been through the meat grinder. Literally hundred of millions of them have had their dreams permanently crushed already by this hideous thing.

This is childhood’s end for the parents. No more being the “half-cocked,” inch deep, gushing ninny at the PTA meeting. No more being the passive, long suffering stoic without any ideas to improve things. No more being too busy to get involved. No more bitching about the property taxes. No more simply refusing to think.

No more turning the young ones over to the television for four hours a night. No more credit-card problem solving. No more “too tired.” No more exhaustion -- there is no exhaustion permitted when it comes to the little people who are counting on you to help them dream.

The following link to You Tube contains a complete video (36 minutes) of President Obama's speech in Dayton, Ohio:

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