Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lessons Learned from the History of the "Crisis" in Education

There has been a "crisis" in education since the 1983 study "A Nation At Risk" was first published.  This was a groundbreaking report at the time.  The memorable report begins with the line" the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."   Written amidst the backdrop of the Cold War, President Reagan had commissioned an expert panel to investigate our nations schooling.  Since then, much literature has been written critiquing the evaluation of these experts, mitigating the issue of mediocrity, and apologizing for those who "cannot learn." However, I'd like to first revert back to the history of how we go to 1983 in an effort to give a real background to the nature and complexity of the issue in an effort to reestablish or redesign the way we look at the goal of education. 

The notion and need for an educated citizenship harkened back to our founding fathers.  Thomas Jefferson had written this need. It harkened back to enlightenment scholars like Locke and Montesquieu.  However, it was seen as an ideal.  A reminder of the Greek body politics, but perhaps not fully obtainable.  Nothing had been done concretely at that point to create a universal system.   

American educations from its infancy was by definition home grown.  It originated as small religious schools and private tutoring for largely for the wealthy or upper class. There were "colleges" for religious clergy and scholars to study at, but they remained elite institutions restricted almost entirely to wealthy white Christian men.  Skilled workers acquired knowledge not by formal schools, but instead by apprenticeship.
Agricultural life was dominant and those skills were passed down from one generation to the next.  The majority of Americans did not receive formal schooling.  By 1870, Horace Mann's initiative to get all states to sponsor and create public schools had become a reality in nearly every city in the country.  However, many rural communities still lacked proper schools.  No formal curriculum existed that was shared.  No network of teacher's certification existed either.  There simply no universal standards of any kind.  However, many schools were quite rigorous.  Others, not so much.  The understanding was that strong discipline was the key to success.  In rural areas, students had work obligations at home that often prevented them from having anywhere near perfect attendance.  School did not run in the summer for precisely this reason.  Many students dropped out by the time they reached age 12 or 13, not because they disliked it, but simply because their families needed them on the farm or in the factory.  

As the United States industrialized further, we moved from a nation of farms to a nation of factories.  With an influx of immigrants in the 1880-1920, our nation was filled with workers to capacity.  This was at the same time machines were replacing the need for as many workers both on farms and in factories. Many children were without employment and consequently getting themselves into trouble on the streets of overcrowded cities creating real gang problems.  Others, the very small, were forced to work for nearly nothing in horrible conditions that often crippled them for life or outright killed them.  Hence, when "progressives" began to call for mandatory universal education, this goal now seemed obtainable.  Childhood, by it's very nature, was fleeting.  Images of horrific, painstaking cruelty were portrayed in newspapers across the country as news was now able to travel faster thanks to trains and telegraphing devices.  Hence, the original demand for universal education was more of a public outcry to protect children that to create educated citizens.  However, reformers did argue this would accomplish both. 

By 1910, education became mandatory for all students across the country, but still roughly 30 percent did not attend.  High school was just beginning to be part of the landscape.  After two World Wars and the emergence of America as a superpower, if not the Superpower, formal education began to be a fundamental expectation for all citizens.  It was not until the 1960's with Brown v. Board of Education desegregation cases and the inclusion of women into colleges that American education fully embraced all and the Federal Government was then given a pretext for entering the schools, so to speak. The government's role into local issues was expanding thanks to the Warren Court's rather liberal interpretation of interstate commerce and the 14th amendment.  Still, no legally required standards existed in any form.  In fact, not until 1965 were there any laws about required testing.  Once that occurred, standards were retroactively placed in schools after the tests were written. (Who says Backward Design is new?)  However, they were not universally applied or organized.

Reformers wanted education to indoctrinate the masses into a democratic belief system and structure. The fear of copious numbers of immigrants swarming into the United States with no skills, no cultural affinity towards the "American way of life" and no "civilized history," as they saw it, was paramount in their minds. Yet, that same education that was by definition required an educated body politic, also restricted education from being a national issue that the government wanted to intervene on.  The nature of American democracy was local thanks to the 10th Amendment's emphatic statement that of states’ rights.  As best put:

"The tenth Amendment was intended to confirm the understanding of hte people at the time the Constitution was adopted, that powers not granted to the United States were reserved to the States or to the people.  It added nothing to the instrument as originally ratified," - United States v. Sprague, 282 U.S. 716. 733 (1931) 

Meanwhile, globally the face of education had concretized.  It was much more centralized in other nations like France, England, and Japan.  Their lack of local control prevent a tension that the US had and continues to have.  Their homogeneity both in approach and population enabled them to establish clear universal standards for all students almost immediately.  In fact these countries used education not to enlighten their masses to become more educated citizens, but to reign in their newly acquired minority populations they conquered thanks to imperialism.  They, like Dewey, saw education as indoctrination.  However, these groups were still off shore, in distant lands that they saw as less significant to their mother nations.  Our diversity was from within present on our very shores.

On the backdrop of all this was the Cold War and the manifestation of numerous proxy wars, that were far from cold.  America engaged in these conflicts to deter or stem Communism from spreading to our nation's shores.  The obvious tone of a nation at war comes out in the report as does the notion that we are competing with other nations and need to win.  In fact, James Harvey states, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war," This fear that with further inclusion of students and increased attendance in schools, we were actually dropping our scores on the SAT's and other national tests freaked the government out.  If nothing more, as a national security risk that could have long term systemic economic consequences.  By 1980, we as a nation wanted to embrace our diversity, embrace our inclusiveness, but now we were "suffering" for it..

In the 1990's the issue of linking government funds for education to performance on standardized tests began to yield interest.  Governors met to create standards that were non-binding, yet most they agreed to implement them across states.  Mandates enabled congress to "require" certain subjects be taught in exchange for funding.  Many states agreed to them in an effort to get much need dollars.

What wasn't being addressed was that the very notion of localism, of strict local control, was partially to blame.  While desegregation had been legalized and enforced for some time, people still lived in very segregated communities based on race, religion, ethnicity, and perhaps most significantly, income.

Even in 2000, when George W. Bush ran for election, it was revealed that Bush owned a piece of property that had a now illegal restrictive covenant preventing minorities from at one point purchasing the land.  This should not have been shocking since much land down south and out west had these clauses at one point.  While de jure segregation no longer legal, people continue to engage in self segregation to a large degree.  Even within urban centers, this exists.  Hence, local schools reflect the populations they serve in the most practical sense.  To this day, property taxes raised, for the most part, make up the majority of funds for district budgets.  Hence, there is great discrepancy financially among districts on spending per student, buildings, staff, and overall infrastructure.
While no one is arguing that the key solution to the educational crisis is equal distribution of finances among all districts nation wide per number of students, it might be a start.  Of course, if the government were able to actually legally do this, property taxation would need to be rescaled so that there was a universal taxation code of some kind on this.  Heavens knows if legally this would ever be allowed, but it would certainly help implement major changes.  Of course leaving local control to their own devices, there is still no guarantee anything productive will get done.  Also, this does not take into account money from the state or Federal government which would also need to be equally distributed as well.

The Common Core, first thought of really by Ed. Hirsch, yet manifested by a host of educators coming together with politicians, is a step towards universal educational standards.  The problem with creating universal standards is that we educate everyone in our country and well, quite frankly most countries do not. What we as a nation are saying by having a common core is that we expect all citizens to at least have this set of educational skills and knowledge.  In theory that is wonderful, in practice that becomes exceedingly complicated.  Educational apologists will accent the fact that these skills and content are particularly difficult for students from disadvantaged environments to acquire.  They will cite these students difficult home life, culture that does not focus on education, and inability to see options beyond their current situation.  While this is true, it is not the reason education is failing these students.  And, these students are not the only students who are "failing" our tests.  This does not take into account the suburban students from poor and moderate income homes that are failing.  It does not take into account the special ed students from all backgrounds that simply aren't wired to take these tests in their current format.

If we have a common core, we need to acknowledge openly by definition, it will be mediocre   It will not encompass what all students need to succeed.  It will simply provide the bare bones of what students of all background and abilities need to be proper citizens.  It will be the Least Common Denominator, not nearly specialized enough for the majority of students.  That is how it will have to be by definition since we continue to make education mandatory for all.  I'm not arguing we should allow some students to not attend school.  In fact, I love the idea of mandatory schooling.  I just think we need redefine what school is.  We need to be flexible about what school is.

If our real goal is to have an effective citizenship that can compete with other nations (which by the way, I too want), we need to learn from our history.  We need to consider apprenticeship programs, we need to focus on enabling students to become experts. Specializing, as Mohammad Yunus suggests is the key to a nation's success.  It may also be the key to our children's future. The notion of a universal set of knowledge, hence, culture that all American can share is admirable, even may be useful on an elementary level, but could we consider that in this complex world, we might need more?