Monday, April 05, 2010

Apparatchiks and Ayatollahs of Texas Education and the Other 48.

There are over four million Texas high schoolers and every one of them is exceptional; there are many fewer in Alaska but this makes them no less so. Exceptional? Certainly, when you consider that Texas and Alaska have excluded themselves from the National Governors Association (NGA) attempt to develop common core standards in English language arts and mathematics.

Texas education is dominated by centralized planning that, in recent weeks, has looked Stalinist in its apparatchik-like ability to re-write history. In one example, and with little or no debate, one ignorant school board member was able to effectively rewrite Latin American social history simply because she hadn’t heard of a key participant. Other board members might, perhaps, have pointed out that that’s the point of teaching history but, alas, they did not. In Dallas recently, the school board there decided to “go rogue”--disregarding both the evidence and the testimony of experts and parents-- and select materials for their schools that were characterized by the Dallas Morning News as being ‘riddled with errors’.

Texas seems to revel in its gargantuan-market-sized ability to influence what publishers place in their textbooks. In the words of full-time dentist and part-time Texas Board of Education Chairman Dr. Don McLeroy, board members like him are there to correct the ‘liberal bias of experts’ in the creation of educational texts. In so doing, Texas educators conspire in an almost narcissistic endeavor to create a mélange of fuzzy math, pseudo-science and revisionist materials for their schools. Despite the headlines from Dallas in recent weeks and the resultant slow awakening of faculty, students and parents, the situation is unlikely to change appreciably. Especially when you consider that Dr. McLeroy is from Austin, arguably the most liberal locale in Texas.

Today (April 2) is the day the NGA is closing the comment period for their draft Core Standards document. This set of guidelines for math and English language arts represents an attempt by the states (not the Federal Government) to ensure consistency across the US for students preparing for higher eduction. From their press release:
These standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. The standards are:
• Aligned with college and work expectations;
• Clear, understandable and consistent;
• Include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
• Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
• Informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
• Evidence- and research-based.
No doubt that last one caused consternation in Texas but, if you read the guidelines as is, they are not revolutionary in scope. Where they do differ from prior practice is that the states have decided to determine their own destinies and not be forced to accept federal dictates on educational reform. In the No Child Left Behind programs (which set assessment and evaluation criteria and then rewarded achievement with money), the states played a limited role in setting the standards. No Child Left Behind is now widely viewed as a very expensive failure and the Obama administration has determined that education policy must change to improve students’ ability to reach college (with a uniform understanding of certain key topics) and to enable America to compete with other countries.

The proactive steps taken by the NGA should be actively supported by all who see education policy as a shared responsibility between the states and the federal government. Hopefully, by so doing, individual states like Texas and Alaska will no longer be able to short-change their students future by imposing their flat world view on education.

Note: How the Texas Board Works and What it Does (Video)

1 comment:

Eugene G. Schwartz said...

Well taken, Michael. I would add, though, that I still harbor an old-fashioned allegiance to less state and federal, and to more local and diverse controls over education – from the bottom, standards will rise to the top is my view. Give a good teacher, well paid, a room full of students, give parents choices, provide for accountability, and get out of the way .

The Texas and Alaska stories (not to mention California with Prop 13 and Prop 4) can also be seen as cautionary reminders of the downsides of the public monopoly over education, where accountability gets in the way. No Child Left Behind is another good example.

Centrally developed guidelines whether by large states alone, state consortia or the federal government are important, and indeed necessary to tap into broad-based learning expertise, but can only stand the test of fallibility by a decentralized system of adoption and a competitive system of application.

The virtues of U.S. K-12 education in its original mid to late19th century incarnation were vested in local control by numerous community school boards – competitive community outcomes kept the uni-cultural (largely European Protestant) system within a narrow range and on its toes for the 3 R’s and canonical history and literature. Publishers were neither yet straight jacketed into state adoption regulations nor did they stray outside the Western canon anyway. For many it was the only path to literacy and the world around them.

Church schools, home schooling, the system of apprenticeships as the path to occupation, the rise of the library system at the turn of the last century, all contributed to multiple systems of learning. With the tide of immigration, big city night schools and day schools were funded by business, ethnic and religious interests concerned about the need for assimilation. The progressive education movement drove it to its post World War II form – which is largely what we have today.

It was helter skelter and was driven by a combination of the Darwinian survival dynamics, local political power centers, and charitable philanthropic initiatives in big cities and rural areas that characterized American society until World War II. There were a lot of cracks for people to fall through – it was still a hard scrabble life for many, but balanced by highly communitarian and family-centered local mores. Local school systems reflected this dynamic. It also got us to where we were at the turn of this century.

Continued local control has led to some weird outcomes – and Texas and Alaska are not the only examples – but a single ideology couldn’t take hold nationally from the top down. This structural insurance policy has been eroded by a public monopoly with more central curriculum controls, a complex funding bureaucracy, inner city neglect, and teachers unions and school bureaucracies that resist changes in methodology that would upset working hour and benefit plans. New York City and Washington, DC offer a good example of the resistance and Herculean efforts required to make any changes inside the public system – systems within which there are presumably enlightened curriculum viewpoints, and the Texas and Alaska points of view don’t even register in their school boards.

As a multi-cultural nation that has managed to avoid the worst forms of violent conflict over ideological differences and the imposition of a politically correct educational ideology (getting close in both directions, though it may seem), competitive choices in schooling are the best ways to assure that it stays that way, in my opinion.

Hopefully, Clay Shirky’s thesis on the collapse of complex bureaucracies will eventually apply here. Reform, ever since I can remember in the past sixty years, has made little headway except to expand the complexities of the system.