A Good Man or an International Competitor?

                 It causes a case of the bad recollection shivers when I hear the president refer to education as the means of effectively “competing” in the global economy. When he describes the “Race to the Top’s” competition as a major and successful reform, the shivers escalate to shudders.

                This bad karma comes from when I was school superintending. I was doing one of my obligatory “community forum” power-point presentations showing our standardized test scores when I uttered the damning phrase, “If we are to be economically competitive in the twenty-first century, we have to have high test scores.”

                A mother’s hand shot-up as she exclaimed, “But I don’t want my son to be an international competitor in the twenty-first century global work force! I want him to be a good man!”

                The room fell silent. She gathered herself, and pushed on, “I want him to hold a good job, carry his own weight and to get along with others. I want him to give a little more to his community than what he got. I want him to love, be loved and be a good husband. I want him to be happy.”

                And, of course, she was right.

When we think about what we want for our children (or for our world), most of us will give answers more like the mother’s than an economist’s. Of course we want them to find good jobs and be successful, but these are not the more important qualities we value for our children. We want our children to be thoughtful, caring and accomplished because these are good things, not because this will contribute to international competitiveness. Remedying the balance of trade is not a child-rearing concept. Yet, in some strange way, international economic competition, translated as test score competition, has become the ascendant rationale for schooling in the United States.

In a recent edition of Education Week, Susanna Loeb, Dan Goldhaber and Michael Goldstein (here ) talk about the hindrances of outdated regulations, bureaucracies and poor teaching skills. If these problems could be swept away and better “performance accountability measures” put in place then the “engine” could drive toward improved learning outcomes. They see “differentiated opportunities and rewards, innovation, ambition and excellence” as the things that build educator spirit. They talk about efficiency.

On the same page, Alfie Kohn (here) points to the underfunding and inferior learning resources we provide for our poor and our children of color. He points to our poverty gap, which is the largest and most resistant to cure among economically developed nations. The test-based “pedagogy of poverty” assures an inferior education for our neediest. He talks about denied opportunity.

Then, on the facing page, Angela Beeley (here), a “Mad as Hell” teacher, vigorously says she is teaching molested, beaten, neglected, hungry and homeless children. Accountability systems don’t address these needs, and efficiency is not a relevant term. Why do Wall Street crooks walk while teachers are denied basic human dignity and blamed for the failings of society? She talks about caring, frustration and pride.

The notion that education’s main purpose is international economic competitiveness came to prominence with the 1983 Nation at Risk report. Starting in 1989, Goals 2000 symbolically ushered in the test based accountability model, and No Child Left Behind subsequently solidified a uniform national approach. An array of major philanthropies dumped billions of strings-attached dollars to advance market-based and privatization reforms.

No reasonable observer would say these reform pushes have not had a substantial effect. NCLB is still the law of the land, schools are being publicly labeled as “failing,” and forty states have some form of charter school law. Voucher and neovoucher policies, as well as merit-pay and union-bashing laws, are popping up like mushrooms.

Yet, the most puzzling question is why the market model reforms have shown so little success over these 28 years. The achievement gap has stopped closing and, based on measures of higher-order skills at the eighth grade, the gap is getting wider. Charter schools, accountability mechanisms, take-over strategies and privatization efforts have shown, at best, weak and mixed effects.

 Part of the answer is the cold fact, as Kohn points out, that needy schools have been systematically deprived compared to those with more affluent populations. About 70 state cost studies, which examined the cost of providing an adequate education, have documented these simple truths. Contrary to utopian claims that schools can do it all without resources, test scores and get-tough accountability schemes do not cure failed communities and broken homes.

Then, there’s the core issue. Parents and citizens have a broader vision of schools. Parents stubbornly hold on to the quaint notion that the development of their children into good men and women is more important than being international marketplace competitors. We should take heed of the parent rebellions in such market-model, charter school strong-holds as Newark (here), New Orleans (here) and Harlem (here). Gloucester, MA (here), and Mission Viejo, CA (here) also see parents taking to the streets to protest the stripping of resources and the seizing of control of their public schools.

In the real world, if an idea doesn’t work very well after a bunch of tries, that’s a good reason to stop doing it. In the ideological world, meagre results or outright failure does little to shake the underlying belief. Instead, the ideologues say the failure is because their solution was not implemented with enough fervor and force. Or maybe they cling to the one outlier study that supports their view while ignoring the larger overall body of quality research. Perhaps they rely on think tanks peddling pseudo research to advance predetermined ends.  In any case, success will come if we only bear down and beat the dead horse harder.

In this climate, there is the real possibility that public education will become controlled by private oligarchs who hold a narrow view of the purposes of education. Yet, there are also glimmerings of a rebirth of the democratic ethos and a new commitment to all our children. The question is in the balance; will a phoenix rise from the ashes or we will just have ashes?

William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist and a Vermont Superintendent of the Year. He currently serves on the Vermont State Board of Education and chairs the legislative committee.  He has published or presented research on finance, assessment, accountability, standards, cost-effectiveness, education reform, history, and Constitutional issues. He also serves on various editorial boards and frequently publishes commentary on educational policy issues.

Email William J. Mathis at william.mathis@colorado.edu.