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Horace Mann League Blog: Recipe for a Fiasco in Public Education

All wars are insane. World War I was particularly so. In this debacle of needless slaughter, soldiers were ordered to charge across open fields into the mouths of machine guns. Among the many great fiascos, the 1915 Gallipoli campaign stands out. Stymied with an entrenched and stalemated western front, the British threw hundreds of thousands of Empire troops against the Ottoman Turks. The aim was a land march up the Dardanelles ending in the capture of Istanbul. A half million casualties and eight months later, the British withdrew in total failure.

With the long sight of history, Scott Anderson, in Lawrence in Arabia, lists three ingredients for why “a vastly superior military force . . . managed, against all odds, to snatch defeat from all but certain victory.”  These are

(1) arrogance– a blinding belief in one’s own superiority to such a degree as to not be able to comprehend other approaches or views,

(2) political interference— in the sense that more effective and viable approaches are ignored because a powerful group has a stake in the bad decision, and

(3) tunnel vision– when one is so certain of one’s own views that the only solution is to double-down on failed strategies.

While this recipe could apply to Washington’s fiscal meltdown, our federal educational policies are also afflicted by these same three shortcomings.

Arrogance– Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than simply declaring that all students must now leap over a “higher standard” of five feet when they were having trouble making it over four feet. Despite a few federal grants and token gifts from billionaires, no new improvement capacity is provided. Declarations, by themselves, do nothing. This thinking is akin to the real Gallipoli where the British forgot they needed landing craft to get to the beach.

The proclaimed rationale is that the economy will be restored and poverty will be eliminated if we just score higher on international tests. Needless to say, there’s little in the economic development literature that supports this simplistic notion.

We do know that the achievement gap was closing when the dominant philosophy was building the capacity of educators. Yet, trading effectiveness for grandiosity, and cocksure in their own beliefs, our federal policymakers dismiss the known and the obvious.

Political Interference– Perhaps it is a stretch to talk about political interference in a government that literally cannot run itself. But by its own self-immolation, it has ceded power to a strange combination of neo-liberal groups, right-wing think-tanks and billionaires.

This has had two effects. The first is the collapse of the legislative branch which has ceded to the administration the authority to “waive” certain provisions of federal education law. While individuals “waiving” laws might strike some as being of dubious legality, that is exactly what happened. The second effect is that government has been driven underground and out of the scrutiny of democracy’s public eye. The reform efforts have been developed, in closed sessions, by private corporations such as Achieve, Inc., textbook manufacturers and testing companies. And nobody has seen the tests, knows how good they are, or what will be a passing score. Needless to say, these corporations stand to make a lot of money out of this venture. While 45 states are touted as having “adopted” the Common Core standards, these adoptions have generally been uncritical rubber stamps.

Tunnel Vision– Researchers from all perspectives agree that top-down, test-based approaches have not worked. Even the prestigious National Academies came to this conclusion. Lamentably, apparently having learned little from these twenty years of less than stellar progress, the same mindless mantra is chanted. The administration has doubled-down on the seizure of low-scoring schools (predominately in poor underfunded communities). Ironically, the takeover provisions were made more inflexible by the “flexibility waivers.” What’s stunning is that these takeover strategies are, in many cases, actually harmful.

Thus, in contemporary school reform we have the recipe for fiasco; arrogance, political interference and tunnel vision.  Embracing each other, the proponents reaffirm each other in a political echo chamber, resolute, committed and unchanging in their convictions.

It is a strong analogy to compare school reform to Gallipoli. After all, there were a half million casualties. But we have 11 million children in our nation’s urban schools and half these students are in poverty. Urban districts are on fiscal life support as federal school funds are in jeopardy and money is drained to support private schools — or just not appropriated at all. We could certainly do better. It is not for lack of knowing what to do. But we will not get there if blinded by tunnel vision, political distortion and arrogance.

William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center, a former Vermont school superintendent, and resident of Goshen. The views expressed are his own.

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William J. Mathis

Following a decade as the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, William J. Mathis serves as a Senior Poli...