Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Oh No, The Chinese Are Beating Us!

Despite the fact that American parents report that they are more satisfied with public schools than at any other time in the last quarter century, we continue to be force-fed the urban myth that public education is failing our children and threatening America's greatness. The latest volley in what looks to me like a "long game" to make education a for-profit enterprise, is the hysteria over China's recent success on international standardized tests, prompting Education Secretary Arne Duncan (a businessman with no teaching experience) to hyperventilate:

"We have to see this as a wake-up call . . . I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable . . . We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we are being out-educated."

Consider me more than a skeptic, Mr. Duncan, consider me an opponent. And it's more than a quibble to many of us, but rather a fight for the future of our children. This response is typical of the pedal to the metal, trust-us-we-know-what-we're-doing-we're-businessmen propaganda surrounding the issue of education reform. They've spent billions of dollars convincing us that we are in crisis and are now attempting to march us into a future for our children that will look a lot like China.

Consider how the Chinese have managed to achieve these test scores, essentially turning their schools over to full time training for these tests. It's also interesting to note that while our elected officials have rushed in to tout the results of these tests, the Chinese government, notorious for blowing its own horn at the slightest provocation, has remained suspiciously silent.

Michigan State University professor Yong Zhao has been keeping a close eye on China's official response by monitoring it's main state-controlled media portal, finding nothing applauding the results, but instead this from parents and students:

"Since my daughter began 7th grade . . . she has had extra evening classes. At that time, the class ends at 18:50 and I accepted it. But ever since she entered 9th grade, the evening class has lengthened to 20:40. For the graduating class, the students have to take classes from 7:30 to 20:00 on Saturdays. There are also five weeks of classes during the winter and summer school vacation. All day long, the students don't have any self-study time, or physical education classes . . .

"This kind of practice has seriously damaged students' health. They have completely lost motivation and interest in studying. My child's health gets worse day by day . . .

"This is not the end. After coming home after 10 p.m., she has to spend at least one hour on her homework. She has to get up at 5 a.m. She is still a child. May I ask how many adults can endure this kind of work?"

And from a student:

"I am exhausted and have become stupid, even before I graduate from middle school," says one student. "You adults work from 9 to 5, but we have to work 18 hours a day." 

Zhao concludes:

That's the secret: when you spend all your time preparing for tests, and when students are selected based on their test-taking abilities, you get outstanding test scores.

Is this the future Arne Duncan and his gung-ho cabal of "reformers" envision? If so, it's not what the American people want.

From Monty Neill writing in The Washington Post:

Surveys have found that parents, communities, even legislators want far more from their schools than only academics -- never mind academics reduced to test prep. Their goals for schools include basic skills, critical thinking, arts and literature, preparation for skilled work, social skills, citizenship, and physical and emotional health.

Yet despite our overall satisfaction with our public schools and our desire for a genuine, well-rounded education for our children, we find our top education officials calling for the opposite. And not just calling for it, but pulling the fire alarm, inventing a crisis where none exists.

Yes, we do have schools that are failing and for the children in these schools it is a real crisis. It's not an accident that these failing schools also serve impoverished communities. Schools in affluent or middle class neighborhoods are not failing -- those are the ones receiving high marks from parents. The problem here is poverty, not education.

From Chales M. Blow writing in the New York Times:

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 42 percent of American children live in low-income homes and about a fifth live in poverty. It gets worse. The number of children living in poverty has risen 33 percent since 2000. For perspective, the child population of the country over all increased by only about 3 percent over that time. And, according to a 2007 Unicef report on child poverty, the U.S. ranked last among 24 wealthy countries.

This is the real crisis, one that will be compounded if the Duncan-style reformers have their way, who are hell-bent on blaming teachers with a well-funded propaganda campaign, epitomized by the "documentary" Waiting for Superman.

From Leonie Haimson writing over at NYC Public School Parents, while debunking the movie's use of fraudulent statistics:

In reality, one of the most serious problems plaguing our urban schools, along with excessive class sizes, overcrowding, and poor support for teachers and students, is the fact that we have far too many inexperienced educators revolving through our high-needs schools each year. Can you imagine if 40 percent of physicians or attorneys left their jobs after four years? A national emergency would be declared, with a commission appointed to find out how their working conditions could be improved.

Yet instead of examining this critical issue objectively, the movie Waiting for Superman cites false statistics in their effort to scapegoat teachers, unfairly blaming them for all the failures of our urban schools. The film features the views of Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institute, a well-known conservative critic of equitable educational funding, claiming that the best way to improve our schools would be to fire 5-10% of teachers each year.

Fire the teachers! Even in those middle class schools where parents are satisfied. Fire them and replace with . . . what? Well, according to the Duncan crowd, experience doesn't matter when it comes to teaching, so we can just replace them like we would a cashier at a McDonald's.

From Michael Dunn writing on his blog Modern School:

Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and others have been spewing the ridiculous lie that teacher experience and education do not matter very much, as indicated by the fact that student test scores are often low, even when their teachers are experienced.

This should come as no surprise since standardized tests measure students' material security and social privilege, not the quality of their teachers. Any teacher at a low income school, whether young, old, experienced, or novice, will have lower test scores than those teaching at middle class schools.

As Neill writes in his Washington Post piece:

. . . the attacks on experienced teachers seem more motivated by politics and budgets than by research evidence. In a period of sharp budget cuts, the claim that teacher experience does not matter is increasingly used to justify the hiring of under-prepared novices to replace experienced teachers. The novices are expected to use scripted curricula to train, not educate, their mostly low-income and minority-group students, in order to boost test scores. If test scores rise like hot air balloons, that will be presented as "evidence" of success.

And from Renee Moore writing on her blog TeachMoore:

. . . the students of high needs schools need stable, highly accomplished teachers, not just enthusiastic, short-term missionaries. All new teachers are enthusiastic and determined to make a difference for their students. But when placed into districts and schools that have suffered long-term neglect and inequity, many of them either leave the setting, leave the profession, or leave their passion for teaching behind.

I don't think these reformers are stupid people, so in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, and the entire lack of evidence (other than anecdotes) supporting their positions, why do they keep pushing this crazed reform agenda? And not just pushing it, but sounding the alarm for it, inventing a crisis when there are plenty of real ones to address?

I think this post from Bob Valiant strikes pretty close to the truth:

In April, 1999 the Wall Street financiers at Merrill Lynch published a 193 page "in-depth report" titled The Book of Knowledge, Investing in the Growing Education and Training Industry. Early in the report they noted: "The K-12 market is the largest segment of the education industry with approximately $360 billion spent annually or over $6,500 per year per child. Despite the size, the K-12 market is the most problematic to invest in today. Entrenched bureaucracies and personal and political interests contribute to the challenges facing this sector."

Public schools HAVE to fail in order to crack open this egg and give these financiers access to the $360 billion they are after (estimates are that it is around $700 billion today). No matter what logic you use to explain the problems or successes of public education, it will be of no avail: public schools HAVE to fail.

Public schools have to fail. There is no alternative. So give up trying to argue otherwise with facts and logic.

The mockumentary Waiting For Superman made this clear. Funded by millionaires, the movie told the story of some privatized schools in Harlem portrayed as saviors of the children otherwise condemned to public schools. Privatized schools mostly funded by hedge fund millionaires on Wall Street. They spent two million dollars to promote the film nationally. Another major film titled The Lottery told a similar tale: children in Harlem desperate to escape public schools. Funded by more millionaires.

In tough economic times, business needs to seek out new profit centers and with a $700 billion pot just sitting there waiting to be looted, who can blame them for eyeing it greedily? But first, they need to improve their prospective investment by cutting costs, the biggest of which are teacher salaries. Hence the campaign to demonize teachers and their unions (contrary to evidence), to de-professionalize them, to insist that experience doesn't matter, and to create as much job insecurity as possible because people who are worried about losing their jobs won't complain.

Of course, they're going after the teachers. Like I said, this is a long game designed to turn our educational system into just another profit center.

(And before you jump into the comments with "But what else can we do?" types of laments, please know that there are mountains of better ideas out there, all of which have more real world data behind them than the approach of these millionaire reformers. For starters, we can look at nations in which education seems to be working for all, like Finland, proposals for holding schools "accountable" like the one found in Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, or any one of Alfie Cohen's dozen books. The solutions are out there, they just don't have millions of dollars promoting them like the Brooks Brothers reformers do.)

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Shirley said...

When I first moved to Finland (from Canada) I couldn't believe that children didn't start school until they were so old. Old being seven. Then I lived here for years and had a child of my own and when it was time for him to go to school I felt that seven was still a bit too young!

Juliet Robertson said...

Children do not grow by being measured.

Thanks for another spot-on blog post Tom.

Play for Life said...

Wow! That's pretty scary stuff Tom ... my heads kind of spinning right now. I think I need to go and PLAY water fights with my nieces and nephew in order to absorb it all!
Donna :) :)

Monkey's Mama said...

Here's an article that might interest you if you haven't seen it yet (coincidentally about Finland's education system):

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! All of this just frustrates the heck out of me. Now that I've pulled myself together, I've got a brilliant idea...why not ask the educators instead of the "suits" how to fix the problems (or at least manage them)that do plague our schools? I bet we have some good ideas too! Let's start with some of the policies that have been put into place by people who are entirely uneducated about education.

We have a saying in one of the professional development workshops I do (Guided Language Acquisition Design aka GLAD) don't make a pig fatter by weighing it!"
Assessment is important, but only when used to test progress. The entire educational system should not be created around it. Teacher proficiency should also be monitered, but again, it should be based on student growth from the start of the year to the end of the year (instead of two months before the year is over), not a standardized test. Unless these reformers can make every child exactly the same, there is no way to fairly assess every child using the exact same assessment.

Your post, as usual, hits the nail on the head. Your commenters info on Finland's educational system are intriguing. Can't wait to look into it more.

siamese said...

Why does it matter if the Chinese have a better education system at the moment? Since when was education a race?