Thursday, August 07, 2014

They Don't Care About Education: They Care About Winning

I didn't spend many years working in business, but included in my short stint were three years at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce in the role of communications manager. The job was to work as staff for committees comprised of CEOs, presidents, and other high level executives as they worked together on projects that promoted the community and, especially, the business environment. In other words, I was in close contact with what were presumedly the "best and the brightest," a prospect that had really made me want the job in the first place.

My expectations, however, were unfounded as I wound up concluding that most of these guys, and they were mostly guys, were about as average a bunch as I'd ever been around. Sure there were a few truly bright bulbs, but for the most part they were people who had achieved their status, as far as I could tell, by being at the right place at the right time. The only particular skill many of them seemed to have were those of the sycophant: the talent of kissing up to people with power. This epiphany was one of the primary reasons I escaped that life as soon as I could.

Still, there remains a kind meritocratic mythology surrounding American business people, one that they buy into themselves and that, I feel, is at least partly what has lead to the mess they are making of the Bill Gates lead efforts at so-called education "reform." It's what caused them to more or less exclude professional educators in their private-sector, top down process of developing the national Common Core curriculum, the one that was developed with an utter ignorance of the ways in which most children actually learn. I've spent enough time around them to know that these self-styled John Galts envision themselves as our unquestioned superiors, men whose genius is manifest because, they have acquired lots of money, undeniable proof of that superiority. What could teachers, these impoverished denizens of a pink ghetto, possibly have to contribute to education, after all?

And, naturally, Gates, is the brightest of us all, with $80 billion to prove it, so we follow him down this rabbit hole of ed "reform," a descriptor I use intentionally because it is as bizarre as anything encountered in Wonderland.

I've been wrestling with this crazy house mirror for some time. They seek to impose a curriculum of Chinese-style long hours and rote memorization on our children while dancing about as Mad Hatters echoing our own words back at us -- "critical thinking," "creativity," "freedom" -- claiming these as their goals, while persisting in flogging the very methods from which even the famously rigid Chinese are now backing away. They insist they are listening, that teachers are their heroes, that the best interests of children drive them, yet these Tweedledums and Tweedledees hardly miss a beat as they approach our best thinking as mere arguments to knock down or hurdles to overcome rather than rational feedback that might actually inform their efforts. 

I few days ago I was referred to a short piece written by Jeffery Katz, the executive director at Montessori Private Academy in Rockford, Illinois, entitled The Difference Between Bill Gates and Maria Montessori that has helped me better think about the insanity coming from these silly, self-important dilettantes.

The main difference between the Gates Foundation funded Common Core and Dr. Maria Montessori's method is this: Montessori did not create educational theories and then try them out on children. She did the opposite. She observed children, experimented, recorded the results, and then she created her theories. Those theories were not conjecture for her, because they were based on observable data, the kids themselves. Not surprisingly, scientists have since verified nearly every theory she posited. And at the "core" of Montessori's method was and is a simple maxim: Follow the child.

This is just a game to these guys. They don't actually care about data, they don't care about children, they don't care about education: they care about winning. This is why it all seems so bizarre to those of us who actually do care. They have an idea and, damn it, whatever the evidence says, they will impose it on us sweet, but clearly lesser foes, because it's their idea and they have the money. How can anyone argue with that?

I've had a few thoughtful educators counsel me to be more sanguine about this: the educational theories of amateurs have come and gone many times, and Common Core is destined to likewise fail if only because it is so wrong and most teachers care so much. And they're right. Maybe we should just let them win, let them impose their will, then when they turn their attentions to the next game, as they inevitably will, we can return to the path along which data, research, experience and the children guide us. Sometimes I wish I could do this because it's really enough to make me crazy, but the truth is that I'm not willing to sacrifice a generation to their cruel experiments.

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Aussie Jo said...

Most teachers are smart enough to teach the way their particular students need to learn no matter what directives are coming from above.

anon in CA said...

Thanks for your daring and your strength, Tom. You inspire so many of us. I, too, refuse to do what I know to be not developmentally appropriate. Thank you for helping to give me strength on those difficult days.

-- anon in CA

Sue VanHattum said...

aussie jo, it's not about how smart the teacher is, when they are directed to teach from a script, to be on page 76 on Tuesday, and watched. Teachers can get in trouble for doing what's right for their students.