American Schools: When “The Best and The Brightest” Don’t Have the Answers

duncan obama

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama

When Barack Obama ascended to the Presidency, he was fired up with a desire to improve America’s schools, which he felt were falling behind those of other advanced countries. He decided to bring “the best minds in the country” in to help them with this task — CEOs of successful businesses, heads of major foundations, young executives from management consulting firms — to figure out a strategy to transform America’s schools, especially those in low performing districts. He promised them full support of his Administration when they finally came up with effective strategies including the use of federal funding to persuade, and if necessary, compel local districts to implement them

Notably missing in this brain trust were representatives of America’s teachers and school administrators, but their absence was not accidental. Because the President and his chief education adviser, Arne Duncan, believed that a key problem in America’s schools was the low quality of the people working in them, they felt no need to include principals and teachers in the Administrations education planning, especially since those plans involved putting pressure on them to perform and then removing those who couldn’t meet the new standards.

From a management standpoint the reforms developed, which including promoting competition, universalizing teacher evaluation based on student test scores, introducing merit pay, made perfect sense. However, since none of the people developing the reforms had spent much time in a classroom, or were willing to spend a significant part of their lives performing the jobs they were reshaping, they had little idea what their reforms meant “on the ground,” and even less evidence that, when implemented, they would be effective

mark naisonNow three years later, after all of these new policies have been put into effect, from New York to Chicago, to Philadelphia to Buffalo, there is no evidence than America’s schools are performing better than when the President entered office, or that the test score gap between wealthy and poor districts is being reduced. But evidence and experience doesn’t seem to matter when you bring “the best minds in the country” together to develop a strategy. Come on, how can Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, and the Ivy League gurus from Teach for America be wrong, and graduates of state teachers colleges and teacher education programs be right?

But reality has a way of intruding even on “the best and the brightest” when the fundamental assumptions that guide policy are wrong. This happened during the Vietnam War, when an indigenous nationalist revolution was treated as an arm of a global Communist conspiracy, and it is happening now when school failures due to poverty and inequality are being blamed on incompetent teachers and administrators.

So as in Vietnam, we will invest hundreds of billions, maybe trillions of dollars in a cause, which, at the end of the day, will turn into a Fool’s Errand, undermining the careers and demeaning the efforts of the nation’s teachers, dividing communities against themselves, while fattening the pockets of consulting form, test companies and on line learning firms.

mark naisonAnd ten years down the road, when all the damage is done, policy makers will wake up and call America’s teachers back in to ask “What do you think we should do?” And they will say that teaching has to be a lifetime calling, and that when dealing with children, there are no miracles — opening minds, and changing lives, requires hard work, persistence, imagination, and a love for the young people you are working with. And those are tasks that cannot be performed by computers or “managed” by people who have never worked with children themselves.

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent

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