Monday, December 1, 2008

Why is the Nation Really at Risk?

Over at Education Policy Blog, Kenneth Bernstein just posted something that is very important. It sums up many of my own views regarding the problems of the education reform debate, and I feel anyone who cares about American education should read it.

The post starts off with a long expert from Carl Glickman's post, the Latest Nation at Risk Report, at the Forum for Education and Democracy blog. Glickman edits parts of the famous Nation at Risk report so that it reflects the realities of today's America, specifically, it's economic problems. The following comes from the epilogue:

"There will be some angry readers out there who will bristle as I have lifted some of the exact wording of the Nation at Risk Report of 1983 and changed the word “schools” and “public education” to "business and financial institutions." And yes, I have taken plenty of liberties to extend and add sentences to define all business and financial leaders and stock market manipulators as untrustworthy, immoral, dangerous people who have let our country down; crushing the day to day lives and long term hopes of the large majority of Americans who can not afford to lose their jobs, their homes, and their savings. And my business friends -- if there still are a few left -- will bristle at the idea that educators and lay people, with no experiences in business or finance, should be taking charge of what they need to do. If so, the point has been made and hopefully, sincerely taken before further policy making."

This leads into Bernstein's argument about the problem with modern American education reform: it is dominated by businessmen and politicians, as opposed to educators. He tells and interesting story about a conversation between him and Iowa's then Governor Tom Vilsack about this problem:

"In that context, let me repeat part of the first face to face conversation I had with then Governor Tom Vilsack. I noted that the Governors had just had a conference on education and each governor had brought a business leader. Tom acknowledged that was true. I asked why each governor had not instead brought a teacher, a principal or even a student? He was genuinely surprised at the idea."

This leads right into a passage from Jamie Vollmer's famous "Blueberry Story":

"I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.

"None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when, and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a post-industrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission and active support of the surrounding community. For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America."

This is in many ways what the modern education reform debate comes down to. It is not just about students who can pass tests, go to college, and become leaders in the field of (insert your profession of choice here). It is about the overall well being of our society, and thus, the students as well. Do we need to do better in math and science? Yes. Do we need to get rid of "bad teachers"? Yes. And no, we shouldn't rule out charter schools or alternative teacher training programs as part of the solution. But they aren't the only solution. And putting the opinions of businessmen and politicians ahead of educators (as opposed to "in cooperation with") isn't a solution of any real use.

I am reminded of a blog post from Jill, a wedding photographer and a parent of a child with special needs, who raised some important points during the campaign in response to Sarah Palin's proposal on behalf of the McCain campaign regarding special education reform:

"As [Palin] rightly said 'For many parents of children with disabilities, the most valuable thing of all is information.' What she totally glossed over, though, is that the information comes through sources her ticket is NOT endorsing: guaranteed medical coverage for all children. Where does most of our early information about our children and their ‘condition’ come from? Our doctors. Doctors our children won’t see without insurance. Therapists that our children won’t see without coverage. Visiting nurses that will no longer ‘visit’ us because our child isn’t able to get insurance (’pre-existing’ and ‘congenital’ often are treated the same by insurance companies). "

I raised similar points in response to her post.

Bernstein's post does critique the Nation At Risk report, and I must admit that I cannot agree of disagree with said critique. I have not read the report, let alone studied it's results to the extent that others have. I do agree that our society is "being eroded eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people". But this is America. We can do something about this if we really want to.

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