(This is one of the groups that I am helping out. My blogging colleague Oso, in San Diego, hooked me up, in Lexington, KY, with the educational activist Bob Cornett of the Grandparent Coalition, in Frankfurt, KY, after they had put an ad on Blogger Corps from Washington D.C., for an activist who would help them set up a weblog for their own organizational site. Maybe this web stuff does have potential for real-world activites.)
Summits and Education: Myths and Mandates
I've just watched, on C-SPAN, the National Governors Association "Summit" about the "crisis" in America's high schools. We are graduating a smaller percentage of the young people now, they said, than was the case at the time of another educational "Summit" two decades ago.
I've attended several National Governors Association meetings -- I used to work with that organization -- and I have high respect for the organization's nonpartisan commitment to the nuts and bolts of better government. I therefore found myself particularly interested in what was being said.
Guest speaker Bill Gates, who is the biggest of all the business barons, was especially impressive. He views good schools, not only as providing corporations with a competent labor force, but as a moral imperative; he believes, on moral grounds, that all young people should be able to go to college and thereby have equal opportunity to succeed in life. I'm convinced that Mr. Gates is genuine in his commitment to young people.
Bill Gates is not an expert in education, as he himself points out, and neither are governors. Mr. Gates, however, has apparently been listening to some sound advice: he emphasizes that learning needs to be "relevant" to the lives of the students, and he understands that small schools are better than large ones. I saw little evidence, however, that Bill Gates' understanding was shared by governors and others at the meeting. What I saw, instead, was a perception that industrial processes, with their characteristic top-down controls, are appropriate to children's learning.
One of my friends -- a wise old man (almost as old as I am) -- put things this way: " The issue is whether the schools are to be relevant to the government or relevant to the children". This summit, judging from what I saw on C-SPAN, regards education as serving the government and the business world more than the children.
Dr. Larry Cuban, Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University, in his book -- "The Blackboard and the Bottom Line" -- refers to a former CEO who once believed that business processes should apply to schools, but ultimately came to recognize that he had not known what he was talking about. That CEO, Jamie Vollmer, said this about a speech he had once made to a group of educators: " In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced -- equal parts ignorance and arrogance."
The Governors summit was not perfectly balanced with equal parts ignorance and arrogance: the school superintendent from San Francisco, who was allowed to talk for a minute or two, was clearly on the side of the children, and the children had other knowledgeable advocates at the meeting. But both ignorance and arrogance were represented.
Politicians very much like the attention they get in Washington; I could almost see some swelling up when David Gergen observed that one or more of the governors might someday be President of the United States. Getting attention in Washington, although lots of fun, cannot get the education job done, however. Learning -- real learning, connected with the relevance of real life -- has to be done in the communities where the children live. This means that those who know and cherish the children as unique individuals, not as mere items in an assembly process, are absolutely essential to accomplishing the task.
Most governors understand politics quite well and some understand bureaucracies; but when you put governors together as a group (at Governors Association meetings), they can't see -- at least not clearly -- all the way from good intentions through the bureaucratic processes that control the schools. There is little awareness, at the level of the Governors Association, that looking to bureaucracies to achieve, for example, more "parental involvement" does not produce the hoped-for results. Government bureaucracies, in the nature of the beast, seek to exclude. Business executives don't understand much about bureaucracies, either; if they did, they wouldn't be leading cheers for a top-down system that would make Soviet-style commissars proud.
I was close to the situation, years ago, when the National Governors Conference made its decision to first locate its headquarters in Washington. At about the same time, The National Conference of State Legislatures declined to locate in Washington, opting for Denver instead. The Conference of State Legislatures has just issued a report that sharply criticizes some of the top-down federal mandates, including the testing requirements. The report recommends, for example: "Remove the one-size-fits-all method that measures student performance and encourage more sophisticated and accurate systems that gauge the growth of individual students and not just groups of students." (This report is available at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Conference of State Legislatures demonstrates a deeper understanding of real learning than was shown at the Governors Association summit. This difference in understanding is, in my judgment, due partly to the difference in location of the two organizations: ignorance and arrogance are more abundant in Washington than in Colorado. Another, but more important, difference is in timeframe perspective. CEOs, in governments as well as corporations, tend to be short timers; the next election or the next quarterly report are their reference points.
Our present situation, in which children are confined to classrooms prepping for the mandated, standardized, and privatized testing regimes instead of engaging in relevant learning, may serve the short-term interests of some CEOs, but the long-term learning needs of the children are being seriously compromised.
It is in the local community where real education summits must be held, where parents, grandparents, neighbors, and all stakeholders can join with the over-stressed teachers to refocus education to emphasize real learning rather than just the phony goal of more mandated tests.
The two most pervasive myths in public education today are (1) that we have "local control" of education and (2) that tests somehow substitute for actual learning. It is time to explode both myths.
The education of children is far too important to be left to politicians and business tycoons.