Education reform efforts are underway around the world. To borrow from Ken Robinson, nations are trying their best to adapt education to the changing economy while maintaining some kind of cultural identity. [How much they're working on the identity stuff I'm not sure.] Two main influences are driving the way reform is done: science and business.
The science most closely associated with education these days revolves around the results of standardized test scores. Whether they be the TCAPs and EOCs in Tennessee, CATS tests in Kentucky, or the PISA and TIMMS tests worldwide, test results are used to “scientifically” measure school success and compare within and among schools, states, and nations. The results are seen by many as valid indicators of achievement and failure, but there are innumerable problems with this system.
In most science, experimenters go to great lengths to reduce their influence on the phenomena they observe or measure. To see whether or not a certain habitat restoration project was successful, it would be unethical to lure animals back to the area in question with mating calls or temporary stocks of food. Scientists would work hard to be minimally invasive in their observations, perhaps going so far as to install hidden cameras or at least use camouflage.
But in schools the supposed measuring technique, the test, is not only invasive, it has become the target. States use carrots and sticks to get schools and teachers to focus like lasers on the tests. Students are tested over and over, year after year. As Bob Lingard says in this article, what we have now is a situation where we are trying to fatten a pig by weighing it.
With the rise in profile of economics, business and finance practices now have an influence on just about everything. Somehow policy-makers have been convinced that the people making the most money know how to run everything, including schools and hospitals. In education, the idea that putting money into schooling provides an economic return is nothing new, but the extent to which education is borrowing business practices now in an effort to “maximize returns for taxpayers” is extreme. Students and parents are seen as clients or stakeholders rather than citizens. Parents are encouraged to be smart “consumers” of education for their children and are given school choice through vouchers or parent trigger laws. These reforms are intended to breed competition among schools to improve. Student achievement on standardized tests is the measure for how successful schools are rather than how the schools contribute to solving community problems.
Many reforms desire to increase innovation in schools. What does innovation require? In this video, Dan Pink describes a company that gives employees one day a quarter to work on whatever they want. This day leads to the most innovation due to a combination of freedom and purpose. In education reform, schools that do poorly on tests are punished. This clear lack of freedom discourages innovation and encourages a more narrow range of teaching techniques, and of course teaching to the test.
In this article, Valli describes the increase in teacher workload due to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In business terms, NCLB represented a culture change within education. The new set of expectations for teachers amounts to what, in a normal business, would warrant retraining, extra professional development, and company support. Teachers got no such extra training and were judged on the results of school test scores within 2 years of the implemented changes. A good business would also pay workers more if they expected such a huge increase in worker productivity. During the time of NCLB, many states have frozen their budgets and teacher raises did not keep pace with inflation. In effect, they were asked to work a lot harder for less pay.
Another business-minded reform is related to the curriculum. Common Core is a national curriculum designed with the intent to prepare students to participate in the global economy. But participate how? Fundamental business principles could easily dissuade a school district from implementing a national or global curriculum: workers get jobs through individuation and unique skills, not standardization. If everyone has the same education, where do students get a comparative advantage over their competition for a job?
Our society’s reliance on economic rationalization, the combination of science and business reforms, is a crutch that has led to greater stratification of our society and a fracturing of communities. Many students are unprepared for the workforce and unattached to their homes. Education has been hurt greatly by standardization and psuedo-science.
Many times people complain about complaining. I don’t like the current system, but I don’t offer any alternatives, they might say. But alternatives already exist. There are exemplary schools and programs around the country, and in this blog I sometimes highlight them. Not every business or science-related reform is all bad, but when they eliminate good programs, we need to fight to stop them. There are groups fighting, and only with lots of work can we build a movement strong enough to counter the technocrats running things now.