The Values Of Education Get Lost In The Numbers

Jeff Bryant

Just as climate scientists warn Americans to brace for a long hot summer, anyone paying attention to the nation’s public schools can expect a summer of more of the same, heated cross-fire between the “reformist” politicians and pundits, and the growing population of skeptics who disagree with them.

For example, just as most high schools in the country were holding commencement ceremonies, education researchers reported that the national graduation rate for the most recent year available (2008) was the highest level for the nation’s public high schools since the 1980s, marking a “significant turnaround following two consecutive years of declines and stagnation.”

To add specificity to the sunny outlook, over at Huffington Post, school reform enthusiast Tom Vander Ark regaled us with the accomplishments of Downtown College Prep (DCP), a charter high school in San Jose, CA that sends its mostly Latino students from low income families not only to college but also to college graduation — at a rate that is ten times higher than their peer group.

Then along comes Diane Ravitch and a host of malcontents to deflate all the euphoria. First Ravitch, writing in The New York Times, declared that a lot of the seemingly good news about public schools being circulated by politicians and their courtiers is really a “triumph of public relations.”

As examples, she explains why two school turnaround “miracles” being touted by President Obama and others — one in Denver and the other in Miami – are merely “the result of statistical legerdemain.”

Then to rain on Vander Ark’s parade, a barrage of commentators at the blog site for edu-blogger Joanne Jacobs explained that the “success” of his prized charter school resulted from high student attrition (51.8%), yielding poorly prepared students who would need plenty of remedial help in college.

Not to take criticism like this lightly, school reform proponent Jonathan Alter shot back at Ravitch from his new perch in Bloomberg News, echoing the claim from Education Secretary Arne Duncan that she and her ilk were “insulting” teachers and principals. Education reform, Alter insists, “works.”

Not to be left out, Salon.com’s Alex Pareene piled onto the scrum, implying that Alter was carrying water for his new boss, school reform advocate Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

And on, and on, and on . . .

Jeesh! If this is how the Summer Break starts out, then surely we’re all heading toward a severely overheated dispute about education policy, even before July Fourth rolls around. And all the while school “reformers” and their opponents duke it out, conservatives in state capitals everywhere are busy dismantling the nation’s public school system. The most egregious example of this is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent proposal to screw public schools coming and going by cutting state funding by a whopping $116 million while also mandating lower “revenue caps” that would make counties and municipalities cut property taxes as well.

To help clarify the education debate, Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute takes a shot at being the only adult in the room by contending that it’s just a matter of getting the numbers right:

Right now the high school graduation rate in poor districts is generally about 50 percent. What if we moved that to 60 percent? Right now the reading proficiency rate for 12th graders with parents who dropped out of high school is 17 percent. What if we moved that to 25 percent? The same rate for math is 8 percent. What if we moved that to 15 percent?

Does this really help? Is finding more solutions in “the numbers” going to get us any closer to, not only, agreement, but coherency in making the case for choosing one school measure over another? Or does it really seem that focusing exclusively on “the numbers” is actually the problem?

Actually, ever more, or better, or different statistical measurements just seem to create new and more contentious debate, and what rarely comes to the surface are the values that are guiding our current education policy.

For instance, how often do school reform platforms include attending to the health of children? Specifically, only three states require comprehensive eye exams for school kids, and at least eight states don’t require any vision screening at all. Seriously! How do we expect kids to learn when they can’t see the friggin’ whiteboard?

Also in this “numbers-only” discussion pushed from DC thinktanks there’s no attention being paid to the role of schools in advancing a sense of community. After Brown vs. Board of Education and the Federal Disabilities Act ushered in the era of making sure the “community” included in public school meant truly everyone in the community, traditional public schools made remarkable progress with educating the least served in our society, while those students who were better off continued to do well academically in comparison to students in other countries. But for the last twenty years, the emphasis on education reform has been changing that.

Schools have been re-segregating at an alarming rate, and the charter schools favored by the current establishment are often among the most segregated. Furthermore, a wave of support and funding for delivering curriculum and instruction online — another favorite of the establishment — is threatening to isolate certain communities of students, and isolate students one from another. How does that build community?

And why do current education policies tend to ignore the reasons for learning? The trend in American education has been to make the reason for learning be defined by how well students perform on the test. The result of this is an education that enforces teaching to the test, and students will learn what they need just to pass the test. Then the whole “reason” for learning — that learning is important for its own sake — is completely lost. I’m not aware that people in charge of education policy would dispute this. I just never hear them talking about it.

Furthermore, shouldn’t schools take children seriously? For instance, isn’t it disrespectful to kids to expect them to be at the very same level on the very same day — the day the test is given? Is that the kind of rigid yardstick we use to measure ourselves? If so, then why aren’t we all making the same amount of money and incurring the exact same cost of living? I really don’t know how our leadership would answer this. But I know I never hear them talk about it. Regardless of how much the reformists talk about how much they care about “the kids,” until reform plans demonstrate that they take children seriously, this crowd is just proving that ultimately they don’t really care about “the kids.”

Finally, why do we never hear anyone in DC calling for education to be fun? In better-off communities where students are enrolled in quality daycare situations, one of the first things the children learn is how to play. This “playfulness” in the learning process shouldn’t stop at the K-12 threshold. And not only should students, of all ages, be encouraged to play, they should be participants in helping to design the curriculum and learning activities. Educators then act as gatekeepers to ensure that curriculum and learning don’t become trivialized or misdirected, and they gradually release more of the responsibility of learning to the learners as age and developmental levels progress. However, the current approach favored by testing advocates is to treat students as passive vessels.

I know, I know. Focusing on the values we want to include in our education policy veers dangerously close to being “subjective” and emphasizing “inputs” rather than “outcomes.” But hey, garbage in, garbage out. And right now, people in the driver’s seat of our education policy are talking a bunch of trash.

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