Magical Thinking on Education

Want good schools? Then train teachers well, pay them a competitive wage and give them the resources they need. It’s that simple. Really.

Yet, for the past decade-and-a-half, we’ve been trying anything, anything at all, to prove this wrong. Though educational policy disaster has followed upon educational policy disaster, our leaders and our journalists continue to insist that laws and “standards” can fix our “failing” schools. They do this even when the truth is staring them right in the family: their own children attend private schools when emphasis remains on teacher/student interactions.

Even the Editorial Board at The New York Times falls into the trap of believing we can test our way to educational success, writing:

Teachers unions and other critics of federally required standardized tests have behaved in recent years as though killing the testing mandate would magically remedy everything that ails education in the United States. In reality, getting rid of the testing requirement in the early grades would make it impossible for the country to know what if anything children were learning from year to year.

Union and other critics of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Every Student Succeeds have never argued that getting rid of high-stakes testing is enough. And testing of the sort we’ve recently been requiring in this country tells us very little of what students are actually learning from year to year. There’s something else, a fallacy evident in the names of these three laws: You can’t legislate success. No law can keep every student in the race or insure that each reaches the goal. Believing otherwise is the real magical thinking.

Testing is a tool for teachers, and a necessary one. It is they who need to know what children are learning from year to year—so that they can revise curricula for the coming year to take into account successes and failures. The country only needs to see results: Are graduates able to participate fully as members of society?

When that question is answered, “No,” it does no good to create and impose a set of standards to remedy the situation. For one thing, the standards will be somewhat arbitrary, often reflecting one particular vision at the expense of others just as worthy. For another, standards only reflect the past: The future cannot be measured and assessed. For a third, imposed standards just plain don’t work. Their continued emphasis is simply another example of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Even The Times recognizes this (though without saying it): “college entrance exams given to 11th graders last year showed that only one in 10 students were ready for college-level reading and only about one in 14 were prepared for entry-level college math. On a separate job skills test, only about half of students demonstrated the math proficiency needed to succeed at most jobs.” This, after fourteen years of fascination with standardized testing as the answer.

The Times goes on to bemoan the fact that requirements for graduation from high school are being eased (though that is debatable) even while graduation rates are rising. But, “Despite this problem, the states have continued to drag their feet on improving the quality of the teaching corps and especially on putting in place stronger curriculums.” Stronger curricula (with the implication of more rigorous standardized testing) are not going to solve the problem, though improving teacher quality certainly will. Teachers need the flexibility of revising curricula within the process of the term, which means that there also has to be flexibility in assessment (especially in assessment of teachers). That’s not going to happen when curricula are imposed from outside, especially when imposed by government.

Bemoaning the collapse of the Common Core, the Editorial Board writes that:

after an initial burst of support by school officials across the country, the standards came under fire from some in teachers unions who did not want to be evaluated based on how much students learned and from states’ rights advocates who viewed the idea as a prelude to a “government takeover.”

That’s not what happened, not by a long shot. We teachers (college and k-12, and not our unions—they brought up the rear on this) reject Common Core not because of evaluation based on student learning but because Common Core has a restrictive vision of what should be taught and how. States’ rights advocates don’t like it because of the means of imposition: Common Core was created by a small group not held accountable to anyone and was imposed without pilot testing or consultation with the populace. Its creation and implementation was undemocratic, to say the least, and states’ rights advocates were correct to point that out.

In its final paragraphs, the Editorial Board trots out the old scares, that the “United States will continue to lose ground” and that states are hiding “how dismal their schools actually are.” The final sentence says that we need “rigorous school systems that do better jobs of giving… citizens the skills they need.” Well, education isn’t a gift, but something students do for themselves in conjunction with the guidance teachers provide and the motivation sparked by parents, teachers and the community at large. All of the other stuff that the Editorial Board writes is meaningless when this is forgotten.

The entire editorial is magical thinking.

3 thoughts on “Magical Thinking on Education

  1. Aaron’s list of how to get good schools omits two items I think are crucial, but are almost never mentioned in discussions of educational reform: academic freedom and shared governance. That is, if we believe that academic freedom makes college education better, the same should be true for K-12 education. If we give teachers more freedom to run their classrooms, choose their books, and speak their minds, we will be have better schools and recruit (and retain) better teachers. Likewise, instead of the superhero principal model that dominates stories about education reform, we need to have more shared governance in K-12 schools to improve quality. And the best thing about academic freedom and shared governance is that they’re free. Budget cuts aren’t a valid excuse for denying academic freedom and shared governance to K-12 teachers, and I think we ought to start making them part of the education reform conversation.

  2. Thinking that all, including those suggested here for the schools is not also magical thinking is dreaming in color. It is what one person has called “single loop thinking”. Education is imbedded in a much larger system. Extracting the schools from the system is possible only in a laboratory. Here all parts move in anon linear fashion.

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