How Did We Get Here? (Final)
About five years ago I wrote and published an article entitle “Nos Censuimos Igitur Essemus—We Thought Therefore We Were.” In that article, I explain the history of the American public education system and how the issues citizens decry evolved over time from America’s founding. I decided to post it in excerpts and to change none of the original language or tone. At the time, I had experienced public and charter school environments and was highly discouraged by the lack of care or consideration given to the learning/teaching process. While my verbiage has become far less combative, my sentiments remain unchanged.
The concept of holding professionals accountable for doing their prescribed duties (a novel ideal: expecting someone to do their job) shifted into a political ideology with the revision of the previous version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. Again, like most policy, NCLB in and of itself is a debatably benign factor; if we consider its jargon independent of the movements to which it lends legal credence. Naturally, being a federal law, it is extremely vague and ambiguous in its description of what districts and schools should be doing. It mostly enumerates the processes by which funding and incentives will be granted if the policies and ideological rhetoric are unilaterally adopted and implemented. As usual, evil is perpetrated in the interpretation and implementation of the law, not the law itself. Suffice it to say, the major consequence of NCLB is the ease and facility with which it enables the Accountability and Choice movements.
Even one of the initial champions of NCLB, Diane Ravitch, has backpedaled—after reexamining the rationale and logic her and her colleagues' offered in support of the statutes—for reasons and concerns that she enumerates in her book Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010). She explains her reason for changing her views to be, simply:
I have a right to change my mind. ...When someone chastised John Maynard Keynes for reversing himself about a particular economic policy he had previously endorsed, he replied "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" This comment may or may not be apocryphal, but I admire the thought behind it" (p. 2).
When a man or woman is a true academic, they draw conclusions based on the evidence before them even if they do not like or agree with what it represents or reflects.
Upon review and reflection of her former platform, Ravitch concedes:
I grew increasingly disaffected from both the choice movement and the accountability movement. I was beginning to see the downside of both and to understand that they were not solutions to our educational dilemmas. As I watched both movements gain momentum across the nation, I concluded that curriculum and instruction were far more important than choice and accountability. I feared that choice would let thousands of flowers bloom but would not strengthen American education. It might even harm public schools by removing the best students from schools in the poorest neighborhoods. I was also concerned that accountability, now a shibboleth that everyone applauds, had become mechanistic and even antithetical to good education [Are you listening, Ms. Rhee?]. Testing, I realized with dismay, had become a central preoccupation in the schools and was not just a measure but an end in itself. I came to believe that accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools as states and districts strived to meet unrealistic targets (pp.12-13).
Although long, this is a fairly comprehensive list of valid reasons people have to proffer in criticism of NCLB as interpreted and implemented. Thankfully, a small cadre of true scholars, following in Ms. Ravitch’s righteous footsteps, are reopening their eyes and breaking from the hypnotic but myopic rhetoric of the ignoble and ignorant bleeding-heart leftist. (As biased and prejudicial as this may sound, it is more a reflection of the disappointment with people who have perfectly functional brains and staunchly refuse to observe life without their ideological goggles and debunk or criticize any truth before them that does not vibe with their personal sentiments.)
Ms. Ravitch lends voice to reason and offers her misguided colleagues a plan to reclaim their dignity and revise their current policies—crimes against the American classroom. She explains that, despite her initial support:
as NCLB was implemented, I became increasingly disillusioned. I came to realize that the law bypassed curriculum and standards. Although its supporters often claimed it was a natural outgrowth of the standards movement, it was not. It demanded that schools generate higher test scores in basic skills, but it required no curriculum at all, nor did it raise standards. ...Tests should follow the curriculum. They should be based on the curriculum. They should not follow it or precede it. Students need a coherent foundation of knowledge and skills that grows stronger each year. Knowledge and skills are both important, as is learning to think, debate, and question. A well-educated person has a well-furnished mind, shaped by reading and thinking about history, science, literature, the arts, [the arts, the arts,] and politics. The well-educated person has learned how to explain ideas and listen respectfully to others (pp. 15-16).
No argument here.
The major dysfunction with the interpretation of NCLB lies in its verbiage. It stokes the fire and provides political ammunition for the advocates and supporters of the Choice movement. These activists saturate our neediest school districts, urban and rural, with ineffectual charter schools owned and operated by community outsiders often with little connection to the community and negligible classroom experience. However, this is not a criticism of all charter schools, just the movement that has inspired the plundering of our public schools to build equally, if not more, ill-reputable edifices of intellectual lethargy and academic spoon-feeding.
Charter schools existed before the Choice movement. The first on record opened in Minnesota in 1991 when a group of reasonably concerned parents convinced their local government to issue a charter for a privately owned and operated public K-12 institution. This event, while generally unknown by the average citizen, must have received some press because the inaugural KIPP charter school opened in Austin (arguably the most liberal city in the great state of Texas) in 1995. KIPP, along with many other national charter school organizations, have received copious press lauding their "successes and gains" with their poor inner-city clients. However, honest research is finally being published by qualified empiricists, as opposed to idealistic doctrinaires, who are drawing differing conclusions as they properly analyze appropriately collected and disaggregated data.
Based on their conclusions, it seems we have allowed the Choice movement to take us backward in time. It appears, based on the statistics, that segregation is, once again, rearing its ugly head. Hence, this period in time can be aptly qualified as “Neo-Modernism.” Vasquez, Williams, McNeil, and Lee (2011) state in their peer reviewed article, Is Choice a Panacea? An Analysis of Black Secondary Student Attrition from KIPP, Other Private Charters, and Urban Districts, that "extant literature has demonstrated that charter schools are increasing segregation" (p. 158). They cite that:
Garcia (2008) noted the national overrepresentation of Black and Latina/o students in charter networks such as KIPP, many of who come from low-SES, urban backgrounds. In fact, recent studies have found that charter schools across the nation are more segregated than comparable local districts (Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, & Wang, 2011; Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Tornquist, 2010) (p.158).
So, we are rewarding and applauding the current social movements for essentially returning the public education system to the status quo of the 1950s and 60s while they hypocritically exhort that all students, regardless of race, class, gender, and ability, are entitled to a "free, appropriate public education." (I cannot speak for all. However, I am positive that many would agree that segregation of any kind is in direct contradiction to the messages of inclusion preached and averred by Choice supporters all over the political landscape.) These are the facts. But here we the people, supposedly in support of freedom and justice, stand silent.
In keeping with the themes of exclusion and results "by any means necessary," Vasquez et al. (2011) also point out that, despite the lack of honest data and evidence "some have praised charter schools as open-access and an extension of democracy, while others have argued that charter schools often serve fewer students with special education needs or English Language Learners (Lacireno-Paquet, Holyoke, Moser, & Henig, 2002)." Again, school statistics highlight that charter schools’ standards of practice yield further evidence that the Choice movement is diametrically opposed to its predecessors: the Labor, Civil Rights, Women's and Deinstitutionalization movements.
Unbelievable? Well, "nationally, Miron et al. (2011) found that KIPP schools enrolled fewer students with disabilities than their local school districts" (p.158). This does not mean that they do not serve lower performing students (mostly because there is a lot of federal funding provided for the education of students with disabilities despite the fact that a larger population of them negatively impacts desperately important standardized achievement scores). However, "critics have argued that KIPP 'backfills' their grades with high-achieving students as low-achieving students leave—thus producing illusory achievement success noted in the SRI study (Kahlenberg, 2011)" (p. 159). As a successful teacher with experience in non-profit educational organizations and public, private, and charter schools from the Hawaiian Islands to Washington, DC, this author can state from first-hand experience that these unethical practices are not only widespread but emphatically supported by politicians, pundits, reformers, and administrators at every level of influence in the public educational sector.
When challenged, these "reformers'" ace-in-the-whole defense of their policies is yet another piece of intriguing, but fallacious, rhetoric—the infamous "achievement gap." This phrase describes the phenomenon where, after standardized achievement test data is disaggregated and compared within regions, it is apparent that minority students achieve lower scores than their majority counterparts. Once again: post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Have we forgotten the major issues with standardized testing in public schools?
The first issue is that the public does not really understand standardized tests. Ms. Ravitch (2010) explains the issues using standardized test data to guide instructional practice:
The problem with using tests to make important decisions [or draw conclusions] about people's lives is that standardized tests are not precise instruments. Unfortunately, most elected officials do not realize this, nor does the general public. The public thinks the tests have scientific validity, like that of a thermometer or a barometer, and that they are objective, not tainted by fallible human judgment. But test scores are not comparable to standard weights and measures; they do not have the precision of a doctor's scale or a yardstick. Tests vary in their quality, and even the best tests may sometimes be error-prone, because of human mistakes or technical foul-ups. Hardly a testing season passes without a news story about a goof made by a major testing company. Sometimes questions are poorly worded. Sometimes the answers are wrongly scored. Sometimes the supposedly "right" answer to a question is wrong or ambiguous. Sometimes two of four answers on a multiple-choice question are equally correct (p. 152).
Nonetheless, movement supporters want us to accept their theory of an “achievement gap” based on the results and conclusions of unreliable and invalid measurements that yield data that is also (duh) unreliable and invalid.
It has also never been declared, in public forum, that despite the fact that while historically minorities have scored lower on tests designed for them to score low in the first place, they have managed to make major achievements and continue to do so every day. For example: Hundreds of HBCUs arose from the dust of slavery and segregation and matriculated scholar after scholar who challenged and changed the status quo of this nation every generation since. Likewise, over the last two decades the number of new Black and minority millionaires has risen to record highs. But we have an achievement gap?
We do not have an achievement gap, we have an "acknowledgement gap." Perhaps we should acknowledge the achievements minorities make in this country every day, and have made from the meager beginnings of America. For many inner-city youth, it is an achievement if they make it to school and back home safely because statistics imply that they should have been dead years ago. Maybe we should truly accept and study our complete American history and not relegate Slavery, the Suffragettes, and the Civil Rights and Deinstitutionalization Movements to nothing more than footnotes in social studies textbooks. Perhaps we should fully acknowledge the social and political ramifications that have prevented our public education system from ever living up to or meeting its potential.
We are taking the wrong approach. We cannot make public education great by focusing on past glory that does not exist. We need to look forward.
Down the timeline, we the people have consistently elected and re-elected legislators and policymakers who adopted and supported a radically liberal social agenda. This agenda has undermined every element that composes effectual public education and sold American scholarship for a healthy serving of plenary indulgences and empty rhetoric. The guiding rhetoric of the educational policies enacted in the last five decades has bartered away instruction for ideology, product for presentation, aptitude for ambition, ethics for entitlements, standards for symbols, order for option, and knowledge for nothing.
Our government established a public education system by the people, for the people, and we the people, through our intellectual lethargy, have allowed it to descend into ill-repute. We holler for reform, but ignore or transform the facts and propagate fallacies to shift blame, spare egos, vilify heroes, and exalt mediocrity to assuage our desire to get as much as we can with the smallest possible amount of mental or financial expenditure. People cry foul when they feel their civil liberties are in jeopardy, but profusely refuse to perform their civic duties (e.g. voting and paying taxes) in staggeringly high numbers. We accept every proffered excuse for disinterested and ill-mannered students and staff. Discipline is all but outlawed because almost every strategy we could use to establish and maintain order is practically criminal. Consequently, while other countries that impress in their citizens from birth the value of pure and thoughtful scholarly pursuits blitz forward and trail-blaze exciting and innovative academic avenues, America has made so few gains in the last few decades that we have unofficially renamed ourselves the United Stagnates of America.
We the people have elected and re-elected policymakers, with no teaching or practical educational experience aside from their own personal K-12 and/or college experiences, and actually tasked them to legislate the act of thinking out of public school policy and regulations. Teachers who dare require that their students use their own minds to solve their own problems in their efforts to reach their own social and academic goals are reprimanded and subjugated. They could also be subjected to political tactics that disenchant them and cause them to deign to do the work they love—teach and educate America's children and prepare them to be competitive on the world stage. We have revised the American intelligentsia’s internalization of the Latin moral cogito ergo sum, posited by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau meaning "I think, therefore I am," to Nos Censuimus Igitur Essemus, meaning "We thought, therefore we were." When we began to legislate against the exercise of critical thought and self-reliance, through excessive and poorly thought out entitlement and incentive programs, we inadvertently created generations of non-thinkers and non-starters with the disease we refer to as learned helplessness. As such, they have spent generations proliferating and degrading the quality of the American scholar, and thus, American scholarship.
Consequently, the systemic failures of American public education can only be attributed to the gross negligence of the American public. We the people have failed to respond to, adopt, or adapt: (1) a realistic philosophy and (2) a respect for wisdom. Administrators impose "modern" empirical trends to treat the symptoms not fix the sources of the problems that have taken generations to develop and will take generations to resolve. School reformers are endeavoring to revolutionize and "reform” an imaginary national system. They focus their attention on procuring and retaining professionals who are (usually) knowledgeable of pedagogy and content. However, most severely lack the social and emotional intelligence to develop and maintain the relationships and therapeutic milieus necessary to effectuate student academic and personal achievement beyond general knowledge of assessment content and criteria.
Adopting or adapting a realistic philosophy is not a neoteric idea or concept. It is yet another “Inconvenient Truth” that Americans have been unwilling to accept and politicians and protagonists are, thus, less likely to explicate or even exploit. There are only a few pure academicians who have attempted to contribute to an honest dialogue, rooted in realistic and logical thinking, who are concerned with honestly and carefully raising the educational expectations of our children. Thankfully, there are a few dissentient, often disparaged, theorists and practitioners who will not be quieted by popular opinion or fallacious obloquy. Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve and other honest conversation starters, bluntly states in his book Real Education (2008) that:
The [American] educational system is living a lie[:]…that every child can be anything he or she wants to be. No one believes it, but we approach education’s problems as if we did. We are phobic about saying out loud that children differ in their ability to learn the things that schools teach. Not only do we hate to say it, we get angry with people who do. …We have idealized images of the potential that children bring to the classroom and of our ability to realize that potential. When the facts get in the way, we ignore them (pp. 11 & 13).
For years, the public has often, mistakenly, beseeched the Federal Government for solutions (most often in the form of monetary funding). However, we should be reaching out to the bureaucracy that has the most lasting impact on, and greatest investment in, the education of America's children—the local citizenry. The local community is the American child’s first line of contact and communication with American social, economic, political, and cultural schema. To further the American students’ potential, parents, teachers, businessmen, neighbors, etc. need to fully participate in and contribute to, in accordance with their respective roles and responsibilities, the complete education of all children and not look to one group or entity to do the whole job with only lip service and moral support.
Ironically, the very quality that makes America great is the very one ignored when we implement educational reform policies and agendas: America is diverse—a “melting pot,” if you will. Each geographic region, state, county, and district is only mildly relatable to another. Nevertheless, politicians, non-profit organizations, and well-intentioned but naive philanthropists continuously attempt to collect, disaggregate, and compare invalid and unreliable standardized test data across regions with unlike demographics. Then they use the "results" to draw fallacious conclusions, inaccurate inferences, and make misguided decisions about teaching and learning in the American classroom. No consideration is given to the effects of the periods of time spent outside the classroom. There is no federal legislation regarding the accountability of the parent, student, or community for the education of their own children. Most legislative policies and rhetoric imply that the public school system (and not the public) is unilaterally responsible for our children's lack of achievement.
The purpose of this diatribe is to get the American people to“wake up and listen to and heed history and wisdom.” Dissent, appropriately and necessarily, toensure that qualified educators employ apodictic strategies that have stood the greatest test—time—to effectively reach and teach our children. Eschew the pompous histrionics of the jejune doctrinaires allowed to run amok and wreak havoc in America's classrooms and thus on America’s future. Let teachers teach. Use books for more than paperweights and minds and mouths for more than myopic regurgitation of quotidian rhetoric. Let teachers teach. Exemplify the meaning of philosophy and seek the love of wisdom. Rousseau wisely declared that “the teacher’s art consists in this: To turn the child’s attention from trivial details and to guide his thoughts continually towards relations of importance which he will one day need to know, that he may judge rightly of good and evil in society.” Real teaching is art. Real learning is science. America: expect the teachers to teach and the students to learn. Wake up and revive the spirit that believed that all are entitled to the ideals of freedom and equality and rejuvenate and reengineer the greatness that was, and could be again, the American scholar.
©2017 Kevin J. Quail, II. All rights reserved
Kevin J. Quail, II is an experienced, certified Special Educator and Advocate. For over a decade, he has worked as a direct hire and independent contractor in public, private, and charter K-12 as well as college school environments in various capacities, including: Test Prep teacher, IB Librarian/Media Specialist, Tutor, Substitute, ESL teacher, Humanities/College Prep teacher, English, and GED prep teacher. He currently works as an independent research-practitioner and service provider serving in both the Honolulu and Washington, DC metropolitan areas to provide tutoring, homeschool support, test preparation, substitute teaching, special education services, curriculum design, advocacy, professional development and coaching for students, parents, schools, and other independent educators.