Look Both Ways

One should feel gratified to look back on the departure of Bunkin’ Duncan from the Department of Education and the seeming death of No Child Left Behind, except for the persistent sinking feeling that nothing has really changed. Duncan’s replacement John King Jr. sounds as if he supports the same kinds of things Duncan did. As for NCLB: its successor act, a kind of zombie bill called Every Student Succeeds[1], seems to keep it all too, except that it de-federalizes enforcement. We may expect it to prove that bad ideas, bad policies, bad implementation and bad ‘measurement’ lead to bad results at the state level just as they did at the federal level. So much for looking back. What lies ahead?

The US will continue to have two-tier education. The first tier will comprise successful primary and secondary schools full of motivated pupils and the universities they ‘feed’. The second tier will have lots of Potemkin villages of ‘learning’ filled with disaffected desultory ‘students’ who learn little at any level—primary, secondary, or tertiary—and for whom ‘failure is not an option’ only because true education is not an option.  Though exceptions like Oakland Technical High School’s Paideia Program and New Orleans’s Xavier University will continue to be first-tier, they will prove the rule that for poor students or students of color the options are comparatively unattractive.

The US will continue to have a two-tier culture of teaching and learning. In the first tier will be those who live in places like Massachusetts with its remnant of Puritan respect for education[2], or who come from personal and family circumstances advantageous to students and from places like East and South Asia, where education remains a prized and respected attainment worth working hard for. The second tier includes the substrate analyzed by Richard Hofstadter in Anti-intellectualism in American Life, but it includes more as well. I mean the large population who while not harboring an animus against education, do not get to experience education at its best and do not particularly want to try it. They are likely to think that the Homework Lady is rigorous in her demands. Wait till they meet the Boss, assuming they can find work in the global economy.

The states will be no more successful implementing ‘value’-‘added’ ‘learning’ under ESS than was the federal government under NCLB and RAT. It is not that states are necessarily as bad as the feds at doing education administration. Massachusetts proves otherwise. It is that no one can implement VAL because it is based on something that does not exist. Worse, it operates like a chance mechanism, a stochastic process, a roll of the dice.

The Sirens of Online Learning will continue to make mischief, and many poor souls will listen. These postings have included many explanations why OLL is a second-rate alternative to live education, so let me just present the latest, which came out this week. It is a study showing that old-fashioned toys are better for babies’ language acquisition than bells & whistles are because they leave it more likely that the parents will interact with the babies. Human interaction is a key to education at all levels from infancy to adulthood, and OLL is just a gimmicked-up version of letting the gadget do the baby-sitting. But it is cheap, and it is seductive: just think: no more salary bills or pesky persons.

Nothing important will be done to put a stop to scandalously bad teacher education, nor will anything important be done to keep school administration out of the hands of incompetents or monsters of the deep. It is well known that some teachers’ colleges graduate teachers who are less knowledgeable than suburban high-school students. It is less well known that teachers as a profession are dead last in rating their work environment and their relations with their supervisors.

Teaching will be a less popular professional career option and will attract fewer bright prospects. The 24% average annual teacher turnover rate in charter schools suggests that they will have to keep manning the shovels at full steam to stay open. (Someone should man the personnel department instead.) Public schools don’t do much better. And if lessons continue a trend to make them idiot-proof, it won’t be long before only idiots will give those lessons. And then there is always that Stalinist principal[3]. We know that places like Wisconsin are making it harder for teaching to be attractive. It is appalling to think that all these averages and general statistics include schools that are very good, which means that like the Little Girl with the Little Curl, when they’re bad they’re horrid. Bright young people may do charitable turns, but except at the good schools they won’t stay. Why should they? Baloney like DoE’s TEACH ad campaign won’t make a difference. Some schools and districts will attract more clever new teachers than they know what to do with, and the others will not. It is sad to think that even with its demonstrable second-ratedness, online learning may become more popular just to (try and) fill the gaps in humanity.

[1] Too bad it wasn’t called All Students Succeed.

[2] The Boston Latin School, a public school founded in 1635, comes to mind. All students are still required to take Latin and to declaim publicly in English or another language. There are five applicants for every place.

[3] Unlike in Finland, where bright teachers are taught and then trusted. The linked article in Smithsonian magazine is worth reading from end to end.

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