Education Reform: Tragedy and Farce

Who has spent a good portion of their childhood in a classroom and been able to shake the queasy feeling that comes from reading Charles Dickens’ introduction of Sir Thomas Gradgrind in his novel “Hard Times”? The name Gradgrind says it all, the perfect stern, lifeless image bored kids visualize about their teachers. Here is how Dickens describes the dreary ultra-rationalist utilitarian:

A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four and nothing over. Thomas Gradgrind, Sir- peremptorily Thomas- Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket. Sir, ready to weight and measure any parcel of human nature and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, case of simple arithmetic.

It’s hard to fathom that the banal philosophy of such a universally mocked caricature from Victorian times would make a strong resurgence over a century later. Yet just like neoliberalism, another Victorian leftover, this ideological brand has achieved bi-partisan support, near pundit consensus, and billionaire backing. Substitute test scores for ‘facts’ and Bill Gates or Joel Klein for Gradgrind and we have an almost perfect match for what passes for educational philosophy and reform these days.

It was Joel Klein, former schools chancellor of New York City credited with implementing major changes such as opening over 100 charter schools and pushing for teacher merit pay, writing in the June issue of  The Atlantic regarding criticism that reformers like himself ought to be more collaborative with existing education structures, who said “Collaboration is the elixir of the em>status-quo crowd.” The essay was the expected paean to the usual buzzwords like accountability, choice, union obstructionism, and test scores.

Test scores are sacrosanct, particularly in the aftermath of Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB),  enthusiastically passed by both parties in 2001. The bill mandated schools improve test scores in reading and math in grammar schools (third grade through eighth grade) or risk closure in five years. It left it up to individual states to create their own tests and determine relevant curriculums.

However, an editorial on the normally reactionary NY Daily News op-ed page on June 14th succinctly explained the obvious pitfall of NCLB. It turns out that after eight years of Klein’s stewardship (along with billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg) 80% of the graduates of New York City’s public high schools are not ready for college or successful careers. This according to the state’s Education Department. The News puts it:

After steadily climbing over the past nine years, the proportion of city students graduating in four years hit 61%, or 65% counting August completions. That used to reason to cheer. No more. Now additional statistics are cause for alarm…In other words, standards were so dumbed down that vast swaths of the school system were offering only a pretense of a quality education…The rising graduation rate of city high schools is of little consolation when most of the diplomas are barely worth the paper they’re printed on

Things don’t seem to be much better nationally on that front. On the same day as the Daily News op-ed, the New York Times and other news organizations reported that only 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors who took the latest National Assessment Exam demonstrated proficiency in history (for example, only two percent of high school seniors correctly answered a question about Brown v Board of Education); the study of history, while perhaps being valuable in itself and critically important for an educated citizenry, not being reading or math and therefore overlooked by NCLB test cramming.

Then, of course, there is Michelle Rhee, the glamour girl for free-market education whose picture has glazed the cover of just about every weekly news magazine during her three year tenor as chancellor of DC public schools. Rhee became a hero to conservatives and libertarians for closing schools, firing dozens of principals, over 200 teachers, and managing a teachers’ contract that leans towards merit pay. Worship of Rhee went so far that during the 2008 election Obama and McCain pathetically duked it out over who was closer to Rhee’s opinion about vouchers.

However, she was all but forced to resign after incumbent mayor Adrian Fenty lost his re-election bid in a contest that was billed as a referendum on Rhee’s running of the city’s school system. Not long after revelations emerged that recent state tests in several DC schools contained an exorbitant amount of erasures that changed wrong answers to correct ones. For example, the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, touted by Rhee as a prime example of getting results since the percentage of students who achieved proficiency on DC tests jumped from 10 percent to 58 percent in just two years. The principal and teachers were showered with bonuses while computer analysis of erasures in one 7th grade class showed that students averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures in a reading test, compared to less than 1 average for the whole district; a very likely case of teachers under pressure from an unreasonably demanding boss and with economic incentive to take matters in their own hands, a trend that would figure to show up again elsewhere.

It is an easy truism that when simplistic numbers become the end-all corruption is an inevitable result. Thus, this is what the education revolutionaries have sowed: dumbed-down standards, narrow curriculums, meaningless test drilling, and union busting. Yet this shallow revolution is backed by deep pockets, mainly the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, by far the largest foundation in the U.S., six times wealthier than the next largest, and the Walton Family Foundation (according to the foundation’s website it’s ‘more focused than ever on sustaining the Walton’s timeless small-town values’). Through large grants to cash strapped states, dependent on such stipulations as not granting teacher tenure in less than three years and ‘ensuring successful conditions for high performing charter schools and other innovative schools’, large donations to both political parties, and hundreds of millions of dollars in media advocacy (including Gates sponsoring the documentary Waiting for Superman), big money philanthropists have been able to shape the education debate and be fawned upon by the national media. Indeed one study cited by Frederick Hess in With the Best of Intentions: How Philanthropy is Reshaping K-12 Education revealed that from 1995-2005 there were thirteen positive articles about education initiatives of major foundations for every single negative one in national news outlets.

Still all is not yet lost. For all the hyped despair about U.S. students falling behind their international counterparts this claim can be put into context. Joann Barkan, writing in Dissent Magazine (“Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools”), cites the results of two of the three major international tests- the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and the Trends in International Math and Science Study. Both are given every five years. She explains the results:

The most recent results (2006) showed the following: students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent rankedfirst in reading, first in science, and third in math. When the poverty ratewas 10 to 25 percent, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate rose higher still, students ranked lower and lower. Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. The average ranking of American students reflects this. The problem is not public schools; it is poverty.

It is the poverty rate, along with the incarceration rate, that has long separated the U.S. from other industrial countries. Mechanized test prepping, schools closing, and cheapened diplomas won’t make a dent in either, that self-reinforcing loop, in the absence of real reform and commitment to communities as a whole, figures only keep on churning.

Joseph Grosso is a writer and librarian in New York City and is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York Read other articles by Joseph.