Four days ago, I wrote a Blog of Despair—all about the forthcoming demise (or destruction, take your pick) of America’s best idea: public education. I’m not backing down from that conviction; I think the more or less permanent downfall of public schooling is inescapable, unless there are major, sudden shifts in public and political opinion.
One of my former students, now a mother with two school-aged boys, commented on the blog: If we could start over and build education from scratch, what would it look like?
First—I have to admit that I’m proud of Kendra for asking the kind of question that doctoral students at research universities have been noodling over (without transformational results) since forever.
While there are optimistic legislative packages and snazzy new tools, most real change in education feels sluggish, rather random and exceedingly difficult to analyze. The idea of starting from scratch lies under most reform—charter schools were originally touted as a way to get rid of red tape and innovate. (Pause for cynical laughter.)
The thing is: transformational change involves determination and investment. It’s uncomfortable, expensive—and it takes time. Most change in public schools is driven by forces—financial, technical, social—outside of education. We’re not very visionary or intentional about education.
Education policy thinkers tend to be Stephen Covey-esque in the upbeat, step-wise way they approach change: anticipate, arrange, administer and assess. That’s how we got No Child Left Behind, which was supposed to be the Grand Strategy to identify inequities, raise and equalize standards (a word meaning different things to different stakeholders), harass teachers into somehow teaching better, and then test diligently to ensure accountability.
But– no plan on such a scale succeeds unquestionably. NCLB may have changed the tenor of the conversation, but over two decades of No Child, in various incarnations, have come and gone– and we’re still considering why the results are proof that you can spend billions and not improve education in any meaningful way.
I have been a teacher in five distinct decades, each with its own policy slogans, public perceptions and real problems. We’ve been “at a turning point” more times than I can count. We have surfed the rising tide of mediocrity and been embarrassed by the soft bigotry of our low expectations. But what has really changed in classrooms? What’s the net impact on actual practice?
My–admittedly ultra-personal and non-scientific–report on Five Decades of American Education:
The Seventies: Got my first full-time, regular-paycheck teaching job in 1975–something of a miracle, as there was a teacher glut in Michigan. Was hired because the principal needed someone right away and we were on the same humor wavelength in the interview.
Soon learned that there was no district curriculum for music or any other subjects. Chose my own teaching materials from catalogs–wasn’t that a curriculum? Taught whatever and however I wanted–no instructional oversight, no mandated materials and nothing resembling “professional development.”
Heard “don’t smile until Christmas” about 50 times from other teachers, sum total of any “mentoring” I got. Saw teachers smack kids (still permitted by law)–and heard lots of lounge talk about chaos that would happen if the right to paddle was taken away.
I was pink-slipped in Years Two, Three, Four and Six. Was always called back–once because of a lawsuit, after registering for unemployment. All of this was tied to precarious, locally voted school funding.
Gave statewide tests–the MEAPs, then a basic-skills check–but nobody considered them a big deal. Was happy that Jimmy Carter instituted a cabinet position for education–about time! Had a few friends who taught in Detroit–envied their superior facilities, resources and paychecks. Teaching seemed like a fulfilling, creative, and very autonomous job. Most days, it was lots of fun.
The Eighties: Economic downturn in the early 80s meant further pink-slipping and annual changes of building/teaching assignment necessitated by constant personnel shifts. Had daily loads of up to 400 students in two buildings and–since any certified MI teacher could teach any subject to 7th and 8th graders–a year of teaching math. All of this change was oddly invigorating, if exhausting.
Finished a masters degree in Gifted Education, a popular cafeteria-style ed specialty (like Career Ed, Distance Learning, etc.). Got serious about teaching. Read many books, took fake sick days to observe admired teachers in other districts. Sought leadership roles in Music Ed organizations. Downright hungry for professional conversations.
None of this was required, encouraged or even noticed by the district, which did institute its own curriculum benchmarks in the 80s. Teachers called these curriculum guides “the black notebooks.” Problem: not enough time, staff or resources to teach all the good things in the black notebooks.
Reagan’s release of “A Nation at Risk” interpreted by colleagues as rhetorical excess and unionized-teacher bashing, an imperialistic extension of right-wing momentum gained in the air traffic controllers’ strike. Hoped it would blow over, but having to listen to Bill Bennett’s nostalgic morality fables was nauseating. Still giving the MEAPs, which got harder in the 80s. Took leadership roles in the union–since they were the only teacher leadership roles available.
The Nineties: Decade opens with some optimism. H.W. Bush’s Goals 2000 are kind of inane–First in the world in math and science! –but there’s the sense that policymakers are paying attention, and the belief that public education can and should improve.
Visit Detroit, shocked to see decayed and racially polarized schools–what happened in the last 15 years? Outstate Michigan residents, tired of seeing wealthy suburban schools funded at four times the rate of rural and urban-rust schools, pass a funding bill to get rid of property taxes as source, using sales tax instead. Outstate schools ecstatic as times are flush–auto industry will last forever!
Real and substantive school improvement begins to impact daily practice. There are national standards and benchmarks in most subjects, and teacher committees to update, align, discuss. Required mentoring for new colleagues. Performance assessments, and portfolios of student work. Required professional learning as opposed to blow-off in-service days, although the quality is still iffy.
Further upgrades in the MEAPs, including hands-on tasks for kids, new constructivist tests for science, social studies and writing. Better assessments begin to drive instruction. New teacher hiring done by colleagues. Plus–fab new instructional toy arrives in classrooms: the computer, full of infinite possibilities for teaching and learning. Some teachers begin experimenting immediately; others are intimidated.
Best Secretary of Education ever–Dick Riley–provides eight years of continuity of purpose and coherent policy. Education is still a local-control thing; Feds just there to ensure equity, promote innovation. National certification identifying accomplished teaching becomes reality. Next stop: real leadership roles for exemplary teachers, whose expertise will help policymakers solve problems. Nagging worry: all of this still takes money–and a growing number of poor kids are still completely underserved.
The Naughts: A slow U-turn in policy and conventional wisdom. We’re not gradually improving, after all–in fact, we’re an international educational joke. All public schools (not just poor/urban schools) are bad. Decidedly awful–and the people who work and believe in them are intellectual dimbulbs who care only about their inflated salaries. How would they handle this in Singapore? China? India? We must compete!
Buzzword of the decade: data. Every person with a computer sees data analysis as the solution. In the lunchroom, colleagues express skepticism about the Texas Miracle even before it’s exposed as just another Data Hustle. Some of the best teachers in the building discover they are not Highly Qualified. Meanwhile, the worst teachers in the building–genuine stinkers–look good under NCLB regs.
We begin administering tests to third graders–and relinquish development of performance assessments that tell us real things about kids’ writing, number sense, comprehension, familiarity with the scientific method. No time for that now–the data-driven race to the top has begun even before it’s formally named.
Saw well-regarded suburban districts become defensive and start advertising as schools of choice. Urban and rural districts were shamed. Teacher preparation institutions–even the good ones– scorned. Paradox of the decade: We must have the smartest teachers! But should they bother studying the science of teaching? Or stay in the classroom for more than a couple of years? No. With data, we can replace teachers as often and as efficiently as we replace technologies.
The Twenty-Tens: The decade begins with the depressing realization that the Obama administration has fully bought into the privatizing, standardizing “accountability” movement, where no child can go untested. There are tweaks to NCLB, but the idea that we can accurately measure teaching/learning excellence through data becomes embedded wisdom. Federal policy demands grow—and competitive financial incentives are dangled in front of states to meet questionable regulatory goals that do little to innovate or improve schools.
The Common Core State (sic) Standards are launched, adopted, fleshed out with assessments and aligned instructional materials during the first half of the decade. Teachers have lots of complaints, but are knocked down by the big systemic wave of federally-driven homogenization. Mid-decade, however, community pushback against the Common Core strengthens—another silver bullet with no results—and its trajectory rapidly descends. Baby Boomer teachers, like me, the core of the profession (for better and worse), leave the field; the conventional teacher pipeline begins to dry up, along with the concept of teacher professionalism.
Now retired, I visit classrooms every week, as substitute, volunteer, special instructor or teacher coach. Every school I visit still looks and feels familiar—the crowded hallways, the marginal hot-lunch pizza, the goofy Things Kids Say. Things have changed since the 1970s, and not for the better, but school is still school.
And then, there’s an election.
The day after the 2016 election, a group of middle schoolers in Royal Oak, Michigan is videotaped shouting ‘Build That Wall!’ to a cluster of Hispanic kids, in the lunchroom. Four years of destroying useful education policy and practice ensue, led by a cartoonishly incompetent Education Secretary and newly emboldened, racist policy-makers. Things in public education go from bad to So Much Worse.
And then came the pandemic.
In April of 2020, I wrote a wildly optimistic blog titled A Dozen Good Things that Could (Just Maybe) Happen as a Result of this Pandemic. I mention this, because I have often, like Kendra, asked myself how I would change public education, if I could start from scratch. I genuinely believed that a pandemic could serve as a cleared slate, a turning point, for our social institutions. Maybe it’s too early to give up on that idea—a reclamation of public education’s mission—but I’m not optimistic.
I would sketch the last 50 years of public education as a bobbling, but slowly rising curve through the 70s, 80s and 90s, with a downturn at Y2K, falling gradually until the last five years, after which the line plummets due south, rapidly. Way south.
A long, strange trip indeed.