06 March 2011

The Big Lies (Part One)

George Orwell knew of what he wrote. The first step in the destruction of democracy is the destruction of language, the twisting of language in the service of disinformation. Today, the language around public education is deep in "newspeak," and it is time to challenge "the Big Lies." Here's Part One.

Competition is good for education

America is built on capitalism, so the story goes, and capitalism is built on competition. And, of course, our creativity and invention is born of capitalist competition. Thus, our educational system needs competition to improve.

Except. Wait. First, despite what we Americans are taught in our national myths, some Socialist nations succeed quite well. Germany is a close second to China in global exporting with the world's highest wages, strongest unions, with limits on executive pay, with required union participation on corporate boards, with universal health insurance, with state ownership stakes in many large businesses. And somehow, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler-Benz, Siemens, et al all seem like pretty creative companies.

Second, many of America's great achievements come from quite non-competitive government-sponsored efforts, from the Erie Canal (built by New York State), to the Trans-Continental Railroad (a Lincoln Administration government funded monopoly effort), to the development of computers (Bell Labs as part of a government protected monopoly), to the defense and space contracts which made America number one in aerospace capabilities.

Early New York State Democratic Party Socialism, the Erie Canal,
made the "upper Midwest" possible
But the biggest problem with this lie is not in the "D-student" misreading of history and/or economics, it is in the bizarre acceptance that education, or health care, or fire protection, or police protection, is somehow "like a business."

You know that "demand curve" from Econ 101? What happens when the demand is pegged at 100% of the market, and must remain there for the basic health of society?

Apple Corporation can get rich with 5% of the market. Microsoft survives and does quite well even if a product or two flop badly, like Internet Explorer or Windows Mobile. FoxNews still makes a ton of money despite a peak viewership equal to less than 1% of the population (advertisers will pay a lot to reach the kind of consumer which uncritically accepts FoxNews type arguments).

But our society needs fire protection for all. Otherwise the community is at risk for burning down. It needs police protection for all. Otherwise the chaos grows and spreads and engulfs the community. It needs individual health, or diseases spread. And it needs an agreed upon level of education for all, or some will need to carry the burden for the many, because we will not be maximizing our human potential.

So these are "100%" operations, and 100% operations are inefficient when they compete. Resources are poured into marketing and repetition - in my little community one "community" hospital built a new clinic across the street from where a "competing" "community" hospital had just built a new building. Down the road, three hospitals compete with new facilities along a new highway. Meanwhile, vast areas of all surrounding communities go unserved. As all across America, our "competitive" health care system chases the rich and insured and ignores the rest. The result is third-rate health outcomes and the highest possible cost.

So competition in education, by design, is intended to "leave children behind." Competition, by design, creates winners and losers. This is the dirty little secret of the "charter school advocates," that the goal is "good schools for some," just as we have "good health care for some," "good housing for some," and "good food for some."

But I, "we," want "education for all," and that requires not competition, but a collaborative system which re-distributes both resources and opportunities in a way which makes 'what matters' equally available to all.

So when people talk to you about "competition," ask them who gets to lose in that competitive environment. Then ask them why distributing resources equitably within public education wouldn't be better. Then ask them to send their children to whatever schools they advocate for other people's children.

Standardized testing is necessary to measure student achievement

Standardized testing is that "gold standard" of "accountability," but what is being measured by standardized testing?

Whose world is judged by a standardized test?
By definition, standardized testing measures compliance. This is why we evaluate our standardized statistics with the tools developed by Guinness to ensure that every batch of beer was identical.

In order to have a standardized test, you must have a single view of what something means - whether that is "what reading means," or "how a sentence is constructed," or whether physics is Newtonian or not. Not only that, you must have a single idea of what human development means at a fixed point.

What standardized testing measures is how a student complies with a fictional human "average" built according to the expectations of a societal elite (those who write and require the test).

Thus, when Barack Obama wants standardized testing, what he wants is for all the children in your classroom to be measured against his daughters at the same point in life. This sounds nice, a single standard, that "high expectations for all" newspeak phrase. But what it means is that your children - not born rich to two parents with doctorates from Ivy League schools, raised with multigenerational support and in small-class-size private schools - will never be able to catch up or keep up.

Measuring human growth and development is not like measuring the reproduction of a single prototype on an assembly line. It is a complex system of helping to figure out where a student is, and how to help them get where they are going.

And you can not do that with multiple choice questions, simplistically-scored essays, number two pencils, or bubble answer sheets.

Bill Gates, Jr. is a smart guy worth listening to

Bill Gates is a smart guy, no doubt about it, but we need to begin by understanding that his success is 75% birth situation, 20% luck, and maybe 5% accomplishment. Born rich, to a highly educated and highly connected family, Gates had every possible advantage, from private schools (unlike any he suggests for the poor), to a fully-paid seat at Harvard, to a dad who could link him to the highest echelons of the [then] world's largest computer company. He also had a brilliant partner in Paul Allen who (a) knew how to write code in ways Gates never knew, and (b) could track down a little program called QDOS and buy it cheap so the two could re-sell it and become very rich.

None of this makes Bill Gates a bad guy. There are lots of rich kids, obviously, who've done worse with big inheritances. But Gates is, essentially, a lucky guy who got rich off of turning in a purchased thesis. He then leveraged that well. I like many Microsoft products. I always have, even if they've often been clever copies of other people's work, from Windows (Mac OS), to Office (Smart from Innovative Software), to IE9 (Firefox), but Microsoft has never invented anything. They've never, not once, had "the big idea."
The integrated office suite did not begin with Microsoft
That says something about the leadership of the company. They are master marketers. They are good at watching the marketplace, but they are not original thinkers. So when Bill Gates, Jr. turns his eyes toward education, he resists real innovation as well, preferring to grab for ideas from among those he allows into his inner circle.

And like many of today's "corporate reformers," from Wendy Kopp to Michelle Rhee, the circle of "advisors" is the type of small echo chamber which rich kids are used to living in. The kind of people who convince them that "being born on third base means they hit a triple" to use the classic baseball metaphor. Worse, this echo chamber is filled with those who know how to sell to the rich - remember - Gates is not rich because he had a product the public wanted, he is rich because his father could link him to IBM executives - Kopp isn't famous because she had a great idea everyone wanted in on, she's famous because her parental connections could link her to rich people who found her childish missionary zeal useful - so Bill Gates, Jr. primarily listens to capitalists to have an agenda to sell him.

What this all means is that Bill Gates, Jr. is a rich guy, who's lived an incredibly isolated life, who has no actual knowledge of the public education system he discusses, nor knowledge of teaching in public schools, nor knowledge of the effort it takes to overcome the problems of being born poor or unlucky.

That's not a felony, but neither is it a reason to listen to anything he says outside of "how to run a large company."

- Ira Socol

next, Teach for America, Core Curriculum, Core Subjects


devans00 said...

Articles draws together a lot of good points I've been saying and reading about for years. You really hit the nail on the head in what bothers me about the whole voucher & charter school education movement. Basically parents are trying to take money from the common good to ensure their kids win. At the expense of other kids losing.

Until now, I've only seen what you wrote about standardized testing applied to IQ tests. But it definitely makes since in that context too. Standardized testing measures cultural knowledge and familiarity as much as any academic mastery. No wonder English as a second language kids tend to bomb out.

Brendan said...

What we are not taught about "Americans are taught in our national myths" is that very seldom was it the rugged individual who created America, they just got all the press. The people who created America were the families and communities that worked together to create something bigger than themselves.

Ron Amundson said...

Much of society wants the commons destroyed as its cheaper in the short haul, and many believe they personally can rise above nearly any negative consequence. Often times folks who hold to such views don't change until they get the negative consequences right in the face. Even at point, for some, their views don't change until they realize they are pretty much completely out of options.

If you address the desire of many to kill the commons, a lot of things can self correct pretty fast. Most assuredly the 3 myths would go away really fast.

Pam said...

When the 9/11 Commission Report was complete, 4 failures were identified: failure of imagination, policy, management, and capability - http://bit.ly/eRCDqf Our inability to see beyond the boundaries of our current state to make needed shifts from standardization and mass production to customization and personalization of learning represents failures of educational imagination, policy, capability, and management. These failures have created a vacuum of leadership among educators that, unfortunately, is now filled with those who value public education as corporate goods rather than a public good (Ravitch). Great post- looking forward to the complete series.