Friday, September 29, 2006

Learning, Spending, Local Control & National Standards

William J. Bennett and Rod Paige, both former education secretaries, wrote an editorial for the Washington Post (Thursday, September 21, 2006) that seemed to be a bi-partisan call for a national achievement test, which may have been a mea culpa, but is in reality direct evidence showing that some politicians do not understand the needs of education.

Let me be specific. They start with the premise that Americans "ultimately educate themselves" (presumably regardless of schooling or based on the assumption they learned little if anything in school):

"Americans do ultimately get themselves educated—at work, after school, online, in adulthood—but a lot of time and money are wasted in the process."

I was just thinking about this when I could not recall the trigonometric formula for calculating the correlation coefficient from the angle between two vectors on a plot. So, I asked my engineering friend, who does this sort of thing for a living, but he did not know. I looked it up (in a school text book from a course I had) and later discovered the only people I asked who seemed to know were mathematics educators.

I doubt most people are likely to learn about such a thing "at work, after school, online, in adulthood," because it is hard, multidimensional, and has a complicated context. Yet people speak of correlations all the time, with authority, like they know what they are talking about. Suggesting people can learn the skills needed to compete in our new technology age without schooling is preposterous and is likely to lead to the "dumbing down" of the needed deep understandings so wanted by Bennett and Paige.

Bennett and Page also claim that:

"Ever since the Commission on Excellence in Education declared in 1983 that America is 'at risk' because of the lagging performance of its schools, this country has been struggling to reform its K-12 system. The education 'establishment' has wrongly insisted that more money (or more teachers, more computers, more everything) would yield better schools and smarter kids; that financial inputs would lead to cognitive outputs. This is not so."
Well, my grandmammy (who taught farm kids during the depression) constantly reminded me growing up that the primary purpose of school is to "socialize youngsters" such that they could fit into society. I maintain that education in the U.S. has been evolving and struggling forever and that things like Sputnik, "Nation at Risk," and NCLB are just mileposts on this journey to evolve and improve education as our surroundings change.

Medical doctors spend money in training, technology, research, and improved facilities. Auto manufacturers, McDonald's and others spend money on the same. Why do the former secretaries not think investments in education are important given our changing environment? Particularly with fast paced changes in technology and the lack of respect and the lack of pay that are driving many of our teachers away. The notion that education is independent of need for more teachers, more computers, more money, more everything creates an alternate reality where fantasy reigns.

Their next points I disagree with but clearly they have inside information so perhaps I am wrong:

"But there's a problem. Out of respect for federalism and mistrust of Washington, much of the GOP has expected individual states to set their own academic standards and devise their own tests and accountability systems."
I thought education was a local control issue. I thought taxpayers in the states provided the funds (including federal, state and local) to support education and, therefore, wanted control of these decisions locally. As such, I thought taxpayers in Minnesota might want to tailor their education plans to fit the needs of their state (since they were paying for it), and Iowa might want to do the same. Perhaps you think Iowa and Minnesota have good education programs but kids in Mississippi and Alabama don't get a good education. Perhaps, but this is why the people in these latter two states pay taxes and elect officials—so that they control what is done to improve. This is why I thought states were setting their own standards (both content and performance).

Finally, the former secretaries would have us believe that the states have subverted real academic content and performance standards in order to keep the passing rates high. They suggest the differences between statewide passing rates and NAEP passing rates are the evidence. They draw the conclusion that "Washington should set sound national academic standards and administer a high-quality national test."

I simply reiterate some of the points I have made in this venue and others before. First, why would we expect two tests (state NCLB assessments and NAEP) constructed for different purposes to yield the same results? They measure different content; they have different samples of students; and they have different motivation. Second, who in the world thinks Washington can set standards and maintain high quality assessments? Talk about federalism. The standards and the assessments would be at risk of being compromised to fulfill political agendas; and the rhetoric would be the same.

One man's opinion.

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