âHuman history,â said the late H.G. Wells, âis a race between education and catastrophe.â Read the front page of any Florida newspaper, and it will be obvious that catastrophe has a commanding lead.
Dear legislators, since youâre now running the education show, and the consequences of coming in second in the education-vs.-catastrophe race are pretty grim, perhaps youâd be open to a few observations from someone whoâs spent a half-century in Floridaâs schools actually doing the work.
Before retirement, I taught in two of the stateâs high schools and two of its universities, was a county-level director of instruction, wrote years of columns on education for the Orlando Sentinel and Knight-Ridder/Tribune, did consultant work for the state and many of its counties, wrote textbooks and professional books published by major publishers, and visited schools as far west as Japan and as far east as the Greek Islands. A little book on reform I wrote many years ago for Floridaâs Department of Education was so popular it went through five printings.
Iâll try to be brief, an effort that may come across as blunt.
1. Your education policies are shaping minds, lives and Floridaâs future, and itâs clear that you donât really know what youâre doing.
The script youâre following â the one written by the Business Roundtable â is appallingly simplistic. Educating â discerning the images of reality in kidsâ heads and convincing them there are better ones theyâd do well to accept â is inherently the most complex of all intellectual challenges, and you are treating it as if itâs a simple matter of distributing information. The Business Roundtableâs approach to education reform isnât a product of teaching experience, of consultation with experienced teachers, or of research. Itâs a reactionary product of ideology and the conventional wisdom.
2. Youâre misdiagnosing the causes of poor performance.
Your stump speeches, campaign brochures and legislative proposals make it clear that you think the main problem with Floridaâs schools is a lack of rigor. You imply that Floridaâs educators arenât doing their best, that theyâre lazy or dumb or both, and that the situation calls for tough love, raised performance bars, more demanding courses, stiffer standards, and harsher penalties for failure.
Your version of rigor has kids and teachers working longer and harder doing what has brought education to crisis. Wrong diagnosis, so wrong cure.
3. Youâre assuming that the blame for unacceptable performance lies with people â primarily teachers and kids.
The late Edward Deming, one of the worldâs foremost authorities on quality, believed that poor institutional and organizational performance almost always meant there was a SYSTEM problem.
And system problems there certainly are. Lots of them. The curriculum you want to lock even more rigidly in place with national standards and tests was put in place in 1893, and accommodates the present knowledge explosion about as well as mule trains would accommodate todayâs freight transport needs. That 19th-century relic is at odds with kidsâ nature. It ignores the brainâs need for order and organization. It makes no provision for new fields of knowledge. It relies almost exclusively on learner short-term memory. It treats art, music, play and other intellect-enhancing activities as expendable frills. Its overemphasis on reading to the neglect of all other ways of learning is cranking out hundreds of thousands of kids who hate to read.
That barely begins a list of Floridaâs unaddressed education problems, all of which No Child Left Behind exacerbated, and the Race to the Top is on course to make worse.
4. Hundreds of studies have established beyond any doubt that the single greatest cause of the so-called âachievement gapâ is poverty.
Florida has more than its share, but you donât want to talk about it. If the subject comes up, itâs met with an attempt to change the subject to the evils of tenure or unions or some other red herring, conveniently ignoring the fact that some of the best-scoring states arenât concerned with those matters while some of the worst use draconian measures to attack them.
5. To educational problems, youâre bringing an ideologueâs blind faith in Milton Friedmanâs opinion that privatization, charters, vouchers, merit pay and other free-market strategies can cure all educational ills.
Maybe because he was an economist, Friedman believed that what motivates stock brokers also motivates teachers, but thatâs simply not the case. Merit pay and other market schemes wonât make a dimeâs worth of improvement in the only thing that counts: what goes on in kidsâ heads. What they do is undermine the cooperation, trust, sharing of expertise and other âfamilyâ characteristics essential to school quality. Thereâs a reason market gimmicks are counterproductive in schools. Theyâre based on flawed ideas about human nature.
6. Youâve put all of Floridaâs performance evaluation eggs in the FCAT basket.
It should concern you that the only thing machine-scored tests can measure with precision is a kidâs short-term memory. How useful is an education if it doesnât help learners learn to think better â infer, hypothesize, generalize, relate, synthesize, value, and so on? The FCAT yields not a fraction of what a teacher who has worked with a kid for even a few weeks knows about her or his potential and problems. The test is anti-educational and a criminal waste of a great deal of time and money, robbing Floridaâs best and worst students of attention as schools pour resources into attempts to nudge the test scores of the âmarginal middleâ kids above a politically established pass-fail line.
If youâre serious about education reform, you could learn from Finland, the highest-scoring nation in the world. The Finns moved from the middle of the pack to leader of the world by following a simple reform strategy:
True believers in education, they tax. Then they hire the cream of the academic crop. Next, they train them well. And finally, they trust and respect them enough to leave them alone.
Image: Science Blogs
This post was originally posted at FloridaTHINKS.