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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 02/24/2012

Duncan’s equity commission and the ‘rising tide’ of avarice, hostility, testing

This was written by John Merrow, veteran education reporter for PBS, NPR, and dozens of national publications. He is the president of the nonprofit media production company Learning Matters. Merrow’s latest book is “The Influence of Teachers.” This post first appeared on Merrow’s blog, Taking Note.

By John Merrow

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Surely everyone recognizes the five-word phrase. Some of you may have garbled the phrase on occasion — I have — into something like ‘Our schools are drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity.”

But that’s not what “A Nation at Risk” said back in 1983. The report, issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, was a call to action on many levels, not an attack on schools and colleges. “Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling,” the report states, immediately after noting that America has been “committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” (emphasis added) Schools aren’t the villain in “A Nation at Risk;” rather, they are a vehicle for solving the problem.

Suppose that report were to come out now? What sort of tide is eroding our educational foundations? “A rising tide of (fill in the blank)?”

This is a relevant question because sometime in the next few months another national commission, this one on “Education Equity and Excellence,” will issue its report. This commission clearly hopes to have the impact of “A Nation at Risk.”

However, the two commissions could hardly be more different. The 1983 Commission was set up to be independent, while the current one seems to be joined at the hip to the Department of Education.

Consider: Ronald Reagan did not want a commission to study education because he wanted to abolish the U. S. Department of Education, which had been created by the man he defeated, Jimmy Carter. So Education Secretary Terrel Bell did it on his own.

The current commission has the blessing of the White House and the Congress.

Secretary Bell asked the president of the University of Utah, David Gardner, to chair the commission. He knew Gardner and trusted him to oversee the selection of the Commission members. Dr. Gardner then hired Milton Goldberg as Staff Director and they selected 15 members, plus two reliable political conservatives the White House insisted on. They asked the key education associations to nominate five candidates, then chose one from each association. They ignored the teacher unions and selected that year’s Teacher of the Year as a Commissioner. Meanwhile, Secretary Bell stayed on the sidelines, cannily keeping his distance from an effort that his boss was not in favor of.

Unlike Ted Bell, Education Secretary Arne Duncan seems to have been involved from the git-go. He has spoken to the group and recently intervened to extend its deadline. His Department named the co-chairs and all 28 members, who represent every possible constituency in the education establishment: rural, urban, African American, White, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American, conservative, liberal and so on.

Rather than delicately balancing his commission to be politically correct, Gardner, a university president, put five other people from higher education on his commission and famously declared there would be “no litmus test” for commission members.

Duncan has touched every base, at least once. Well, almost every base — no classroom teachers or school principals serve on Duncan’s Commission.

Gardner included out-of-the-box thinkers like Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg and Harvard physicist Gerald Holton. Duncan’s Commission is depressingly predictable, with the exception of Netflix founder Reed Hastings. Why no Tim Brown, Deborah Meier, John Seely Brown, Sal Khan, Laurene Powell, Larry Rosenstock or James Comer?

Because the “Risk” commission had no ex officio members, it had limited contact with the department or the White House. Staff Director Milton Goldberg recalls that Secretary Bell read the 31-page draft report for the first time just one week before its release. (“Golly, it’s short,” was his initial reaction, Goldberg recalls.)

The current commission has seven ex officio members, including Roberto Rodriguez of the White House and Martha Kanter, who is #2 in the Education Department. Not only that, it appears that the Department’s PR people are on hand at all times. No secrets, no surprises.

The earlier commission held most of its meetings and hearings around the country. The current commission held seven of its 12 meetings at the U. S. Department of Education, including the final five.

Given all that, it’s difficult to think of this as an ‘independent’ Commission. End of the day, it’s Arne Duncan’s commission, established for the express purpose of finding ways to close the ‘resource gap’ in spending on education for poor kids in this country.

That’s a worthy goal, because the spending gap is huge. However, closing it won’t be easy. States are pretty much broke these days, so the money will have to come from Washington.

And that’s a problem, because no one in Washington seems to trust states or local school districts, which, after all, are responsible for the ‘savage inequalities’ in the first place. Because education is not a federal responsibility, Washington can send money and make rules but cannot send in the troops to punish misbehavior. As Michael Casserly, long-time cxecutive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, dryly noted in the January meeting, “We haven’t really resolved this question about where state responsibility ends or where their capacity and willingness end, and where the federal government’s willingness and capacity and authority begin.

There’s some history here. Earlier efforts to equalize spending haven’t worked all that well. The early days of Title One of ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] saw federal dollars that were supposed to be spent on disadvantaged kids going instead to build swimming pools for suburban kids or for ‘teaching machines’ that gathered dust in locked closets. States and local districts — seemingly by instinct — took the federal money and then cut their own spending by that amount, until the feds made that illegal.

And there’s also the knotty problem of past experience with spending more on poor kids. It hasn’t produced results in Newark, N.J,, or Kansas City, or anyplace else as far as I know.

More than a few of the commissioners see the 15,000 local school boards as an impediment; they are, however, a fact of American political life. It should be noted that the commissioner who wrote the first draft of the forthcoming report, Matt Miller, is also the author of “First, Let’s Kill All the School Boards,” which appeared in The Atlantic in January/February 2008.

The commission wants more preschool programs and the most qualified teachers to work in low income districts, and so on, but those are local or state decisions, and most members of the commission — those speaking up at the meetings — do not seem to trust anyone but Washington.

So if Washington can’t just write checks to close the resource gap because it can’t control states and school districts, what does it do? Several commissioners spoke approvingly of a more “muscular” federal governmental role in education, but it’s not clear how it would flex those muscles.

End of the day, the commission’s big goal is to energize public opinion, just as “A Nation at Risk” did.

Read through meeting transcripts (as I have been doing) and you will find lots of discussion about how to sell the public on the big idea of what Co-Chair Edley calls a “collective responsibility to provide a meaningful opportunity for high quality education for each child.”

Shorthand for that: spend more to educate poor kids.

Slogans emerge in the discussion:

“Sharing responsibility for every child,”

“From nation at risk to nation in peril,” and

“Raise the bar and close the gap.”

At one point a department PR man took the microphone to offer a suggestion. “In the communication shop, myself and Peter Cunningham, my boss, are always happy to help you guys through this process, to the extent to which you — you know, you’d like our help. But ‘one nation under-served’ would be kind of a way that to kind of capture that, and harken back to sort of patriotic tones and kind of a unifying theme, and the fact that you know, we’re not hitting the mark we should, as a country and international competitiveness. So, I just put that out there.”

What will probably be “put out there” in April will be a document designed to make us morally outraged at the unfairness of it all and, at the same time, convince us that failing to educate all children is going to doom America to second-class status in the world. Expect rhetorical questions like “Would a country that’s serious about education reform spend twice as much on wealthy kids as it does on poor kids?”

I am virtually certain that the new report will reflect the administration’s technocratic faith that pulling certain policy levers will produce dramatic change — despite years of evidence to the contrary. (It’s part of ‘a rising tide of predictability’ that inhabits our land, as positions harden and debate and inquiry disappear.)

The real problem is not the Constitution’s limits on the federal role in education. For all its talk of public education as ‘the civil rights issue of our time,” this administration, like the one before it, simply does not have a powerful vision of what genuine education might be. Full of the same hubris that led to No Child Left Behind, it believes in technical solutions.

Channeling Dr. King, this might be Secretary Arne Duncan’s version of that famous speech: “I have a dream that all children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin or the content of their character but by their scores on standardized tests.”

That’s harsh, I know, but this commission and this administration ought to be asking other important rhetorical questions, such as “Would a country that’s serious about education reform devote as much as 20% of classroom time to test preparation and testing?

or: “Would a nation that believes in the potential of all children spend about $10,000 per child on schooling and then measure the results with a $15 instrument — and swear by the results produced by those cheap tests?

or: “Would a nation that believes in education develop a ‘reform agenda’ that attacks teachers knowing that, even absent such attacks, 50% of teachers have been leaving the profession in the first five years?

While I agree with what I expect to be the commission’s findings (“We haven’t been serious about leveling the playing field in education”), I find it impossible to see this commission as anything but narrowly political.

More than that, however, I think this commission represents a missed opportunity to engage American citizens on a more fundamental issue: the education of all our children.

Suppose the administration had been willing to ask a group of independent thinkers an honest question — and been prepared to deal with whatever answers emerged?

My question would be: “Does a rising tide threaten our educational foundations and our very future today? If so, a tide of what?”

I can find evidence for the following: Avarice, regulation, indifference, hostility, testing, and irrelevance.

You can make the case that a rising tide of avarice is a threat. After all, K-12 education is a reliable pot of big bucks, almost $600 billion a year for K-12 alone. That’s why for-profit charter schools are proliferating, why Pearson and McGraw-Hill are expanding voraciously, and why tech companies are banging on the doors of desperate school boards with ‘solutions’ to sell.

Is there a rising tide of hostility, suspicion and finger-pointing? Ask almost any teacher.

The rising tide of testing hasn’t crested. With new emphasis on evaluating all teachers according to student test scores, the high water mark is nowhere in sight.

What about a rising tide of regulation, much of it coming from Washington? Ask principals in Tennessee, who now must spend multiple hours evaluating each teacher and filling in forms to satisfy the state, which is in turn satisfying the U. S. Department’s rules for “Race to the Top.”

A rising tide of irrelevance threatens the entire enterprise. I believe public education is drowning because schools have not adapted to a changed and changing world. Consider: Of the three historical justifications for school, only one applies today. I write about this at length in “The Influence of Teachers.”

In the past, you had to go to school because the knowledge was stored there. Today, information is everywhere, 24/7, which means that kids need to learn how to formulate questions so they can turn that flood of information into knowledge. But most of our schools are ‘answer factories’ that offer ‘regurgitation education.’

In the past, you went to school to be socialized to get along with kids from different backgrounds, race, religion and gender. Today, however, there are Apps for that. So schools and the adults in them need to help kids understand the power — and limitations — of those Apps and technology in general. After all, kids need to learn that the 14-year-old they’re texting (and sexting?) may actually be a 40-year- old sicko. Our kids may be digital natives, but that doesn’t guarantee they are or will become digital citizens. Schools need to fill that vacuum.

Finally, schools back then provided custodial care so your parents could hold down jobs. We still need custodial care, but when schools provide marginal education and fail to harness technology in useful ways, they become dangerous places for some children, and boring places for others. We lose at least 1,000,000 students a year, dropouts who may be hoping to find something more relevant on the street. (And, sorry, raising the dropout age to 18 will not solve the problem.)

Are there existing models of schools that are relevant to America’s future? Can we create incentives to expand those model programs to serve 50,000,000 children and youth?

I believe the answer to both questions is ‘yes.’ But first we have to ask those questions.

Before issuing its report, the Duncan Commission would do well to re-read “A Nation at Risk,” especially the last recommendation.

“The Federal Government has the primary responsibility to identify the national interest in education. It should also help fund and support efforts to protect and promote that interest. It must provide the national leadership to ensure that the Nation’s public and private resources are marshaled to address the issues discussed in this report.” (emphasis in original)

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