This was written by Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia.

By Peter Smagorinsky

The Department of Education has, since its inception in 1979, served as the source of national education policies governing our nation’s schools. Although I agree with very little else of Rick Perry’s vision for America, I think that either abolishing or thoroughly reconceiving this office would make for a better nation, given that for the most part it has done teachers and students far more harm than good.

Over time, the Department of Education has become increasingly bureaucratic and invasive, and has formulated its policies on questionable information that appears to emanate from hunches, anecdotes, whims, and fads, buttressed by corroborating evidence from ideologically friendly think tanks and media blowhards. Along the way, in what seems to be an increasing national trend of anti-intellectualism and cognophobic reactions to the specter of educated and knowledgeable people having opinions, it has eschewed the opportunity to consult with people who teach in or study schools.

The DOE has instead relied on think tanks, film-makers whose “documentary” productions tell whatever story is convenient to the producer’s vision, commissioned studies designed to find what its authors and sponsors are looking for, billionaires whose money entitles them to policy roles, and other dubious sources. Less known to the public, and in my view the most malignant of these influences, textbook companies have used political connections and contributions to position themselves to dictate curricula and assessment that they conveniently provide, for a substantial fee, at every stage of a child’s educational journey. To give one example, McGraw Hill, with long-established ties to the Bush family and testing contracts in 26 states, reported profits in the penultimate year of George W. Bush’s presidency of $403,000,000.

It’s well known that President Obama, for whom I voted and whose presidency I continue to support, relies on the counsel of people with whom he has played basketball. Obama made his very worst cabinet appointment when he chose his fellow player, Arne Duncan, as secretary of education.

Let’s trace his path to the presidential Cabinet. One of Duncan’s childhood friends, John Rogers, appointed Duncan director of the Ariel Education Initiative in Chicago. Duncan’s directorship led to Ariel’s reincarnation as a charter school, following which Duncan was advanced in the Chicago Public School system from deputy chief of staff to chief executive officer. Note that he worked exclusively at the executive level, never stooping to teach classes or learn about schools except from an operational perspective.

As a youth, Duncan spent his free time at his mom’s after-school program. According to Duncan, this experience with African American teens who had limited literacy proficiency served as a central motivator for his educational policies. Of course, I resonate with the goal of helping to improve the lives of dispossessed people so that they can develop the resources to live happy, healthy, and productive lives. And that’s why I vigorously oppose just about everything that Arne Duncan has done in his role as U.S. secretary of education, because he has reduced the incredibly complex process of teaching and learning knowledge that people find useful to an endless series of multiple choice tests. This system has turned teachers into functionaries and turned students into factory workers whose job it is to produce higher and higher test scores in the futile quest for Annual Yearly Progress, in which each year’s students are required to outscore last year’s students, with their teachers deemed incompetent should this year’s students fail to outperform last year’s, year after year, ad infinitum.

Arne Duncan is only the latest, although probably the most test-obsessed, person to occupy the seat of U.S. secretary of education. A lot of people trace the testing movement that he currently enforces with a vengeance back to Rod Paige, George W. Bush’s first secretary of education and architect of the Houston Miracle. Well, OK, the Houston Miracle turned out to be a mirage as test scores were manipulated to create the appearance of success, just as many well-known business enterprises — offered by policymakers as the model for education — have been found to falsify their books in order to appear financially healthy when they are in fact precariously deep in the red, with stockholders provided rosy reports that mask disastrous failure. Paige also hid school dropout rates so that youth who left the system — in part, I infer, because their education had become so useless — became invisible rather than serving as evidence against his miraculous claims of success.

At least Paige had an educational background of sorts, having served as a physical education teacher for six years before becoming a full-time high school and college football coach, then a university professor and dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University. For his doctoral dissertation he studied the reaction time of offensive lineman on football teams. I haven’t been able to find a copy of his scholarly treatise, but I did run a check via Google Scholar and found that his doctoral research has never once been referenced as an academic source. Between the topic and the utter obscurity of the content of his dissertation, I can only conclude that it is the sort of frivolous, overly simplistic study that gives educational research a bad name.

This is the sort of policy-level leadership that our Department of Education has provided us in the last 12 years. I think that the students who entered school in 2000 and are graduating in 2012 will be the worst-educated cohort in the history of the United States, through no fault of their own, because they will have experienced all of their schooling under these ruinous programs that have reduced all learning to what can be measured on multiple choice tests. Imagine these young people now entering situations where they don’t get three or four reductive choices for each problem they encounter.

Their education has studiously avoided complexity, thoughtfulness, reflection, engagement, stimulation, personal commitment, and everything else that makes an education worth having. The source of the poverty of their education will not be their teachers, who must teach this regime or face punishment; and it will not be themselves, because I am pretty confident that kids actually want to learn things and grow into competent and appreciated people, even if what happens in school often does not provide that opportunity, and especially does not do so when everything is dictated by test preparation and test taking. Rather, the problem emerges from the policies created by those who mistaken test scores for learning and have turned tests into a vengeful machine for punishing teachers whose instruction lacks a commitment to multiple-choice tests as the epitome of a learning experience.

Instead of having a highly centralized administration powered by money contributed by textbook publishers and other entrepreneurs cashing in on the lucrative enterprise of educational materials production, I would have a highly distributed approach in which most decision-making is local and includes — and indeed, relies on — the perspective of teachers.

Presently, there’s little reason for practicing teachers to keep up with the latest ideas emerging from credible sources, or to engage in the process of producing those ideas and becoming credible sources themselves. The approach that I suggest would lend urgency to the need for teachers to be informed in order to make sound decisions. It would place a premium on being a reflective practitioner who is attentive to classroom processes and student learning, because such observations would become part of the broader school conversation about how to best educate the students who attend the school.

I find that approach far more likely to serve our nation’s youth with rigor and vigor than anything the U.S. Department of Education has tried in its 32 years of existence.


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