[Updated June 8, 2011]
With few exceptions, Americans spend more on public education than anyone else in the world, but we get some of the worst results. The reason is that most of our public education systems do not properly teach students what they need to know.
That's it. There is no magic. And the federal takeovers, the jazzy new technology, Bill Gates’ money, the data-gathering, reform, transformation, national initiatives, removal of teacher seniority, blaming of parents, hand-wringing in the media, and budget shifting won’t change that simple fact.
In all of the local, state and federal plans for reforming and transforming public education, I see the bureaucracy growing, the taxpayer bill exploding, the people’s voice being eliminated, good teachers being threatened with firing or public humiliation, and students not being taught what they need to know.
A May 25 Wall Street Journal article says some schools now charge parents fees for basic academics, as well as for extracurricular activities, graded electives and advanced classes. Those are private-school fees for a public-school education, and that’s just wrong.
At some point, one comes to think it’s hopeless, that the current system is too far gone – too corrupt, too self-serving, and too shamelessly ignorant to live, that it must collapse. Excuse me while I duck – but that’s actually a reasonable thought. In systems theory, it’s expected that systems will work for a time, then become corrupt, fail to be productive, and be allowed to collapse. New ones are then built in their place. It’s how systems evolve or progress.
That doesn’t happen in government, or in sprawling bureaucracies. And especially not in sprawling government bureaucracies like public education, which are hideously corrupt but which are not allowed to die. Instead, they’re hoisted around the dance floor like some macabre corpse, propped up with self-interest, ego, loopy ideology, and some 700 billion taxpayer and corporate dollars.
How does this help children academically? That question should drive everything, but it doesn’t. So many policy makers and administrators are completely self-interested. They cherry-pick data, withhold information, and misrepresent results and intent. They argue using innuendo and personal attacks. Everything begins with their money, their pet programs, and their certainty that they’re right.
We talk about academics; they talk about money. We talk about outcomes; they talk about process. We talk about freedom of choice and the free market; they want everyone to be the same. We talk about tutoring; they talk about rules. We say, “Stand against this.” They say, as a Spokane board director did in February, “It wouldn’t be good for me.”
At the May 23 Spokane Public Schools forum, administrators talked about cutting several million dollars from the budget. This definition of “cut” is used with impunity by number-crunchers everywhere. Here’s how it works. The district says it has cut $54 million from the district budget since 2002. But the district budget has GROWN by $60 million since 2002. What they did was “cut” from programs we want and add to things that are mandated or desired by others. It’s a money shift. On May 23, the district presentation didn’t mention budget totals, which would have clearly shown the public this phenomenon.
How will their proposed cuts or proposed programs help the children academically? Most won’t.
On May 23, a board director talked about the local levy, which grew from $36 million in 2002 to $59 million in 2010. He asked the public whether the levy should be spent on enrichment (which is how it's generally sold to taxpayers) or on regular programs that allegedly are "underfunded."
The assumption there -- not proved -- is that the regular programs are necessary as constructed. Much of the levy already is diverted to pay for them. The director didn't mention that some of last year’s levy paid for administrative enrichment via raises -- an expense that the board approved unanimously.
At its May 11 regular board meeting, a new math resolution also was approved unanimously. On May 23, the district presentation mentioned this resolution, but not in detail. So, here's some detail.
The new math resolution delays replacing the district's core K-8 math curriculum, currently two of the worst math programs in the country, while locking the district to the national Common Core State Standards/tests/curriculum initiatives. These CCSS initiatives represent a de facto federalization of public education. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claims these initiatives are "state-led," but the truth is all there in the federal funding for these initiatives, the federal punishments for states that don’t kowtow, and in the federal pushing of these initiatives as the answer. Sec. Duncan says there should be a national curriculum in all subjects, “including literacy, arts, foreign languages, and the STEM disciplines.”
Sec. Duncan also is funding common testing (to be done online, thus requiring hardware and software), and a national database on our children that will span “cradle through career,” that will connect various government agencies, and that will share information without parental consent. Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you. It isn’t pleasant reading, but you can see all of this on the Department of Education Web site and in Sec. Duncan’s speeches.
This de facto federal takeover will probably cost each school district $100 million before it’s all said and done, in materials, hardware, software, training, travel, and “professional development.” Multiply that by the number of school districts in this country (more than 14,000). In its May 11 resolution, the Spokane board estimated up to $3 million just for the adoption of the unwritten, untested, unpiloted, unfunded, and completely unsupported national K-8 math curriculum. It’s a mere drop in Duncan's federal-mandate-bucket.
Spokane’s board also neglected to mention that its new emphasis on “data-driven decision-making” apparently doesn’t apply to the CCSS. The board has agreed to adopt a national curriculum for math that isn’t even finished, much less tested. There is no data behind it. As administrators and board directors complain that federal mandates steal budget dollars, they all agreed on May 11 to spend millions of dollars on Duncan’s unfunded federal mandate. How will this new and massive mandate help our children academically, driven as it is by Bill Gates, Pearson Education, and other institutional and corporate interests?
Moving directly from the problem (students aren’t being taught what they need to know) to the solution (students need to be taught what they need to know), you immediately see that fixing the problem doesn’t require - and is unlikely to benefit from - massive infusions of money, nationwide transformations, expensive data systems, software, new buildings, Bill Gates or – good lord, a federal takeover of public education. It requires only that schools teach students the academic skills they need for postsecondary life. And that requires four things – which I call the “Square of Effective Learning.” This holds true for students living in million-dollar homes as well as for students living in the dirt. These are the four corners of the square:
- An effective and motivated teacher.
- An efficient, effective, and sufficient curriculum.
- A prepared and motivated student.
- An efficient and effective learning environment.
Alas, public education is a massive and unresponsive bureaucracy. With the coming (and arguably illegal) federal takeover of public education – it's about to become more so. Bureaucracies don’t exist to run programs or teach children – they exist to:
- Grow the bureaucracy
- Defend all gained territory and gain more territory
- Obtain more funding, and develop and implement programs that require more funding
- Satisfy people who are higher on the food chain
- Report good results regardless of what the data actually say
- Show perpetual motion (because rolling stones can’t be held accountable)
- Gain community allies who can smooth over bureaucratic problems and help with bureaucratic goals
- Smash down all dissent before it threatens the bureaucracy