Editor's note: This column was written in response to Tom Friedman's column Obama's Homework Assignment, New York Times, Jan 18, 2014.
When you ask the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers. Mr. Friedman has uncritically bought the corporate reformers' biggest lie: our educational system is a mess, and our public schools are in crisis. To "prove" these assertions they point to reams and reams of test scores, as if these scores are supposed to indicate anything real or true about students or learning.
So, the new test was administered this fall, and the vast majority of students--freshmen and sophomores--failed it. The fallout has been staggering--the state's schools will not be able to provide enough teachers for our schools, and thousands of students who had been planning and hoping on careers as teachers will be forced to choose new majors or make other plans. There has been real human damage--students being forced to drop out of school because they can't take the required classes they need for their degrees and can't keep their financial aid; kids dropping their music education majors and pursuing generic degrees; frantic kids and parents wondering what to do with their futures after being admitted by a state university in their desired major because of a single test score.
To address Mr. Duncan's assertion that we are not attracting "top students" to education, several of these students were admitted to our Honors College--to which only about 10% of MSU students get accepted. One of the students who failed the test had a 4.0 GPA as a sophomore, and the average GPA of those who did not pass the test was around 3.8.
It's easy to supply evidence for a manufactured crisis. The truth is that our schools were not in trouble until the corporate reformers started implementing their agenda--and surprise, surprise: now our schools truly are in trouble. That happens when you starve public schools of needed resources, narrow the curriculum to the tested subjects, attack the teaching profession by destabilizing unions, eliminating tenure and obliterating retirement and health care benefits, and demonizing students and teachers as lazy, stupid and uncaring.
To give the corporate reformers their due, their strategy has been brilliant--plant the seed of doubt about "failing schools," "bad teachers," and "evil unions"; legislate ALEC reforms that tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, then insure that those scores are so low that few teachers will be deemed "effective" by manipulating test content, cut scores, and scoring procedures; put pressure on school boards and administrators to adopt these destructive reforms with the specter of "emergency managers," appointed officials who come in to take over "failing" schools without the need to follow state regulations and policies, with the result that boards and administrators will enforce policies they know are wrong just to keep the emergency managers from taking over the schools...
The strategy is well conceived and beautifully executed. It has even fooled many teachers, who vote against their own interests in the name of "higher standards" that inevitably wind up being moving targets, a Machiavellian bait & switch. We had a number of teachers in Lansing vote for the very proposal that eliminated their positions, only realizing they had been duped when they received their pink slips.
We teachers are a particularly easy group to hoodwink in this way. We are not by nature very political--indeed, many of us chose teaching precisely because we were not interested in issues of politics or economy or policy; we just wanted to close our classroom doors, teach our students and be left alone. And now our naïveté has come back to bite us. We have lost control of our profession, and the wolves of Wall St are at the door. They see the schools as the last, great public "profit center", and are drooling at the untapped accumulation of public wealth ripe for their plunder.
And it's working, in part due to self styled prophets/profits like Mr. Friedman, who doesn't know what he doesn't know, but has always been led to believe he's the smartest kid in the room and now has swallowed the lie whole.
This corporate reform agenda is a set of solutions in search of a problem. We still aren't asking the right ones.
Like what can we do to reduce the staggering levels of child poverty, not just in our urban centers but across demographics?
Like what can we do to address the issue of food insecurity among our young, that contributes to so many students coming to school without the readiness to learn?
Like why have we become obsessed with measuring things that don't mean what we think they mean, and using those measurements to wreak havoc on kids, teachers, schools and communities?
Like why do we think that sitting young children in front of computer screens is an adequate substitution for a real education?
Like when did the notion of learning morph from the building and nurturing of personal relationships between teachers and students into a simple transaction of information, akin to an antiseptic banking model?
Like why do we endorse a curricular model that privileges STEM when a comprehensive education has always included the humanities, arts and physical education?
Like why do the other professions have boards of review of professionals that determine entry to the profession, establish policies, and enforce those policies, but education has ceded these duties to "civilians" who are clear about their lack of background in the discipline and value their ignorance as innovation?
Like why do we think that someone with a 5 week teacher "boot camp" is qualified to teach our children, but that someone who has devoted their professional life to our children and communities is the enemy?
Just as excellent teachers have learned to help their confused students by refocusing and redirecting, it's our job to help Mr. Duncan, Mr. Gates, Ms. Rhee and Ms. Kopp. It will take decades to undo the damage that has been done to our profession by Mr. Duncan and his comrades in the corporate reform movement, but we can begin by asking the right questions.
Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education at Michigan State University. Prior to his current position, Dr. Robinson taught music for 10 years in the Fulton (NY) City School District, and held collegiate appointments at the University of Connecticut and the Eastman School of Music. Dr. Robinson recently concluded a term as Academic Editor of the Music Educators Journal, and has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Arts Education Policy Review, the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, the International Journal of Education and the Arts, and Research Issues in Music Education. His research is focused on education policy and the mentoring and induction of new music teachers.