Monday, January 20, 2014

Column: Asking the wrong questions

By Mitchell Robinson

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.

Mitchell Robinson
Since Sec. Duncan likes to tell stories, here's a story for you about test scores: in Michigan, we have the Michigan Test of Teacher Certification or MTTC. There are two flavors of this test, which mimic the Praxis exams. The first one used to be called the Basic Skills Test, now it's the Professional Readiness Exam. The pass rate used to be around 95% for our students at MSU. The governor decided that was too easy (and most of us agreed), so he directed the Michigan Department of Ed to redesign the test, making it longer and more difficult. They did, but sadly didn't tell anyone they were doing so. Oh yeah--they also set the new cut score so that only about 26% of test takers would pass it. And changed the criteria for the test from the knowledge that a reasonably well prepared 19 year old person should know to the knowledge needed to be a successful teacher in the schools in Michigan--a pretty big leap.

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.


  1. Very well said, Mitch! Thank you. My biggest fear is that we will have fewer and fewer high school graduates even INTERESTED in education as a profession because it is becoming to ridiculously difficult to attain certification, let alone KEEP it!

  2. The absolute truth. Thank you, Dr. Robinson

  3. Yes! Thank you for articulating what so many of us are feeling.

  4. Thanks Dr. Robinson. We desperately need a chorus of voices like yours to counter the overwhelming dissonance of propaganda being hurled against our education system. This is inspiring.

  5. Wonderfully written. Couldn't agree more. Thanks.

  6. I hope you don't mind if I share this. What I particularly appreciate about your article is that you identify something that I see in just about every education "reform" text that I read. The author starts with a false premise and proceeds to build an entire philosophy (and book, and workbook, and test, and supplemental information, etc) upon a premise that has been shown to be false. Then they cite statistics published in 2002-2004 and ignore information that is much more recent and disproves the original and ultimately false premises that have been used to make their case. Then we see public education in a a condition that I would call a crisis. But it is a crisis made by the profiteers of our society--the Corporate-Government Complex.

  7. A lot of questions asked in this article. A lot of obfuscation. The ONE question that needs to be asked is "What do we expect a High School graduate to be capable of?" Put another way "Are High School graduates prepared to be productive members of society or are we simply preparing them for a lifetime of debt?" Assuming we can even answer those questions in a few sentances, what's the best way to determine whether this is happening if we can't use tests? I think too many tests are asinine, but I don't think tests are valueless. In fact, were it not for tests, I wouldn't have gotten very far. I grasp things intuitively, but I'm terrible at busywork. My grades reflected that. My personal opinion was that the busywork was weighted too heavily, but that's another discussion.

    From time to time, I pose the question of what a graduate should know to my acquaintances. One of my good friends said that a High School graduate should understand freedom, where it comes from, and why it is so important to protect it. They should understand basic life skills like keeping a budget and cooking meals. They should understand the value of work and property. They should understand basic morality and that should guide their decisions. They should learn what it takes to be self-sufficient. If you don't teach those things, you'll have a graduate who's unmotivated, dependent, and too passive to speak up when something doesn't seem right.

    Do modern graduates think about any of these things? I know I didn't. I didn't even consider this stuff until I was in my mid 20s and tens of thousands of dollars in debt, stuck in a job that I thought I had to have thinking it's because I'm not taking education seriously enough. I was in that rut for 6 years. I got sick of it and walked off that job and decided to focus on what I'm good it. It's the best decision I've ever made. The only reason it took me so long was because of this mentality that an expensive university is the only place where you can learn and you have to jump through their hoops to have a prayer of being successful.

    1. "a High School graduate should understand freedom, where it comes from, and why it is so important to protect it. They should understand basic life skills like keeping a budget and cooking meals. They should understand the value of work and property. They should understand basic morality and that should guide their decisions. They should learn what it takes to be self-sufficient. "
      My goodness! Is it possible to have any lower standards than this??? How about an understanding of calculus and fluency in a 2nd language???
      And, what your idea of "Freedom" is, is completely subjective. Cooking meals isn't bad but I hardly think that we ought to make it a focus of our schools.

    2. Jason Gold what are your views on Music educations and Art education?

    3. I work in one of the top nationally recognized high schools in the United States and the first time I stood in front of a classroom of high school students to teach was 39 years ago. Given time to prepare, today's students can be quite bright, but they suffer from two conditions that must be changed. First, they suffer from "cram and flush" syndrome which means after getting the desired grade they erase the information and have learned little or nothing in the long run. And second, they keep their intelligence in their pocket as opposed to the old-fashioned way we did it back in the day - in our HEADS. If you don't warn them and they don't have access to their electronics, they truly are lacking and those are the circumstances that they face when being compared to other countries. My bilingual students may have just learned what a noun is but you can bet money that they will ALWAYS remember what a noun is. The American child, not so much. I tell my kids that my brain might be full of 8 track technology, but I keep recording and I have a library of tapes in my head. Too many of them have a thumb drive technology in their head that they keep erasing to make room for more recent data.

  8. "Teachers are not political"??? What a load of BS that is!
    The education problems in the USA are not manufactured at all! They are very real and any observer can see that. American students can simply not compete internationally. This is true all day long and as much as you would like to point the finger at corporations, they are not at fault for our extremely poor schools.

  9. Jason--all I can say is that you are out to lunch! What axe do you have to grind? Didn't do well in school and now you hate your job?