No Time to Tinker

President Obama for a second time converted the White House public rooms into a science fair on Tuesday, and announced new federal and private-sector initiatives to encourage “a nation of tinkerers and dreamers” in so-called STEM education in science, technology, engineering and math.

Very nice.

Except for the fact that the education policies of the Obama administration don’t allow for “tinkering”, and certainly there’s precious little room for dreaming.

For the vast majority of students in this country, the instructional emphasis is on learning to get the right answer on the standardized test. Period.

Not on experimentation and tinkering, trial and failure, playing and reflecting, all of which should be at the core of what we do.

It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

All the loudest voices in reform seem to shoe horn the word “innovation” (or some variation) into most of their pronouncements on how to improve education.

However, according to a former middle school teacher, they probably aren’t thinking of anything approaching the actual meaning of the term.

But the word, like so many others in education, has been hijacked. The “new reformers” have appropriated it as a descriptor for policy proposals and practices they advocate, and as an antonym for almost anything else. Charter schools? Innovative. Regular public schools? Definitely not. Competing for education funding? Innovative. Assuring that adequate monies go to schools that most need them? Passé. Evaluating teachers based on test scores? Innovative. Collective bargaining? Old school.

Corporate reformers have come to own the word so completely that they’re able to promote even the most wrongheaded ideas and still be portrayed by many media outlets as innovators.

The kind of “innovation” behind No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, KIPP, and other high profile education “reforms” of the past ten years has resulted in narrowing the curriculum to little more than reading and math, with even those subjects being taught to the majority of students at the most basic, rote-memorization levels.

This teacher is frustrated that, among other things, the media studies class that he use to teach and the video fair in which his student participated, are “long gone and buried”, sacrificed to the all consuming standardized testing culture.

But he also makes the excellent point that, because of that culture “teacher and student creativity will continue to be squashed at every turn.”

Ok, reformers, you want innovation? Instead of consulting people like Bill Gates and Arne Duncan, neither of whom go near a classroom unless the press is already there, listen to what these students have to say on the subject of improving their own education.

Behind those four minutes is a learning experience that can’t be measured on a multiple choice test.

 

Winning the Race

On the Washington Post web site, Diane Ravitch recommends three books that offer “some dissenting views” on the administration’s current education reform plans.

I haven’t read the books and can’t verify their quality, but this observation by Ravitch in her introduction is right on target.

Now that the Obama administration has invited the states to compete for $5 billion in stimulus funds, the winners will not be those that come up with the best reform ideas, but those that agree to do what the administration wants: create privately managed charter schools, evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores, and close low-performing schools.

Money + power = do it our way.

Just Say No to RTTT

In her Education Week blog this week, Diane Ravitch offers ten reasons why states should decline to participate in the DOEs big money game show, Race to the Top.

I can’t speak to the validity of all ten, but I suspect most her predictions of what will happen to American education as a result of this most recent attempt at “reform” are far too accurate.

Especially number five.

By raising the stakes for tests even higher, Race to the Top will predictably produce more teaching to bad tests, more narrowing of the curriculum, more cheating, and more gaming the system. If scores rise, it will be the illusion of progress, rather than better education. By ratcheting up the consequences of test scores, education will be corrupted and cheapened. There will be even less time for history, geography, civics, foreign languages, literature, and other important subjects.

All of that applied to No Child Left Behind, of course, except for the part about rising scores.

Supporters of NCLB simply made claims of major progress without even minimal statistical evidence.

Renaissance As Our 21st Century Miracle

You should probably be careful anytime you include a date in the name of a big reform project.

That date will eventually arrive and it’s likely people will check to see if your reforms actually happened.

Case in point is Renaissance 2010, the high profile attempt to overhaul the Chicago city school system, created by none other than our current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

So, 2010 is here, how did they do?

Six years after Mayor Richard Daley launched a bold initiative to close down and remake failing schools, Renaissance 2010 has done little to improve the educational performance of the city’s school system, according to a Tribune analysis of 2009 state test data.

Scores from the elementary schools created under Renaissance 2010 are nearly identical to the city average, and scores at the remade high schools are below the already abysmal city average, the analysis found.

The moribund test scores follow other less than enthusiastic findings about Renaissance 2010 — that displaced students ended up mostly in other low-performing schools and that mass closings led to youth violence as rival gang members ended up in the same classrooms. Together, they suggest the initiative hasn’t lived up to its promise by this, its target year.

Oh, but it gets better.

Following in the footsteps of Bush’s Texas “miracle” that became No Child Left Behind, Duncan is now incorporating all his wonderfully successful ideas from Ren10 into Race to the Top, the latest meaningless, not to mention expensive, educational-buzz-term-based national school reform program.

Duncan is using an unprecedented $4.35 billion pot of money to lure states into building education systems that replicate key Ren10 strategies. The grant money will go to states that allow charter schools to flourish and to those that experiment with turning around failing schools — all part of the Chicago reform.

Just as the previous administration assigned magical powers to high-stakes standardized testing, the current group is putting it’s faith in charter schools as an all-purpose educational cure-all.

Actually, the charter concept is not a bad one: allow educators to adapt schools to fit the needs of students instead of the other way around.

The execution, on the other hand, in most places has been mediocre at best (criminally dismal in too many cases) largely mirroring that of the Chicago “renaissance”: throwing lots of cash at charters to achieve mixed results.

Of course, there is a middle ground between the all-stick-and-no-carrot philosophy of NCLB and the quiz-show-competition, scattershot approach that is at the core of RTTT.

But finding it is going to require far more complex thinking than most of our national education “leaders” seem to be willing to consider.

Iron Chef Education

I guess we have our official new education buzz phrase to replace “no child left behind”.

Race to the Top

Does anyone else think that sounds like the title of a game show?

Reading news reports from last week’s reveal of Obama’s new education reform proposal reminded me of one of those television cooking contests.

As near as I can tell, the federal government is going to divvy up a huge pot of money among contestants states who take the same secret ingredients and mix them together into an educational stew, one that will like be only slightly different from one plate to the next.

But the pieces of this new educational recipe really aren’t all that new.

On Friday, Obama will officially announce the “Race to the Top,” a competition for $4.35 billion in grants. He wants states to use funds to ease limits on charter schools, tie teacher pay to student achievement and move for the first time toward common academic standards.

Of course the primary method currently used to assess student learning will continue to be the corporate produced and scored multiple choice test, a vehicle which is cheap and easy but offers little or no real information.

Only now we’re going to have a national version of these “assessments”, with student scores linked to the pay of their teachers.

The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan calls this plan Education reform’s moon shot.

It sounds more like a low-rent cooking show in which the cooks use third-rate ingredients to make the same minimally-acceptable meal.