Democracy is All About Making Tough Choices

        January 2007

Enough already! Times are tough enough, we don’t need another “tough” experiment that uses our kids as the guinea pigs. That’s my offhand response to the National Center on Education and the Economy’s December report entitled Tough Choices or Tough Times. Impatience is not an excuse for quick fixes when only “slow fixes,” freely chosen, may produce what the nation truly needs. Still, there are a few great nuggets in the midst of a largely discouraging report—like a call for an educational system that puts a higher premium on creativity and less on multiple-choice tests. But the report itself is unlikely to encourage such aims, or will do so at best for a few top-scoring kids at the top of the socio-economic ladder. Of course, as usual this report offers a blueprint with few caveats, and even less humility, given the number of cure-alls we’ve faced over the decades.

The Federal government under Bush has restricted classroom teachers (and systems) from using “disapproved” textbooks and methods of teaching on the grounds that they haven’t met the Scientific standards set by the Department of Education. They do so with more impunity than they dare in disapproving the use of drugs, medical treatments, or diet and nutrition claims. Even after approval, medical claims have to be accompanied by warnings, risk factors and in many cases a reminder that they should not be used without consulting one’s own doctor. After all, as we all know, different drugs (and diets) work best for different people—and what cures me, might kill you. Some experts who know your personal condition needs to be part of the decision making process.

However, when prestigious task forces proclaim cures for the whole system, experimental evidence—of neither sort—seems relevant. Only full scale implementation is demanded, and only then can we see if it “works”—meaning test scores increases. Unsurprisingly, the voices of working teachers are not heard.

The Commission is the brainchild of Marc Tucker, along with a number of prestigious names. It offers us a 15 year solution to all our economic woes based upon a dramatic change in our educational paradigm. Unlike Goals 2000 which promised us the same in just ten years; or NCLB which promised to produce the miracle in 14, this time it’ll take 15. If we buy on we’ll get 95% of our youngsters doing better at 16 than current graduates do at 18, and all at virtually no additional cost once it’s underway, the Report offers.

What’ll it require? Juggling the time we require all kids to spend in school from 5-18 year olds down to 3 to 16 year olds (which saves a lot of money); a tougher and improved assessment system (more essay-like questions), higher pay for teachers (but fewer benefits), and subcontracting the business of schooling out to private or non-profits (under public authority). And with the savings it claims these proposals will produce we can tackle children’s health, keep schools open from dawn to midnight, and more. In addition it will produce enormous cognitive gains for the kids who choose and are selected for the tougher latter phase of high school (from 16-18). Once all the above are implemented, in fact, most kids will probably be able to pursue the tougher path and graduate with the equivalent of advanced placement status. (Promising losers will be eligible for community college.) These improved cognitive gains, especially if they include more creative thinking, will upgrade America’s competitive position.

The evidence for such claims? For example, what’s the scoop on subcontracting (which is, in essence what charter schools are—and which I am supportive of)? If pressure itself is part of what produces results—as the report otherwise suggests—than charter schools should surely produce better test results. For them it’s truly do or die. Yet virtually every study indicates neither charters nor private schools (if we scientifically compare students by their socio-economic and racial status) have not as yet helped them surpass the regularly governed public schools. Paying teachers who produce better results better salaries? We have no evidence for this yet, although past history has not been promising in this regard. Starting school at 3? A great idea if we managed to be sure that what kids do from 3-6 is appropriate—not just pushing the agenda down. But there is no evidence that it makes it easier to graduate at 16. And so forth.

The report argues on behalf of greater attention to creative thinking in our schools; but saying so won’t make it happen nor is there any evidence that these recommendations would produce more innovation.

But then the entire premise—that our economic woes in the global market will be solved by our having more and better engineers, etc. is only a theory, and a far from accepted one. Just a few weeks earlier a respected Stanford economist, Francisco Ramirez, completed a study (reported with less fanfare in the media) that claimed that there was a dubious connection between a nation’s educational and economic success. That more and better trained engineers in the U.S. can better compete for jobs with Indian engineers whose salaries average $7,500 (annually) is a problematic premise. Given the history of the past 40 years, it seems fair to ask whose “economy” would improve if our competitive status improved? The average American or only those at the top of the pyramid?

Lost in it all is the now nostalgic idea that education was first and foremost about learning how to sustain and nourish democracy. The headlines suggest that democracy is either doing so well that we need not attend to it, or that somehow Americans learn this by magic. However, it might be that a well working democracy and education to use one’s mind well might in fact produce a better economy, but maybe not vice versa. For those of us more worried that our democracy is at risk, we’re arguing about the wrong problem.

Let’s continue this discussion with a lot more humility about cures, and a lot more dialogue between the validity of competing ideas. Maybe the education that works best is one that we don’t try to mandate as the universal cure-all, but persuade (one at a time) our fellow citizens to try out a school at a time. It may in the end be a faster and more efficient route than all the quick fixes we’ve been subjected to for decades.

© 2007 Deborah Meier

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