I am happy to join you to celebrate the 125th anniversary of this organization. American education has been through many changes and much turmoil in the years since 1885. When this organization was founded, only a tiny number of children attended any secondary school, only a tiny number went to college; access to education was very limited beyond the primary grades, and almost non-existent for children of color. In the past 125 years, access to schooling has become universal, and racial barriers have fallen.
And yet, we cannot be in a celebratory mood because the challenges facing education today at every level are daunting. Public education is under siege by budget cuts and powerful forces demanding privatization and deprofessionalization; independent schools are under severe pressure because of rising costs; Catholic schools are closing their doors because of the combination of rising costs and competition with charter schools; institutions of higher education are faced with competition from for-profit institutions and from legislatures demanding tangible results. Everyone feels the pressure of economics, and everyone confronts demands for data. When the number crunchers arrive at your door, will you be ready to prove your worth?
Because I am a historian, I thought it might be instructive to go back a century and consider the kind of educational leadership we had then. I thought it might make an interesting contrast to the present, especially as it might shed perspective on present dilemmas. What kind of men—and yes, they were men—were leaders of the profession, and what kinds of issues were they debating?
Let me suggest as my paradigmatic figure William Torrey Harris. I feel sure that Harris was an active participant in the New England Association of Schools and Colleges over his long career. He was born in Connecticut in 1835, attended Yale, but left without graduating because he didn’t like the classical curriculum of Latin, Greek and mathematics. At the age of 22, he moved to St. Louis, where he became an elementary school teacher. After 11 years teaching, he was named superintendent of schools in that city. At the same time that Harris was advancing in the ranks of schoolmen, he was also one of the nation’s leading scholars of Hegel. He founded the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. His annual reports as superintendent explore the purposes of public education, the public’s obligation to support it, and the necessity of a full and rich curriculum for all children. He defended the teaching of Latin, asserting that students needed a period of what he called “self-alienation,” where they entered into a totally foreign culture and then returned to their own, better able to see it critically. Under his leadership, the St. Louis public schools introduced art, music, and drawing into the curriculum and added kindergartens. It was in the forefront of education reform. He published learned analyses of the relationships among the individual, the family, civil society and the state. He used statistics not to demean the schools or teachers, but to build greater public understanding and better schools. He was a visionary and a builder, and most assuredly a scholar.
In 1880, Harris gave up his superintendency and moved to Concord, Massachusetts, to work with Bronson Alcott on their shared philosophical interests. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison selected Harris to become U.S. Commissioner of Education. He served in that post with distinction until 1906.
Now let me for a moment or two reflect on a superintendent of that time: William Henry Maxwell. Born in Ireland and educated in the classics, Maxwell came to New York City in 1874. Although a schoolmaster in Ireland, he was unable to get a teaching job in Brooklyn because he did not know any of the local political bosses. He managed to get a job as a reporter for a Brooklyn newspaper, where he wrote so brilliantly about the schools that he finally won an administrative position in 1882. Four years later, he was selected as superintendent of schools in Brooklyn. When the greater City of New York was created in 1898, Maxwell was selected as the new metropolitan city’s first superintendent and remained in that position for 20 years.
Because of his own experience, he was ever after a dedicated foe of political interference in the schools and a strong supporter of the civil service system. As superintendent, he fought for better teachers, higher salaries, and more professionalism, with teachers chosen and promoted by examination. He created a uniform curriculum for the city’s schools, introduced social services, appointing school nurses, providing school lunches and medical clinics, and established classes for children who had disabilities, which was a remarkable innovation at the time.
Now, I’ve gone into detail to describe the kind of educational leaders of the years when you were founded, because it makes a sad contrast with educational leadership today.
Today, the U.S. Secretary of Education says that teachers should not be paid extra for graduate degrees or for their experience in the classroom. Based on the contested research of some economists, he and that distinguished educational leader Bill Gates tell us that teachers need no more education than a bachelor’s degree. I have trouble following the logic, the implication being that American education will improve if teachers have less education and less experience. This makes no sense to me, and I expect it would make no sense to Commissioner Harris or Superintendent Maxwell.
If we expect to see our schools make great strides, it seems to me that we need a well-educated, stable profession of educators. We need teachers with a solid background in their subject, preferably with a graduate degree in their subject, who know how to manage a classroom and deal with the problems that come up daily. We need principals who are themselves master teachers; instead we see the proliferation of programs to train principals in a year, even if they were never teachers or taught for only a few years. We need principals who can draw on their own deep knowledge and experience when they evaluate teachers or offer to help them. We need superintendents who understand teaching and learning, curriculum and assessment, and who are able to navigate the political pathways of local, state, and federal funding, for the benefit of their students.
But the trend these days appears to be to hire superintendents with little or no educational experience. We have in recent years seen superintendents who were admirals, generals, social workers, lawyers, politicians, and business leaders. Just the other day, New York City’s Mayor selected a publishing executive who has never evinced any interest in public education to serve as Chancellor of the public school system.
None of these innovations has been successful to date. Nowhere have we seen a school system turn around to become high-performing in response to having a non-educator at its helm.
The trend itself is alarming. Apparently in business, skills are interchangeable. A marketing or sales executive can sell toothpaste or automobiles or soap. But education is not a business. There are no sales, no revenues, no stock prices: instead, there are the lives and futures of children at stake. Each one is unique and precious. Business people understand marketing, public relations, budgeting, and the skills of management. These are important skills, but they will not save us. We need educational thinkers, we need vision. We need to think about the purposes of education and align our institutions with our purposes. Instead, we are drowning in data..
Data will not save us, because data is only a representation of reality, and it is easily manipulated. We should use it wisely, but instead data is driving decisions. It seems as though we have gone back a century to the age of efficiency, the age of Frederick Winslow Taylor and his educational counterparts, who believed that everything worth doing could be measured. They ended by endorsing only vocational, industrial and trade subjects, because they had the data to prove their worth. They sneered at academic subjects because efficiency experts could not prove the worth of history, geography, science, foreign languages, and literature. Fittingly, it was William Henry Maxwell who denounced what he called “the time-wasting, energy-destroying statistical research” that compared the education of children to the manufacture of steel rails. It could be done, but what was the point other than to ruin education and destroy any real sense of what good education was?
Today, we live in a new age of efficiency, which is both anti-intellectual and profoundly inefficient. Our educational decision-making is based on the speculations and judgments of economists who work with data, but never set foot in a classroom. They have no educational values, no educational vision. But they do have data.
And so our K-12 public schools are caught in the wildly utopian and mean-spirited grasp of No Child Left Behind, as pernicious a piece of legislation as was ever passed by Congress. It sets a utopian goal that all children must be proficient by 2014, but not only is this a goal, it is a mandate! No state or nation has ever reached the goal of 100% proficiency. But any school that is not on track to meeting this unreachable goal will be punished. It will in time suffer a series of humiliations: It will be labeled a failing school. Students will avoid it. Its principal will be fired. Its staff will be fired. It may be privatized or turned into a charter school or closed. Schools are closing even now in communities across the nation because they were not able to make every single student proficient. (University Place Campus School; Salinas, children of lettuce pickers. Kenny the chef.)
Educators and parents should be demanding the repeal of this vicious law, but it continues to be the law of the land, and its basic principles of accountability and punishment for low-performing schools will remain intact in the proposed Obama reauthorization plan.
An axiom: No school was ever improved by closing it. Firing, punishing, stigmatizing. This is not the language of education.
NCLB—a piece of legislation of more than 1,000 pages--contains over 100 references to research-based practices. But the law itself is not based on research. Instead, it is based on the mythical Texas “miracle,” the claim in the 1990s that Texas had discovered that testing and accountability—publishing the results of the tests and shaming educators—produced dramatic improvement. Texas was said to have increased the graduation rate and was narrowing the achievement gap. None of this was true, but it is the foundational myth of NCLB. By the way, on the NAEP, the federal tests, eighth grade students in Texas have exactly the same scores in 2009 as they did in 1998. No change, no miracle.
NCLB has endowed the public schools with a plague of standardized testing, limited only to basic skills. Billions of dollars have been spent this past decade on test prep and interim assessments. And now, nearly 10 years after the passage of NCLB, it is clear that there has been little or no progress on NAEP in reading and math.
Today’s educational leaders, lacking any vision, say that what is needed to make progress on the tests are rewards and punishments. Teachers are so lazy that they need the prod of a bonus or the fear of firing to try harder. Students too need to be bribed to get higher test scores. How I wish that William Torrey Harris or William Henry Maxwell or any of the founders of this organization were alive to see how totally education has been corrupted by business values!
Merit pay is one of the favorite strategies of our business-minded education leaders. They don’t know that merit pay has been tried again and again since the 1920s. The latest study of merit pay was released this past September by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University. The economists conducting this study recognized that the usual fault of merit pay plans was that the bonus wasn’t big enough; it seems that a prize of $4,000-5,000 is not enough to motivate our lazy teachers. So their plan had a bonus of $15,000 for middle school math teachers who could raise test scores. At the end of three years, the economists reported that the treatment group and the control group got exactly the same results. The bottom line, it seems, was that teachers in both groups were teaching as hard as they knew how. The bonus made no difference in student performance.
Yet the day after the results of the Vanderbilt study were released, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $442 million in grants for merit pay programs. You see, ideology trumps evidence. No one cares that the evidence says bonuses make no difference.
The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program brandished nearly $5 billion before cash-starved states to promote its own reform ideas, including merit pay. The most pernicious of these ideas is judging teachers by their students’ test scores. Many states changed their laws to qualify for the federal cash, and now teachers will be judged by whether scores on standardized tests go up or down.
Testing experts say that this method of judging teachers is highly flawed. It is inaccurate and unstable. Students are not randomly assigned. A teacher who is rated highly effective one year may be less effective the next year, and vice versa, because her ratings will be affected by the composition of her classes. Sean Corcoran at NYU has warned that value-added rating systems have a wide margin of error. In the New York City program of rating teachers, a teacher who is at the 43rd percentile might actually be at the 15th percentile or the 71st percentile.
The consequences of attaching high-stakes to test scores are predictable. If high stakes testing produces punishments and rewards for principals and teachers, if it leads to schools being closed, then there will be cheating scandals, teaching to bad tests, intensive spending on test prep, gaming of the system, lowered standards to hype the passing rate, and narrowing of the curriculum. You may have heard of the New York City miracle, how test scores went through the roof as a result of mayoral control of the schools. Well, earlier this year the State Education Department admitted that the tests had gotten easier over time and recalibrated the scores. Overnight, the NYC miracle evaporated. The achievement gap in the city yawned as wide as it was eight years ago.
Across the nation, districts have expanded the time devoted to testing and preparing to take tests, and other subjects have lost time. Over the past several years, I have frequently seen reports of districts cutting back on the arts, science, history, geography, civics, foreign languages, even physical education and recess. This is not good education. When the curriculum is narrowed to basic skills, it is very bad education.
So the business leaders who have taken charge of education policy now tell us that the answer to the problems of public education is privately managed charter schools. Wall Street hedge fund managers have an unusual affinity for charter schools and have invested heavily in their expansion. Perhaps you saw the film “Waiting for Superman,” which is an extended infomercial about the failures of public education and the amazing results obtained in charter schools.
I reviewed the movie for the New York Review of Books, and I can report to you that the movie has a political agenda. One of its producers was previously the CEO of a chain of for-profit postsecondary vocational schools. The other major producer is an evangelical billionaire who is a strong proponent of privatization and free markets.
Now I like free markets as much as the next person, but I am not prepared to turn over our nation’s children and an important public institution to the private sector. The evidence does not support that conclusion.
The most salient characteristic of charters is variability. There is no such thing as a typical charter school. Some get excellent results and enjoy a fine reputation. Some are awful. Most are in-between. Charters are not a panacea.
CREDO: 17% better, 37% worse results, 46% no difference.
Mathematica Policy Research: study of charter middle schools with lotteries: No difference in academic performance or in behavior, inside or outside school.
NAEP: 2003-05-07-09: no difference, not for black students in charters, Hispanic, low-income, urban.
Some of the charters with the biggest reputations have incredible attrition rates. For example, in Superman, SEED charter school, a boarding school, held up as exemplary. Not mentioned: $35,000 a year. In DC, the SEED school has high attrition. 140 started in 7th grade, but only 34 graduated last June. 75% attrition. Better than a few years ago, when only 13 graduated.
Superman says that resources don’t matter, and poverty doesn’t matter. Geoffrey Canada is star of show. His HCZ does some wonderful things. It has a powerful and wealthy board of directors. It also has an amazing lot of assets: $200 million. Resources don’t matter if you have them!
But poverty does matter, and even Canada has struggled with his two charter schools. In one, only 40% met state standards, in the other only 50%. These are schools with class sizes of less than 15, with 2 certified teachers. One to one tutoring after school. Awards of trips to Galapagos. His schools get better results than neighborhood schools in Harlem but they would probably do as well if they had the same resources.
One other thing: He kicked out entire first class before they entered ninth grade; their test scores were no good; he sent them packing back to public schools.
One thing is clear: American K-12 public education is now in the grip of test score mania. I am not opposed to testing; I think that testing can be very valuable when used for diagnostics and placement. If used wisely, testing can help us improve education to meet the needs of the children.
But when used for accountability, testing distorts the meaning and purposes of education, and distorts the value of the tests themselves. If everyone is preparing for the tests, then the tests become a measure of how much time was invested in preparing for them. I recall when I took the SAT in the mid-1950s. I did no test prep; ETS said that coaching was not necessary and no one was tutored. But my grandson took the SAT this past spring after spending every weekend for a year preparing for it. May I say that I think that is sick? The SAT is not a measure of his developed abilities, but of his parents’ ability to pay for tutors. That is wrong.
If you think the data mania will pass by higher education, think again. For several years, trustees and legislators have been seeking ways to hold higher education accountable for “results.” As I speak, there are organizations developing rubrics to determine the value of courses and professors.
Texas A&M has figured one out. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education on September 2:
Texas A&M System Will Rate Professors Based on Their Bottom-Line Value
The Texas A&M University System is moving ahead with a controversial method of evaluating how much professors are worth, based on their salaries, how much research money they bring in, and how much money they generate from teaching….
Under the proposal, officials will add the money generated by each professor and subtract that amount from his or her salary to get a bottom-line value for each, according to the article.
The vice chancellor for academic affairs for the 11-campus system, said the public wanted accountability. "It's something that we're really not used to in higher education: for someone questioning whether we're working hard, whether our students are learning. That accountability is going to be with us from now on."
Best of all were the hundreds of comments appended to this article. One said, “Oh, goody, I’ll teach the introductory class to 450 students, give everyone an A, and have 100% retention. Send me my raise!” Another asked, “What is the value of Latin? Art? Philosophy? If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to scouting local caves for the inevitable Dark Age.” Others predicted that those who taught seminars would be penalized, and those who teach composition—small classes with no research grants—would be worthless.
My favorite comment, however, was from someone who wrote “This sounds like a proposal from the Wall Street College of Corporate Clowns.”
The demand for accountability and data is unlikely to subside soon. There will be cheerleading for online instruction—after all, it is so amazingly cost-effective to have students take their courses online, enabling one teacher or professor to “serve” hundreds of students 24/7. Of course, when the papers are turned in, one will never know who did the work, whether it came from the student or from the prolific Shadow Scholar who boasted a few weeks ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the numbers of papers, theses, and dissertations that he had written for pay. If you know your students, if you have seen their written work all year, you won’t be fooled by the Shadow Scholar.
And many entrepreneurs are poised to move into the for-profit sector of higher education, as they have moved into the lucrative K-12 sector. Recent studies by Education Trust and the Pew Foundation accuse the for-profit colleges of preying on students, encouraging them to take out federal loans, and collecting the money as the students drop out in droves. According to Education Trust, only 9% of the full-time, first-time students at the University of Phoenix receive a degree within six years. This should be a scandal.
But where there is a market, there will be entrepreneurs, and by their nature, they are accountable to their investors, not to their students.
The signs and augurs of the age are not good for education. Yet, as Flannery O’Connor memorably wrote, we must push back as hard as the age that pushes against us.
We must insist that education is a process of civilization, not a business. Our society will advance only if we continue to invest in the minds and full development of our people. Our culture will be uplifted or degraded according to our commitment to education and enlightenment. Our democratic institutions will be strengthened or wither in proportion to our support for the education of those who choose our leaders at every level.
These were the challenges that faced the hardy souls who established this organization in 1885. They remain the challenges before us today.
We need much larger purposes for our students today beyond college and career readiness.
Let us not forget about democratic citizenship and character as goals.
Let us not reduce education to quantification.
Our work is the work of replenishing our society and our social capital with men and women with hearts, minds, character, ethics, judgment, knowledge, wisdom and ideals. Men and women who are prepared to improve our society far beyond our years.
This is our job, our work, our mission. And this must be our legacy. This is why we educate.