Body Counts & Standards-Based Reform
We've made a good beginning by setting the nation's sights on six ambitious National Education Goals ...George H. W. Bush, America 2000: an educational strategy (DOE, 1991)
To the discerning eye, an artifact from another culture, another time, is more than a material object, a piece of pottery, a manuscript, a wood sculpture. Rather, it may be used to reveal the structure of a society and the beliefs that underpin it. We, having progressed to our present state of enlightenment, can see in such an artifact the residues of the superstitions and barbarisms of that ancient order. We may explore through it the rationalizations of benighted souls happily long gone from our own gleaming alabaster cities, undimmed by human tears.
While rummaging through a library of antiquities, I came across a pamphlet, mixed in with manuals on programmed instruction, a New Math book, and an article on the open classroom. It was a handsome production in patriotic colors entitled, "America 2000: an educational strategy." I imagined myself back into the ancient era of its popularity and after carefully examining it, found it susceptible to the following imaginary critique. (But then, what might one expect, knowing what progress we have made in the intervening years.)
America 2000: an education strategy is neither educational nor a strategy. Nothing so reveals the lowly state of education in America as the existence of this booklet. Were a similar proposal to be offered for our economic woes it would be ridiculed and not given a second thought. However, not only is America 2000 suffered an audience among educators, it is, in some quarters, even celebrated! Granted that in this booklet there is found the expression of many a noble dream. But it is mere dressing. The basic fare provides no sustenance. Worse yet, America 2000 reinforces the caricature of educators so gullible as to be ready to swallow down any kind of intellectual offal so long as it is sauced over with sentiment.
America 2000 describes a "revolution", a low-cost revolution. For example, Page 30 tells us that this educational revolution will not cost very much more than our present schools. "It will be a requirement for the Design Teams that the new schools they design can operate at costs no more than conventional schools." How can the authors predict future costs, or is this statement really an indicator that they have no intention of spending anything extra to bring their hopes to fruition?
Although we have long since given up the attempt to transmute base metals into gold, the authors of this tract reveal alchemistic tendencies in social engineering. For example, page 26 gives one set of "specifics." Family pathology affects school achievement. How will we address pathological families? "Increased attention will be focussed on adult behavior, responsibility for children and family, and community values essential for strong schools." Is "attention" a causal factor in improvement? Is it sufficient? What philosopher's stone will transform pathology into health?
How is the knowledge acquired in school to be connected to the world of work? Alikazoola, mitchikaboola, bibbidy-bobbidy-boo: five "Core" school subjects will "represent" (?) "what young Americans need to know if they are to live and work successfully in today's world." (p.13) What exactly does "represent" mean? Are today's engineers being laid off for reasons of "down-sizing" to blame their schooling for their dilemma?
Hocus-pocus is supported with impressive simile: On page 9 we find, "Almost all our education trend lines are flat. Our country is idling its engines, not knowing enough nor being able enough to make America all that it should be." But flat "trend lines" admit of varying interpretations. If America is "not being able" then what is supposed to reverse this? A call to action? The blare of bugles?
Does America 2000 give any insight into the country's economic situation or into the state of the schools? On page 9 we find, "our employers cannot hire enough qualified workers." Who says so? The employers? This statement may be less an accurate description than a hiring negotiation strategm. After all, the "less qualified" an applicant, the lower the salary that may be offered.
On page 11 we are told, "Complacency is widespread:" that is, so far as the schools are concerned, many (most) Americans do not believe the sky is falling, at least not in comparison to the economic situation.
What are we to do with this sixty-two page cheerleading manual for the intellectually indolent? What are to make of its persistent confusion of hope with reality, its bizarre ideas of causality, its ambiguous conceptualizations, its false parallels, and its downright dumb assumptions about the nature of American society? The only practical use I can conceive of for it is this: use it as a test of minimal quality for those institutions that would train educators. Does Professor X admire and promote it? Fire the mindless charlatan! Does a department have classes which spend more than an hour examining and discussing its contents? Close it down! It is wasting precious resources! Are there governors, even a President, who have lent their names to promulgating this idiocy? Turn them out of office!
In all seriousness, the document is nothing more than an attempt to promote Choice and Alternative Teacher Certification by mixing these proposals in among formulations that need a stretch of the imagination to be characterized as wishful thinking. What is interesting is that this document, despite invoking "we" and "the nation" throughout, is not addressed to anybody. At least not anybody who can tell Shinola from its simulacra.
Page 41 clearly gives it away. The second paragraph there states,
Without a strong commitment and concerted effort on the part of every sector and every citizen to improve dramatically the performance of the nation's education system and each and every student, these goals will remain nothing more than a distant unattainable vision.Nothing that depends on everything or everyone is a reasonable strategy. Basic to anything we would understand as a sincere effort is an assumption of power. One cannot try to do what one has no reasonable hopes of controlling. This fundamental premise of action is violated throughout the document. It is most egregiously compounded by requiring universal commitment.
The assumption of power is violated in the very beginning of the document where the suggestion is made that accountability will improve schools (p. 13). Now, either teachers and principals already have the power to improve schools or they do not. If they do not, then holding them accountable cannot help and is not fair. If they do have such power, then accountability can only help if they have been "slacking off," "dodging their responsibilities," "not doing a day's work," or any of many other perversions which accountability is going to scare them out of. From the beginning, by virtue of this gratuitous calumny, the document excludes practicing educators as part of the consensual group whose support it purports to be attempting to secure.
Congress is not on the inside either, since page 14 indicates that it will be asked to authorize and permit national assessments. Page 27 lets Congress know it will need to pass the America 2000 Excellence in Education Act and press for other supportive changes.
Clearly, the document was written by a committee that didn't share its notes; or by a schizophrenic. On page 20 we are told that New American Schools Design Teams "can be expected to set aside all traditional assumptions about schooling and all the constraints under which conventional schools work." Yet on page 25 we read that
...achieving the goals requires a renaissance of sound American values such as strength of family, parental responsibility, neighborly commitment, the community-wide caring of churches, civic organizations, business, labor and the media.To call a "renaissance of values" a "requirement" either throws in the towel, or presumes on Omnipotence.
America 2000 goes on:
It's time to end the no-fault era of heedlessness and neglect. As we shape tomorrow's schools we should rediscover the timeless values that are necessary for achievement.Clearly, the "timeless values necessary for achievement" are not part of the "traditional assumptions about schooling" that are to be set aside.
Then there is the issue of fault, the fault of heedlessness and neglect. Whose fault? Whose heedlessness? Whose neglect? The President's? The Congress's? The Governors'?
Whose kids are going to be deprived of what little chance they might have to get a job when employers are urged to pay attention to the American Achievement Tests in hiring? (See page 13.) Is this what we want in the Land of Opportunity? Whose kids will suffer when colleges are urged to use the Tests in admissions? How is this going to work with community colleges and their transfer programs? Or is the appeal of America 2000 not addressed to these parents?
From where are the legions of panting enthusiasts going to come who are needed to realize the goals of America 2000'? Page 11 concedes that "complacency is widespread." I realize that a gulf of thirty pages separates this recognition of "complacency" from the requirement for universal commitment. This perhaps explains why the inconsistency may be less than obvious to those whose eyesight is clouded from squinting after "revolutionary" visions of educational change. One fact is clear. The authors of America 2000 realize they have no broad consensual base for their proposal even as they require it for success.
I didn't realize when I undertook this critique how onerous a burden it would be going through America 2000 -- very much like reviewing a Jenny Jones' show. Discussing the consensual foundations of this document is perhaps beside the point. The goals themselves are preposterous. Basically, in just a few years, we will have -- God knows how -- undone or reversed decades, perhaps even centuries of social disintegration. Let's quickly look a few of them over.
All children in America will start school ready to learn. Learn what? What the school has to offer? I know of real, live babies who seven years from now will be lucky to be over the addiction they acquired from their mothers. Even so, the many Pepsi and potato chip meals they will have eaten by the year 2000 will hardly have fortified them to learn math and science in the crumbling buildings and tumultuous classrooms they will be schooled in.
The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent. But we will of course tolerate that 9+% that will not graduate because we can't control factor X, which prevents them from graduating. Other factors, as long as they're not factor X, can, of course, be controlled.
Every adult American will possess the skills necessary to compete in a global economy. Now that our heavy industry has been extractively managed for the last forty years, they should be able to pick crops as well as farm laborers anywhere in the world.
President Bush on April 18, 1991 said,
To those who want to see real improvement in American education, I say: There will be no renaissance without revolution.Supposed he had said instead,
To those who want to see real improvement in American health care, I say: There will be no renaissance without revolution.Or ,
To those who want to see real improvement in American industry, I say: There will be no renaissance without revolution.Or even,
To those who want to see real improvement in American government, I say: There will be no renaissance without revolution.President Bush and the governors might have had a problem if, instead of education, they had talked about health care, industry or government. It is unlikely they could have deluded themselves or anyone else that "setting their sights on six ambitious ...goals" would have counted as having made a good beginning.
Most vexing to me as someone who has spent so many years in education is the thought that no one in health care, industry or government, not one single human being capable of fogging a mirror or scratching an itch would have taken six facile slogans about national health care, industrial or governmental goals as being worthy of anything more than polite disdain.
This ends the critique that I might have made were I living back in that dark time when people appeared to take that document seriously. Luckily, we in education can be thankful that such a proposal has not survived into our present era.