By Andrew Jackson
As corporate influence has come to dominate the ways that the education policy agenda is implemented, then, more top-down testing mandates, higher stakes and heavier sanctions have displaced most other school priorities, particularly in communities made up of poor, minority and immigrant populations. The “gap” is not about test scores, it’s more about real education.
Nationally, following passage of No Child Left Behind [NCLB], schools in some disadvantaged communities found themselves struggling even to stay open to educate the children of the poor, whose parents were encouraged to opt for the only alternative to their neglected and failure-designated public school, corporate reform charter schools. Upon the recommendations of corporate foundations and an increasingly influential education reform industry flush with cash from federal discretionary grants, the U.S. Department of Education grew its Charter School Program from $6 million annually in 1995 to $256 million in 2011. With the passage of NCLB and the subsequent introduction of Race To The Top [RTTT] grants, the federal government also provided other generous economic incentives to nonprofit and for-profit corporations.
This was to help them open the preferred type of “No Excuses” reform charter schools to replace the most vulnerable urban public schools, and in some cases, to channel “particular” students out of the “regular” school system. Allowed to operate without the services and protections (for both teachers and students) required of public schools, the most significant “public” aspect of the corporate reform charter schools remains the public tax dollars that fund them.
Through the spread of charter schools, contracted management, transportation, commercial curriculum, private tutoring and testing services, the well-worn reform strategies based on more high-stakes testing and nationalized curriculum expanded to claim a significant market share of the $600 billion spent each year on P-20 education. The intention is great but the reality is different for many students, especially for the underserved, many of those, students of color, the poor and/or low economic conditions. In late 2012, Rob Lytle, a partner in a Boston consulting firm, actually outlined for a group of investors in Manhattan the imminent financial bonanza taking shape as national standards and national testing were scheduled to replace state and local standards and tests.
Educators, parents, and other concerned citizens of the nation and the world should not wait and wonder if Mr. Lytle or those he advises will notice the social and natural ecologies screaming for attention just behind the investment ecosystem that holds the attention of policy elites. I say, as surely as the last half of the 20th century directed schools toward competing in a global economy that has further concentrated power in economic institutions without national boundaries, this first half of the 21st century where we are presently, must be devoted to education aimed toward cooperating in global, national and local ecologies to save life on the planet. Otherwise, economies of the future, whether global, national or local, will not matter for much.
Unfortunately, we seem to dismiss educational research, to our demise! Some 70 plus years ago, John Dewey [a philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer], said that we might proceed toward the future only so far as we are willing to examine our past. For Dewey, experience was made up of a continuum of past, present and future that intersected with our internal and external geographies in an ongoing interactive dance (Dewey, 1938). That said, then experience which is derived from combined components of time (past, present, future) and space (internal and external), come together as reflection and purpose directed toward action. Therefore, if Dewey was correct, the current steady state of education reform, which is seemingly unable to break out of a fixation on high-stakes testing, would make sense. So, by perpetuating some kind of anti-history that discards knowledge that scholars have gleaned from past reform efforts, education reformers have become doomed to repeat the failures that they appear determined to ignore.
An example would be the lessons (presumably) learned about implementation failures following the 1960s “reform initiatives” at the federal level that had to span various levels and layers of government and institutions (McLaughlin, 1987). Writing some 20 years after the initial Title I evaluations, McLaughlin noted that economists and sociologists, who were the “chief architects” of Great Society programs, were quick to assign blame when their “theories of scientific management” did not produce the results predicted by their “notions of hierarchical authority and bureaucratic control.”
Unfortunately, lessons learned by second generation policy analysts were lost on the next generation of reformers, whose laser-like focus on high-stakes testing from the 1990s forward missed [or dismissed] much of the scholarly and practical advice emanating from university departments, whose empirically based research studies were quickly being replaced by advocacy research of corporate-sponsored think tanks fronted as research centers and functioned as public relations and marketing annexes for corporate education reform.
A deepening tunnel vision resulted among politicians and their corporate patrons who sought to make reputations as education reformers. Independent scholarship, then, from within universities often was ignored or treated as ad hoc support of the “resistance to reforms,” which has been attributed mainly to teachers and their professional organizations since the 1960s. After all, university researchers were teachers, too.
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