How the number-crunchers control education

Some time ago I blogged on the number crunchers who by dint of their success in managing the logistics of WW II found themselves in demand as problem solvers. The old adage: to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, was never truer than here. Does the term “data driven” ring a bell?

Like so many highly successful strategies, number crunching resists criticism b/c of its highly visible successes. How could it be inappropriate when it works so well? The lack of logic in that question betrays the desperation of people with problems and one of our country’s biggest problems is education. Compounding the problem is the blinkered approach to it taken by those in power: the obstacles cannot lie within the system b/c we are part of the system. Even those who are not numbers crunchers themselves latch onto the coattails of the number crunchers in a kind of reflected glory. Who can stand against them when they control the governing organizations, the funding sources, the research programs, and the university curricula in teaching? For a parallel case, look at how Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories traces the influence of one man on our concept of a healthy diet.
Nevertheless, we have to look at the teaching profession itself: who is in it? what is the teacher profile? what experiences in the profession are typical? how do teachers respond to these experiences? how are teachers prepared for their profession? The sex imbalance is obvious: heavily loaded with females in the early years. What effect does that have? How do teachers typically organize their work, treat their students, their colleagues, relate to their administrators, and what image do they have in the public?
As with just about everything in U.S. society, the roots go back into our founding. This is a relatively new society, although Europe furnished the intellectual underpinnings of it, its organizational approaches, it conceptual vision of what a society should be like. While much of this has been covered in great depth and breadth, nevertheless we continue to open up frontiers in this area, e.g. the role of slaves and African cultures in forming the broader American culture and the much weaker influence of religion at the founding than we would have thought from the emphasis on the New England religious communities. Most slaves were not Christian until early in the 19th century although they had had an influence on preaching styles and much else via The Great Awakening of the 18th century; few Americans identified themselves as religious in the first half of our historical course.
Religion is only one facet of our history and culture that must be taken into account when analyzing what is stalling our educational endeavor. Political, financial, military, intellectual, and societal institutions all affect our schools; even education itself is an institution with its own structure, imperatives, and history. The school district heir to the New England tradition of public schools draws on something quite different from an Alabama school district designed to serve a Black population. Districts overwhelmed by illegal immigrants, schools located in devastated inner-cities, and schools serving a rural population all struggle, but in different ways, with different needs, different obstacles to overcome, and different goals for their children.
We try to understand “the system” of education by looking at test scores. It is not that we don’t have excellent reporting, both by educators and by those outside the system, but what do those in charge trust in? Numbers. How do you get numbers out of such a disparate mess? Testing. Mass testing. Standardized testing, to enable them to draw conclusions and formulate goals and the reforms to reach those goals. Who do they trust in? People like themselves. I was just reading about the trouble young Republicans were having in getting the GOP to get on board with technology so they don’t get whupped again by the Democrats: they couldn’t get any of the Old Guard to listen to them. Not only was the Old Guard unused to technology and distrustful of it, but they often were invested in several ways in the old methods: phone banks, direct mail, etc. (So richly deserved, IMHO, was the fact that the young Republican techies left the field in pursuit of private enterprise to make money in, abandoning the GOP to the Old Guard, while the Democratic techies stayed with the party to further develop techniques of netting voters). The word incestuous is used to describe such networks but its overtones of perversion mislead; these are natural developments in any human institution, whether it be government, the military, business, education, religion, health care, and so on.
I show my students a movie called Paradigms. It is hokey and dated but it lays out what those who break with the old paradigm have to do, the “paradigm pioneers”. One thing they have to do is to trust in themselves. Here again we are with that word trust, something I devoted a whole blog entry to: teachers don’t trust students, administrators don’t trust teachers, students don’t trust teachers, parents don’t trust teachers, teachers don’t trust administrators, and on and on. So we build in safeguards to protect us: laws, policies, unions, parent organizations, lobbyists, pressure groups, and so on. BTW, I don’t mean to leave out textbook companies in all of this; they are particularly powerful in guiding curriculum and practice and especially when they expand into testing. Who doesn’t bow down to the SATs, the ACTs, the AP tests, the IQ tests, and on and on? Well, some don’t, but those may be the paradigm pioneers.
It is difficult to be a paradigm pioneer when you don’t trust yourself, nor your colleagues, nor your students, nor your administrators. And everyone exploits this lack of trust to cajole or bully others into doing what they want them to do. It is a human trait and institutions can act as a brake on the effects of this paranoid side of human nature. But what institutions do teachers have to rely on when following the Standard Curriculum doesn’t seem to be doing the trick?
This is where professional and political organizations come in. Unions protect our jobs: they lobby legislators to offer up legislation to improve our ability to do our job; they spend money on research, training, and whatever else to bring teachers up to a reasonable level of professionalism. Professional organizations like ACTFL educate the public, especially politicians, about the best conditions in which to teach. The political party which best reflects our views and values pressures policy makers to hew as closely as possible to the line leading to effective teaching. Pressure groups, ad hoc and otherwise, promote our interests. These are activities requiring skilled and experienced operators b/c it is not possible to move without stepping on someone’s toes, so we need skilled representatives who will not step on toes unnecessarily. Textbook companies react strongly to a movement, common among CI teachers, to teach without a traditional textbook.; those folks need to be brought down gently if we indeed do go that route. Perhaps simply getting them to publish CI-friendly texts in addition to the more traditional ones would further good relations between the companies and the teaching cadre.
Right now, given the impoverished state of education (financially speaking) in this country and the lack of leadership (pace the heads of the 2 major unions and other worthy operatives), we educators are wide open to being steamrollered by hefty spenders. They command clout and have a big voice. Teachers have nothing to put up against that. After all, the legislators are going to trust people like themselves lawyers, businessmen more than us. When educators learn to talk like them, they have become them. They are the educators who tell us we need to document, analyze, report, graph and chart, crunch numbers…… if we want the money people to listen to us. They become the mouth pieces for the people with the money.
Is there a way out of this? Around this? Over this? In so many things the solution that appeals to me is modeling. If we want education in this country to be treated as seriously as defense is, or banking, then we have to set up models, models whose funding is not attached to anybody with an ideological agenda. That is what charter schools were supposed to be about, and some do a good job. But they select their students, get rid of students who don’t make them look good, ignore the principles of a good education, and generally follow in the track of their progenitors, the White academies of the post-Brown v Board of Ed decision of 1954 keep my kids away from the riff-raff. Most charter schools do no better than public schools.
What happened? I would say it is b/c of the characteristics I just listed: they select, manipulate students and numbers, enlist the support of heavy-hitters, go ideological usually religious, throw kids out, and go for the numbers. If we could get a cadre of teachers in each district to set up a school, independent of the school system, with no need to justify themselves to a board of businessmen or a church board, and teach students according to an enlightened, humane and humanistic approach to people and knowledge, the results would, IMHO, speak for themselves. But you’d have to keep out the ideologues, the control freaks, the moral majority, the left-wingers and right-wingers, the campaigners for this or that, and select people on the basis of their willingness to just teach without having to keep an eye out for the administration. The accountability would be the parents’ and students’ satisfaction and exit exams which would be designed to demonstrate learning, not drill and cram. Such exams are expensive, so perhaps a consortium of educators could develop the test with funding, funding with no strings attached.

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