Education Opinion

This is How a Tipping Point Feels

By Anthony Cody — August 15, 2010 5 min read
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We are accustomed here on this blog, and elsewhere in education policy-land, of discussing education issues as if they were a realm of their own, with Arne Duncan (and maybe Bill Gates) as the biggest players. We debate policies like merit pay and charter schools, and sometimes reference the influence of economic and social factors, but we sometimes lose sight of the larger political context that is driving these policies.

Things are getting ready to shift.

It is said that education policy is like a pendulum. It tends to swing from one extreme to another. In the 1970s, when the progressive social movements peaked, we had the rise of desegregation, whole language instruction and constructivism, with a great emphasis on student-centered instruction. The past decade the pendulum has swung way back to the other extreme, with the rise of test-driven accountability and pre-digested curriculum.

How educational leaders have responded to this is very instructive. Diane Ravitch is a fascinating case study. She genuinely believed that we could drive improvement in our schools through tough standards and high-stakes tests, and actively promoted these methods. As the decade unfolded and evidence accumulated that this was not working as intended, the honest historian in her forced a change of stance, and she has become a sharp critic. She is a bellwether.

It is a fascinating, frustrating and exciting time, this tipping point we are approaching. The broader political setting is hugely important. We are two years into an administration that made fantastic promises to an America hungry for change. “We are the people we have been waiting for.” Obama and his electioneers tapped into every hopeful beat of our hearts. We would bring the troops home from Iraq, close Guantanamo, stop the phone tapping, rein in corporate greed, and inspire the world with a more humane foreign policy.

In education, we were told we would enter a new era of “mutual responsibility,” stop spending the year preparing for bubble tests, and stop blaming teachers for all the problems in our schools. We thought we would have a leader smart enough to understand that slogans and profiteers will not be our saviors, and that local leadership at the school and community level is the wellspring of school improvement.

But here we are, approaching the two year mark. At first, we were dismayed, when cruel practices of NCLB were extended. Did they not understand what they were doing? Could they not see this was not consistent with our shared vision? So we wrote, we organized on Facebook, we lobbied, and we spoke by phone with the Secretary himself. It has become clear they know exactly what they are doing, and nothing we say matters.

Teachers are not alone in this feeling. The chance to rein in corporate salaries has been squandered, and companies who received billions in bailout funds have showered their executives with billions in bonuses. The hedge fund managers - heavy investors in charter schools, by the way, have invested in politicians as well, and our system remains rigged in their favor. The war in Iraq, which Obama pledged to end this summer, drags on endlessly, and Afghanistan may well do to the American empire the same thing it did to the Soviets. A mixed blessing, perhaps, but a colossal waste of lives and resources.

Diane Ravitch is gaining company.
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, not a radical by any means, just filed a column that describes the situation this way:

...if Duncan really wants to stop the biggest bully in America's schools right now, he'll have to confront his boss, President Obama. In federal education policy, the president and his education secretary have been the neighborhood toughs -- bullying teachers, civil rights groups, even Obama's revered community organizers.

Milbank points out what many of us have been saying for months.

Obama has taken the worst aspect of Bush's No Child Left Behind education law -- an obsession with testing -- and amplified it.

Obama has expanded the importance of standardized testing to determine how much teachers will be paid, which educators will be fired and which schools will be closed -- despite evidence that such practices are harmful. In the process, he's offended just about all the liberals involved in or advocating for education without gaining much support from conservatives.

One must assume that Obama has made a Clintonesque political calculation. Faced with tremendous pressure from an alliance of corporate-sponsored education reform organizations and their allies in the media, Obama chose the easy way. He appointed an education secretary who would advance their agenda, apparently assuming that this was a battle he did not need, given all his other troubles.

But those of us working in the schools are not concerned about political calculations. We are trying to make sense of a society that has abandoned those in poverty in every meaningful dimension, and dropped even the pretense of desegregating our schools, and yet expects teachers to close the achievement gap all by ourselves.

Some of us are pendulum-pushers, and some are pendulum-riders.
A curious thing has happened as we approach this tipping point. Even as evidence accumulates and is documented by honest scholars such as Ravitch, the “education reformers” are becoming more desperate to shore up their collapsing project. They are very smart, and have incredible resources at their disposal. Even in the midst of an economic crisis, they have marshaled billions of dollars to purchase people’s energy. The Race to the Top was ingenious, and so well-timed, as to put maximum pressure on states struggling with impossible revenue shortfalls. So now we have new projects within the education reform effort. There is money for the “new and better” assessments that will solve all the problems we had before with those “bad” assessments. There is money for teacher pay, so long as it is tied to test scores. Those who buy this (or are bought) increasingly insist this trend is irreversible, and “resistance is futile,” as a certain queen once asserted.

Those of us who have a name as teacher leaders may even be offered opportunities on these projects, and may have to do some soul searching and investigation, to be sure we can live with the results that our work may yield.

We who are pendulum pushers are hanging on, holding our ground, and continuing to push back. The time has come for the pendulum to start moving the other way.

With an actual pendulum, it is gravity that eventually wins out over the momentum of the device. In the case of education policy, as with corporate banditry and endless war, we cannot wait for the laws of physics to do the job. We need to be pushing, slowing the swing, and pushing it towards a new direction. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in The Tipping Point, there are moments when ideas catch hold and begin to spread almost like a virus. There is some combination of outrage and hope that crystallizes into social change. I hope these ideas are infectious. It is about time for this pendulum to swing.

Update: An anonymous reader posted the following complaint today: “It’s clear what Anthony is against. What is he for?”

Just in case anyone else would like to see some of the alternatives we have been discussing here on this blog, here are some links to recent entries:

These Seven Principles: Our Plea to Congress

A Teachers NEWprint for School Change

A Quality Teacher in Every Classroom: New Report Takes on Evaluation

Strengthening our Schools Takes Persistence -- But Firing people is So Satisfying!

We certainly do need strong alternatives to current policies, but claims that these are missing are simply wrong.

What do you think? Are we approaching a tipping point? How can we make it so?

image by rptnorris, provided by Creative Commons license.

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