On Governors and Ostriches

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As the nation's governors prepare to convene along the banks of the Hudson in late March for another talky education "summit," they'd best watch out for two flocks of ornery ostriches which, when not burying their heads, do a pretty good job of biting and kicking. (See story, page 1.)

We'll return to the bad birds in a moment. First, though, we need to note a pair of changes in the landscape since a previous gaggle of governors joined President Bush in Charlottesville, Va., in 1989.

Most conspicuously, the politics of school reform have heated up and grown more partisan, so much so that education-policy differences could well emerge as a defining issue in the upcoming election (as they already have in Washington budget battles). President Clinton seems determined to run on his record of enacting more federal education programs and spending more on them--and on the dubious claim that, with his help, the country is "turning the corner" on its education woes. No doubt the Clinton-Gore campaign will again benefit hugely from the support of the teachers' unions and other bulwarks of the education establishment. Meanwhile, the GOP candidates have pledged to repeal the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and Mr. Clinton's other legislative landmarks, abolish the U.S. Department of Education, shrink the federal role, and take the side of education's consumers rather than its producers. The contrast has not been this sharp for three decades.

Second, while these differences have so far yielded mostly jawboning and stalemate in Washington, outside the Beltway more radical reforms are coursing through U.S. education. Vouchers are no longer something that will never happen; the only questions now are which states will enact them next and whether the courts will OK versions that include church-affiliated schools. The charter school movement is spreading like wildfire; many of these independent public schools have long waiting lists--and plenty of first-rate people applying to teach in them. Even the controversial idea of public schools managed by private corporations is winning converts; at least 10 American communities will have such schools in operation by September. More companies are preparing to launch.

These developments are encouraging to me and doubtless to many governors. Which is a good thing because what has not yet changed is the system's performance. With just four years left to attain the ambitious targets set in Charlottesville, the National Education Goals Panel reports progress on seven indicators, deterioration on seven, and no significant change on 12 more. Only a third of today's high school seniors read well enough to meet the panel's standard; just one in six reaches that level in math.

Which brings us to the first flock of ostriches with which the governors (and corporate chieftains joining them in Palisades, N.Y.) must contend: educators who still deny that anything is awry and insist that U.S. schools are getting a bum rap stemming from a right-wing conspiracy to invent a faux crisis so as to have an excuse for reconstructing the education system in the conspirators' own image. A minor cottage industry has sprung up to supply these deniers-of-the-left with spurious evidence, and several "experts" now make a nice living telling relieved conference-goers that whatever may be less than perfect about America's schools is the fault of William J. Bennett, Newt Gingrich, and irresponsible parents.

Such elaborate efforts to persuade themselves of things that aren't so is not really surprising. Within the topsy-turvy world of education ideology, little corresponds to everyday truths as those are understood where mere mortals dwell. Indeed, the solid survey research by Public Agenda, the New York City-based foundation, makes plain that educators--at least in the professional vanguard--hold quite different ideas about what's important than do parents, employers, and other "clients."

But this isn't new. Charles Sykes' recent book, Dumbing Down Our Kids (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1995), and works-in-progress by E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch remind us that it's been the pattern for most of the 20th century: ostrich-like avoidance of what's actually awry, the demonization of others for not caring enough about children (or public education), and, perhaps especially, inverted ideas about what's important.

These include relativism, multiculturalism, egalitarianism, individual expressionism, and the rest of the usual modernist baggage, to be sure. But at their center is the conviction that what you know is not as important as how you feel, indeed that what you know is not very important at all.

This is the central blindness of the ostriches-of-the-left, and from it many other errors flow. Shun competition, testing, and comparisons. We won't press you to spell correctly or use proper grammar, lest your individualism be quashed into conformity or your feelings hurt by having errors pointed out. Don't bother with phonics, which are boring and routinized, when you can instead (try to) learn to read by being exposed to esteem-building stories about people who share your ethnicity and gender. Don't tarry over multiplication and division the old-fashioned way, when we can save time for sex education and conflict-resolution training by employing a calculator; in any case, we're more interested in your ardor for tackling math problems than in whether you come up with those discredited "right answers." As for geography and history, we certainly shan't burden you with finding China on a map or knowing when World War I was fought. Far more important that you begin to "think geographically" and to display appropriate historiographic skills. And on and on, from subject to subject and grade to grade.

Governors and chief executive officers might reasonably imagine two ways of changing this sorry situation. One is transplanting different ideas into the profession. The other is transferring power from the professionals to their clients on the assumption that the latter will reshape the schools around their own beliefs about what is important.

I salute anyone willing to tackle the former challenge, but I don't hold out much hope--even for people accustomed to running entire states and large corporations. Overturning the regnant ideology of a self-contained, self-perpetuating, self-certifying, decentralized, ostrich-like profession, most of whose members have lifetime tenure, seems to me unrealistic. All that can be hoped on this front is to liberate the dissenters within the profession--there are thousands--to run their own schools along heterodox lines and to loosen the rules so that more unconventional thinkers can enter the classroom. (Many of the new charter schools illustrate this approach.)

Shifting power, though politically arduous, is actually more practical--and is happening. That's what today's bolder reforms are about. Enabling parents, churches, nonprofit organizations, and private firms to start their own schools, and allowing families to choose among an array of diverse schools (or teach their kids at home), are crucial steps. The primal source of establishment power, after all, is not its ideology but its monopoly. Cracking that monopoly so people can escape to somewhere better is as vital for true education reform in the United States as pulling down the Berlin Wall was to the spread of democracy in Europe.

Unfortunately, that parallel turns out to be more apt than one might wish. Much as the political turmoil in the former Soviet empire, and the voters' turn from "reformers" back to "former Communists," indicates that gaining freedom is not the same as knowing what to do with it, so in American education it is far from clear that most consumers are ready to wield power effectively.

That's not wholly their fault, laboring as they do under several burdens, beginning with widespread complacency about one's own child's school, a complacency caused by the acute shortage of sound information about the performance of those schools and their pupils. (If one seeks a conspiracy in education, watch closely as the ostriches-of-the-left resist testing, avoid external audits, complexify data, and shrink from accountability for results.)

Behind that information shortage, however, is the lousy job we've done of spelling out what we expect children to learn in school, for example, in setting standards by which progress can be gauged and accountability enforced. Without clear "product specifications" we cannot possibly devise quality-control systems--and the marketplace cannot satisfactorily substitute so long as consumers lack good data on performance, data they can never obtain so long as schools have no performance standards.

This is an area where governors and business leaders might be most helpful. But here they encounter the second flock of ostriches: the deniers-of-the-right.

I refer, of course, to those so sore and angry from their recent bout with "outcomes based" education that now they oppose all standards-based strategies for reforming U.S. schools.

Charles Sykes speaks for more than himself when he writes:

"[T]he hijacking of the term 'outcomes' by the educationists represents more than a political coup, and conservatives are naive if they fail to see this or to recognize the fundamental and perhaps fatal flaw that is inherent in the focus on outcomes. Ultimately, it is an act of educational hubris, whether it is undertaken by the educationists or their conservative antagonists.

"When schools define what they offer to students, they are being realistic about their capacities and their limits. When they define 'outcomes,' they are neither realistic nor cognizant of those limits. ... However they are drawn up, the emphasis on student outcomes reverses the focus--and ultimately the responsibilities--of education."

Schools, in other words, must settle for making skills and knowledge available. People will decide for themselves what, if anything, to learn.

Mr. Sykes has part of a point. Learning is ultimately a volitional act and nobody--not teacher, not school, not parent, not employer, not the state--can compel a child to learn something he doesn't want to learn.

But I'd surely rather have my children attend a school that expects them to learn a great deal, that presses them hard in that direction, that creates rewards for high achievement and sanctions for failure, and that holds teachers as well as pupils to account for their results, than a school that simply goes through the motions of teaching. (I'm reminded of Sy Fleigel's epigram: "Define the word 'taught' as used in this sentence: 'I taught my son to swim but every time he gets into the water he sinks to the bottom of the pool.' ")

Yet this can only happen if someone spells out what the school's standards and expectations are. Who that someone should be is by far the stickiest wicket, and perhaps the one where governors and plutocrats can do the most good. But they'll have to resist the easy blunder that many fell prey to the last time they tried to set education standards for their states (and that the federal government succumbed to in its effort to suggest standards for the nation), which was entrusting the process to panels of experts and academics.

Sure, mathematicians deserve a place at the math standards-setting table and--gulp--maybe historians should have a bit to say about any future history standards. But they must be in the minority. The governors would do well to recall William F. Buckley's celebrated epigram about preferring to be ruled by the first hundred people in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. If standards are to have any chance of public acceptance, most of the people setting them should be bus drivers, policemen, shopkeepers, engineers, preachers, and orthodontists. They are the people who need to say what skills and knowledge are essential for their state or community.

That's pretty much what finally happened in Virginia, which recently went through an arduous and conflicted but ultimately successful standards-setting process, the results of which appear to be acceptable to most educators and conservatives alike.

That's the kind of thing the governors and CEOs should focus on. Then we might finally get somewhere on the standards front, and then we'd have a shot at progress on the accountability front. It is not enough, after all, for a school merely to dish up content; it also has an obligation to see that its students consume and digest a decent quantity. Else we'll find ourselves back where those running schools employ only such input measures as per-pupil spending and class size as gauges of "quality"; where the ostriches-on-the-left encounter nothing to counter their claim that U.S. schools are doing a fine job that could only be enhanced by added resources; where schools are judged by the lushness of their services rather than the achievement of their pupils; and where some educators get away with malpractice precisely because there is no generally accepted--or enforceable--definition of success.

Then, too, the ostriches-on-the-right might look anew at standards. Even Mr. Sykes seems ready. A few pages after his bitter denunciation of the hubris of outcomes, he concedes that "by definition, all education is about outcomes." And he finally seems to come down on the side of standards so long as they are not imposed by an educationist monopoly.

That's precisely where he, and we, ought to come down. And what we ought to spend the rest of the decade striving to bring about, even if it doesn't leave much time for many more summit meetings.

Vol. 15, Issue 21, Pages 34, 44

Published in Print: February 14, 1996, as On Governors and Ostriches
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