Standards Opinion

Dialogue With the Gates Foundation: What Is the Purpose of K-12 Education?

By Anthony Cody — August 29, 2012 13 min read
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This week, our exchange is focused on these questions: What is the purpose of K-12 education? How do we think about college and career readiness? How do the Common Core Standards fit in? This post is a response to one posted yesterday, authored by Irvin Scott of the Gates Foundation. This post can also be viewed and commented upon at the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog.

Irvin Scott of the Gates Foundation has given us some vivid images of the students he taught, and sincerely described the fervent desire that motivates every teacher - that we help those children entrusted to us reach their fullest potential. That is a drive that transcends this debate. And there we have common ground as educators.

However, when it comes to the broader strategy of the Gates Foundation, there remain some tough questions. The thrust of the Gates Foundation’s approach is captured in this paragraph from Irvin Scott:

But we need all hands on deck when it comes to addressing poverty: we need there to be efforts laser focused on fixing the root causes of inequality that happen outside of school and we need efforts to focus on creating opportunity for all students in the classroom. By focusing on graduating college-ready students, we are empowering kids to have choices and opportunities that they otherwise would not have.

Thus far in our dialogue with the Gates Foundation, I have not seen much evidence of a “laser focus on fixing the root causes of inequality that happens outside of school.” I have seen the laser focus on improving teacher quality through the use of evaluations that include test scores. And in this latest post we see their additional focus on college readiness as an antidote to social inequity.

I want to start by addressing the fundamental question we posed as our topic for this exchange. What is the purpose of K-12 education? Answering this question gives us some guidance in relationship to the shape of the reforms we pursue.

The Purpose of K-12 Education

Education fulfills our social obligation, as a people, to transfer the wealth of human knowledge to all our children. The goal of our public system is to allow every child to develop his/her talent, and bring each one of them into full membership in our economic, cultural, and social national community. This includes music, the arts, sports, physical and mental play, communication and expression. We prepare children to become active contributors to our culture and full participants in our democratic institutions.

We have PUBLIC schools to create a common space where children of all races, creeds and income levels gather to learn together. Our goal is not only to educate the individual, but also to build our ability to understand each other.

When I think of my own students in Oakland, my goal was not just to teach them the facts of science. I wanted to give them power in relationship to the world they encounter. I wanted them to be able to ask their own questions, and use the tools of science to investigate the world. Our disciplines of science, language arts, social studies, art and math are not just bodies of knowledge to be memorized. They are ways of interrogating and changing reality. History is an inquiry into the past that helps us understand our present and change our future. Language arts allows us to understand the writings of others, but also to express our own ideas in powerful ways.

Our students are growing up in a confusing world, where so many decisions have been made for them. The world is changing so fast, they need the most versatile set of tools possible. That means they need to be able to think for themselves, and do so with critical minds. The world MUST change because many of the ways we behave are not sustainable. Our students must be prepared not only to react and cope, but also to guide this transformation.

In the classroom this means teachers need the autonomy to figure out the best ways to get their students excited and engaged in their community and the world in which they live. They should be doing projects in which they tackle open-ended problems. They should be interacting with adults in their communities, with local businesses and academic institutions. The school should be a hub of community activity, and the students should be a source for solutions to community problems.

Robert D. Shepherd recently wrote this,

1. People are extraordinarily variable, and
2. All have propensities to become very good at some things and not at others
In EVERY child some of these subsystems are extraordinary and some are merely adequate.
In other words, there are no standardized children. Almost every new parent is surprised, even shocked, to learn that kids come into the world extraordinarily unique. They bring a lot of highly particular potential to the ball game. And every one of those children is capable, highly capable, in some ways and not in others.
What if, instead of schools having as their purpose turning out identically machined parts, they, instead, existed to find out what a given child is going to be good at doing? What if children were carefully, systematically, given opportunities to try out the enormous range of purposeful human activity until we identified each child's GENIUS? What if we said to ourselves, presented with a particular child, "I know that this little person is the product of 3.8 billion years of evolution, that he or she has gifts conferred by that history of fitness trials, and it is my responsibility to discover what those are?

While education includes the knowledge and specific skill sets for economic participation, it isn’t limited to the demands of current market conditions, or dictated by any calculation of the profitability of investing in our children. Each generation has the right to contribute to an economic system that serves its own human need. In our own age, whenever those who hold the advantage of wealth have used it to limit the boundaries of the lives of common people, societies have broken, or stagnated and crumbled.

How do we think about college and career readiness?

Turn this question around:

Is there a college or a career ready for them when our children finish their K-12 education?

We have an obligation to assure that our economy meets the needs of the children we’re educating. Skilled trades, service work, construction, retail, farming and agriculture, industry, transportation, high and low technology manufacturing, and health support are part of our economic reality. Children who are drawn to these livelihoods are entitled to educational preparation to share in the full responsibilities and benefits of our national life, including a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.

Mr. Scott makes it clear in his post that the primary strategy that the Gates Foundation has for combating poverty in the US is expanding the quality of teaching, and thus preparing larger numbers of disadvantaged students for college. Unfortunately college readiness for all is no panacea. Getting people ready for college, and even significantly increasing the number who graduate, does not actually create the high paying jobs for these graduates. In order for these jobs to exist, we need some fundamental shifts in our economy. In order to raise the floor for those in poverty, we need to raise the minimum wage, stop outsourcing jobs, and increase the proportion of the workforce represented by unions. We need investments in the nation’s infrastructure, and more equitable taxation, so the middle class has money to spend. Without changes like this, expanding the number of college graduates is likely to only lower their market value.

College For All?

Some people suggest that if we do not prepare all students for college, we will fall into the trap of tracking. Research shows tracking before age 15 is destructive, and associated with worse outcomes for the children and for society, both socially and academically. The educational needs of children before that age aren’t served by narrowing of the developmental and experiential mission of education to any track. By the later teens, actual career path options must be offered to children, which lead to real job futures for them, as well as to access to higher education.

This doesn’t mean that college has to be for everybody, but it requires that college be for anybody, and that the path to college and beyond be open to all.

Unfortunately, in the world where many of our students live, the path to college is closing off. Student debt has now surpassed credit card debt, and more than a trillion dollars is now owed. Incredibly, this debt was only $100 billion in 2010.

The cost of a state university has increased by 72% between 2001 and 2011, faster than even medical costs. According to this article in the New York Times, “If the trends continue through 2016, the average cost of a public college will have more than doubled in just 15 years.” Two thirds of graduates take out loans, and the average debt is $23,300. Homelessness and hunger is rising problem on college campuses.

Rhetoric about college for all is hollow when society disinvests in higher education, and turns student loans into a profit center for the banking industry.

Furthermore, wages for college graduates are not inextricably linked to the level of education - they are a function of the marketplace. The latest economic figures indicate that corporate profits have climbed at steep rates, while both the wages, and the number of people employed, continue to decline.

How do the Common Core Standards fit in?

The Gates Foundation has been driving a grand vision of systemic change, on the largest scale possible. Every reform is judged by whether or not it can be replicated and scaled up. This has led them to embrace standardization, enforced by high stakes tests, as the ultimate reform.

In my 24 years in Oakland, I saw several waves of top-down reform sweep through, usually guided by a similar idea. The idea is seductive. Here is how it works. First of all, we declare everything that is now being done a failure, because obviously we do not have the results we want. Anyone who wants to defend their work is “defending the status quo,” which is unacceptable. The new strategy is brought in with great acclaim, and we are told that extensive research has proven that it works, but only if implemented “with fidelity.” All the instructional leaders in the District are trained and sent out to proselytize, and principals are made responsible for implementation. Everything must be aligned to the new system.

Nationally, we have endured a decade of the most misguided, intrusive education reform ever. Thus it is not surprising that many teachers are in favor of what has been sold as the antidote. I am glad to hear the positive news from Hillsborough, and hope teachers there feel empowered as they participate in the processes Mr. Scott describes. But often times teachers are experiencing a different flavor of management - and we must be aware of that as well.

Here is a story from a colleague in Chicago.

Over the summer, teachers were asked to develop performance assessments aligned to the Common Core Standards. In some cases teachers were paid for their extra work, but in many cases, educators volunteered their time because they really wanted home-grown performance- and portfolio-based assessments. Those with whom I have talked - more than twenty- were excited that they were finally being deferred to on assessment development, that they felt that they were being treated as professionals, and they were glad to participate. They worked long hours over the summer, were proud of what they had created, and were excited to use it this year.
On Aug. 6th, teachers went back to school for five days of professional development. Over the course of that week, curriculum and instruction changes were implemented unilaterally, from the top-down. A very clear example is in a school on the southwest side where AP courses were taken away and replaced with remedial reading courses. The instructors were given 12 boxes of books with canned curricula from Pearson Education. It seems as CPS made a contract with Pearson behind the teachers backs. Immediately all the teachers who had worked so hard over the summer to develop great assessments and aligned units, saw how CCSS was a "Trojan horse," for standardized curricula.

The promoters of the Common Core will assert that the standards only offer the framework, and that teachers are still responsible for designing lessons and delivering instruction. But as our colleagues in Chicago discovered, in the top-down world driven by high stakes assessments, standards become mandates, and these mandates are best served by packaged curriculum, and teacher autonomy becomes a quaint relic. That is the experience of many teachers in high poverty districts and schools.

I want to draw attention to the work of an excellent thinker regarding education reform. Doug Christensen was the Commissioner of Education in Nebraska, a state that resisted the grips of NCLB longer than any other. They did this through a system of assessments that were developed at the district or regional level. In Dr. Christensen’s view,

Assessment and accountability must have their locus of action and policy at the local level and in the hands of educators and local policy leaders. Name a profession that is not in charge of their own metrics of success and the metrics of what is good practice? Lawyers are in charge of theirs. Medical doctors are in charge of theirs. So are accountants, nurses, bankers, and even morticians. Why aren't educators? Why aren't the local folks in charge and accountable?

The other problem the Common Core is supposed to fix is the well-documented narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred as a result of NCLB. The answer in this case is to greatly expand the subjects that will be tested. There will be new tests rolled out over the next few years covering almost every subject, almost every grade level.

We will also see a greater emphasis on the “college readiness” component. This drive is already being used to justify tests for students starting as early as kindergarten. The Gates Foundation has funded ACT, Inc, which is partnering with Pearson to offer the “next generation” assessment system, which will indicate if “students are on track for success in college and 21st century careers.” These tests “will be delivered using state-of-the-art, digital platforms.” They will be closely aligned with the Common Core standards.

How will this affect our students? Already we are seeing the impact of this sort of pressure on schools. A report from the Alliance for Children found this:

When Walter Gilliam, head of the Child Study Center at Yale, surveyed almost 4,000 teachers from state-financed preschools, he learned that three- and four-year-old children were being expelled at three times the national rate for K-12 students. And 4.5 times more boys were being expelled from preschool than girls.

Research is showing the critical importance of play for young children.

In the 1970s Germany embarked on a similar plan to push early learning--turning its kindergartens into centers for cognitive achievement. But a study compared 50 play-based classes with 50 early- learning centers and found that "by age ten the children who had played excelled over the others in a host of ways. They were more advanced in reading and mathematics and they were better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. They excelled in creativity and intelligence, oral expression, and 'industry.' As a result of this study German kindergartens returned to being play-based again.

This report also found that we are losing creativity as a result of this drive.

While schools focus on drilling literacy and math skills into young children, a few researchers are studying what is being lost. Creativity is one casualty. The Torrance creativity test, which has been given 
millions of times over five decades in over 50 languages, is a better predictor than IQ of which students will become successful innovators in a host of professions. 
When Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary analyzed almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults, Newsweek reported in 2010, "she found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. 'It's very clear, and the decrease is very significant,' Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America--from kindergarten through sixth grade--for whom the decline is 'most serious.'

This decline in creativity corresponds with warnings from Yong Zhao, who has pointed out how the US is in danger of killing the creative goose that laid our golden egg. As we are embracing testable standards as the route to success, educators in China are doing their best to escape the trap of high stakes tests. And as Yong Zhao points out, high scores on the international PISA test have not yielded economic growth, but actually correlate with diminished innovation and entrepreneurship.

When Secretary Duncan described the many ways the Common Core would improve things two years ago, he made it clear that we would fix the problems created by NCLB’s high stakes tests by creating even more tests.

For the first time, teachers will consistently have timely, high-quality formative assessments that are instructionally useful and document student growth--rather than just relying on after-the-fact, year-end tests used for accountability purposes.
For the first time, state assessments will make widespread use of smart technology. They will provide students with realistic, complex performance tasks, immediate feedback, computer adaptive testing, and incorporate accommodations for a range of students.

Furthermore, Duncan said

Our proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act also would allow states to include subjects other than math and English language arts in their accountability system because we specifically want to foster the teaching of a well-rounded curriculum.

So we will have more frequent tests, and more technologically sophisticated tests, requiring huge investments in testing software and computer hardware, and we will test more subjects, so that these subjects will also become driven towards test preparation.

As John Merrow wrote yesterday,

Companies like Pearson are getting rich while we blather and battle. They step into the vacuum and measure everything that's measurable. We should be measuring what counts, instead of counting whatever we are able to measure.

Just to remove any doubt, I do not share the Gates Foundation’s apparent faith in the ability of new technology to solve the problems the previous generation of testing technology created. The problem is not in the shape of the bubbles or the Scantron forms. The problem is that we are trying to improve teaching in the backwards way that a data driven system requires. Instead of challenging our teachers each day to find the best ways to engage their students, we are giving them lists of standards and scripted curricula to meet them. We replace the expectation that teachers excite and inspire their students to take on new challenges, with the expectation that they deliver a predetermined lesson, where even the student responses are anticipated and planned for. This is not the elevation of the teaching profession - it is its intellectual demise.

We have had more than a decade of test-driven accountability, and we have very little to show for it. Our schools should not be re-purposed into places for test preparation, even if those tests are now to be taken on computers. If the internet has taught us anything, it is that putting words and numbers through a microprocessor does not render them somehow smarter.

We need to re-examine our goals, and realize that our schools are not ecosystems walled off from the economy and society. They are porous places, and we must have strong connections with the needs and challenges in our communities. Our communities should play a strong role in supporting our schools, and making sure that the curriculum there is preparing students well for life beyond high school. Our schools should be accountable to parents, students and their community, not to a national testing system, no matter how technologically advanced.

Mr. Scott writes:

We believe that despite a child's circumstances, she should be given every opportunity to succeed and lead a life better than the one she was given. That is in direct contrast to the belief that because of a child's circumstances she is destined to live a life of obstacles regardless of the opportunities she's given. In our opinion, the purpose of K-12 education is to help provide and shape those opportunities.

Here is my problem with this statement. Mr. Scott states that the first sentence is a “direct contrast” to the second, when it is not. In fact, BOTH sentences are true. We want to give every child every opportunity to succeed. AND children who are raised in poverty live a life strewn with obstacles to their success. The first idea does not do ANYTHING to invalidate the second. Obstacles can and will be surmounted by a lucky or resilient few, but they will foreclose opportunities for far too many. Therefore providing educational opportunities is wonderful, but if we ignore the obstacles our students face, even as they mount, we are not truly taking on the challenges we face in our communities.

Returning to our students, I think we find common ground in the idea that as educators we want to equip them with the best preparation possible for their future, and we want as many as possible to have a real opportunity to attend college, and live happy, productive lives -- whether they attend college or not. I feel a deep concern about the de-funding of the public universities that is pricing college beyond the reach of many of our students. Whether students are headed for college or not, the Common Core standards will not serve them well if they are tied to high stakes tests and overly prescriptive curriculum. Our teachers need the room to be creative if we expect them to inspire innovative thinking from their students. And I believe that our economy must be re-shaped if we are to have real opportunities for the next generations - as admirable a goal as it is, simply graduating them ready for college is not enough. I hope this dialogue leads us to look for deeper solutions.

What do you think? What do you see as the purpose of a K-12 education? How does college readiness fit in? How about the Common Core?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.