Friday, November 12, 2010

Education: "Thank God for Massachusetts"

On education, the The Atlantic Monthly is an interesting magazine. It's honest enough to be honest about the facts in its education reports and articles. An article some time ago on No Child Left Behind made clear that the target that every single American must possess adult-level math and English literacy skills by 2014 was a political decision. Politicians simply didn't have the courage to admit that somebody learning English, or with severe learning disabilities, wasn't going to get there. In the current issue, the Atlantic gives some notice to Diane Ravitch, who has reversed her stand for the test-and-punish system for something that matches up with research. She has gone back on previous policies based on the copious research that speaks in another direction.

Of course, while admitting the facts -- something the Boston Globe generally doesn't do -- it still pushes the common viewpoint of an elite thoroughly unfamiliar with public education. Of course, the Atlantic sees that nothing in education can't be fixed by the judicious firing of many people. Hence, a worshipful article on what "Teach for America" can tell us (hint, it's common sense to anyone familiar with public education, and epiphanic for the ignorant). This issue's profile of Diane Ravitch is knee-capped by a harrumphing parenthetical that the editor disagrees with her, and a coda for "balance" that praises the superintendent in Rhode Island who arbitrarily fired every teacher in her high school.

So, much like the Wall Street Journal on economics, the Atlantic gives every sign of strong fact-based reporting on education that is utterly ignored by the editorial staff. Hence an article online that includes the following:

One cannot help but thank God for Massachusetts, which offers the United States some shred of national dignity—a result echoed in other international tests. "If all American fourth- and eighth-grade kids did as well in math and science as they do in Massachusetts," writes the veteran education author Karin Chenoweth in her 2009 book, How It’s Being Done, "we still wouldn’t be in Singapore’s league but we’d be giving Japan and Chinese Taipei a run for their money."

I can't see why we'd want to emulate that gerontocracy. They do well on test scores and horrible on democracy. I also highlight this author's kowtowing to the Chinese-mandated name for Taiwan.

What did Massachusetts do? Well, nothing that many countries (and industries) didn’t do a long time ago. For example, Massachusetts made it harder to become a teacher, requiring newcomers to pass a basic literacy test before entering the classroom. (In the first year, more than a third of the new teachers failed the test.) The state also required students to pass a test before graduating from high school—a notion so heretical that it led to protests in which students burned state superintendent David Driscoll in effigy. To help tutor the kids who failed, the state moved money around to the places where it was needed most. "We had a system of standards and held people to it—adults and students," Driscoll says.

Does the article mention how the standards were arbitrarily set when not enough teachers and students weren't failing? No. Does it even attempt to find a reason for Massachusetts' success beyond the preset viewpoints of the editors of the Atlantic? Of course not. But it does admit the truth -- the Bay State was once the national leader on education. We may still be, but not for long.

I say "was" advisedly. Obama's people plow ahead with Bush's failed policies on education. One innovation is to dangle a fractional percentage boost in federal funding for Massachusetts if we dumb down our standards, double the amount of testing in the classroom, short-circuit local democracy, and change laws to fit the model of an education secretary whose own reputation is built on cheap tricks, articles like this need to be cherished. Because I doubt they'll be written five years from now.

No comments: