Education Reform and Evidence

Public policy for public education is destroying it. Wholesale. That's the only conclusion I can draw from screening "Rise Above the Mark," a new documentary designed to spark a much-needed conversation about what is happening to public education. Unlike "Waiting for Superman," which championed the charter school movement and "Race to Nowhere," which documented the stress of over-programmed, over-tested teenagers, "Rise Above the Mark" shows the erosion of our public school system as death by a thousand cuts.

The policies that started this pernicious ball rolling came from on high by politicians with, it seems, total disregard for a library of solid studies concerning best practices in education. No Child Left Behind and the Common Core State Standards set the bar for ALL students--no exceptions. In the first case the bar was set too low and in the second the bar is set too high. These mandates wouldn't be so bad if they were taken simply as standards to be aimed for. But no, they are standards to be met. By all students. No exceptions. This is totally unrealistic; children are not widgets.

The politicians who endorsed the standards were looking for results that could be expressed as data. Thus they imposed a corporate model for education, the kids being the raw material to be shaped into educated beings over a period of twelve years, to be assessed at regular intervals by standardized tests. (What a bonanza for the test creators!) To increase productivity they treated teachers as assembly-line workers adding pay incentives or punishment depending on how well their students achieved on the standardized tests. There is ample evidence that external incentives, like merit pay, do not create better teachers. Interestingly, in recent years, the most productive corporations are now fostering collaboration and a collegial atmosphere instead of a competitive one. Intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic when it comes to high-level performance.

Another aspect of education "reform" are vouchers and charter schools, which politicians believe offer healthy competition to public schools, by offering "choice." They use an all-American word like "choice" to disguise how they siphon off taxpayer public school money to organizations that are not accountable to the public for how they spend their money. So public school funding is shrinking and teachers are having to do more with less. In addition, teachers are being blamed and disempowered for the decline in America's educational standing in the world. All of this contributes to teacher morale that is at an all-time low. Top veteran teachers are leaving the profession in droves to be replaced by poorly trained young teachers who will last a few years at best.

This is the picture so graphically and grimly portrayed in "Rise Above the Mark." There are some educational heavy-weights behind the production including Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling Hammond, and Marc Tucker. Yes, there are exceptions--schools that still manage to provide an excellent education; teachers who are still devoted and committed to their students. But we've had more than 12 years of meddling--twelve years is a generation of kids who have been sacrificed to the whims of non-educator power brokers!

As a scientist, I am very influenced by evidence. The results of these destructive mandates will soon be as evident as the sun is the center of the solar system.