The Destruction of Democracy and Creativity in Our Schools: Mission Accomplished

Like the banner on that aircraft carrier and the promise of "No Child Left Behind" to make all kids proficient by 2014, the entire reform enterprise is a lie. But those who have influence and wealth, claim that they have performed miracles as they boast of their accomplishments.
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"When you're rich they think you know. The most important men will come to fawn on me! It won't make one bit of difference if I'm right or wrong." -- Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof

The final section of the tapestry woven by billionaires and bloviators to control the means of educating our young people has been completed. After a decade-old assault on k-12 schools, which make numbers more important than people, there now comes an incipient policy announced by the U.S. Department of Education to monitor the results of higher ed institutions. Using standardized measures -- including test score results of undergraduate and graduate students -- education colleges and universities will be rated. The education reformers can herald a new triumph. The axis of evil (tenured teachers, parents who rebel against over-testing, and college professors who sit in their ivory towers citing research that indicates the reforms are bogus) has been dismantled.

Not so fast.

Like the banner on that aircraft carrier and the promise of NCLB to make all kids proficient by 2014, the entire reform enterprise is a lie. But those who have influence and wealth, claim, instead, that they have performed miracles as they boast of their accomplishments. Some examples:

George Bush, in his first campaign for president often referred to the "Texas Miracle" which led to large increases in test scores. (Only there was no miraculous event here; it was a manipulation of the numbers, "mirages in enrollment statistics." 1) And Michael Bloomberg's claim that, because of his educational stewardship from the perch of the mayor's office, the gap between black and Latino children and white and Asian children was cut in half. (As it turns out, when the gap was examined carefully, it had hardly budged between 2003 and 2011.) And then there's Arne Duncan, referring to the progress of the Recovery School District in Louisiana as an example to defend his Race to the Top initiative. (Only the director of the study which produced the glowing results admitted that the methodology was flawed and the conclusions inaccurate. 2)

The two most egregious failings of the reform movement, which has now reached the upper end of the educational continuum, have the effect of (1) diminishing schools as democratic institutions, where students are discouraged, and in many cases, forbidden, to challenge prevailing authority by asking difficult questions; and, (2) marginalizing creativity, where students are told that mistakes are outlawed and "out of the box" (out of the bubble sheet?) thinking is unproductive.

John Dewey and Maxine Greene are turning over in their graves and Ken Robinson is mad as hell.

Dewey, perhaps the most renowned public intellectual to ever study school and civil society, put forth that democracy and social justice are central to educating a population. Two quotes from his powerful treatise, Democracy and Education, serve to illustrate the point:

"Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth, something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked."

"Lack of the free and equitable intercourse which springs from a variety of shared interests makes intellectual stimulation unbalanced. Diversity of stimulation means novelty, and novelty means challenge to thought." 3

Dewey's comments notwithstanding, today the federal government charts a plan to oversee universities, assuring they are following standardized government rules, in effect, demanding that the focus in these institutions be on career readiness. No time to address the difficult -- and sometimes politically incorrect -- questions. These pursuits have no utility value in the economic market. (The market of ideas be damned!) Furthermore, academic freedom is circumscribed by accreditation organizations which yield enormous power. These bodies -- with their outcomes driven criteria -- can render findings that could signal the death knell for university departments; or, at the very least, prescribe a plan that discourages the organic and unpredictable directions that higher ed classroom conversations often take. Beware the professor who speaks out against the affront, risking a downgrade in the university's reputation.

Speak truth to power? Not if you want your school to survive in a highly competitive environment.

The recently departed Maxine Greene -- philosopher, scholar and professor emerita of Teachers College, Columbia University -- staunchly advocated for including imagination in education. "Greene imagined and worked tirelessly to fashion a world in which public schools are prepared to welcome and teach all children, encouraging them to ask difficult questions and fully participate as citizens in a democratic society." 4 Greene must have been channeling Einstein who quipped: "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Sir Ken Robinson, author of 10 books and countless presentations on the creative mind, who some have called the world's foremost authority on creativity, rails against the current school paradigm. In perhaps the most famous video presentation ever made on education (A TED Talk with over 30 million views) he suggests that creativity is as important as literacy; all kids have creative capacities that we regularly squander.

Robinson tells several stories of children in schools who have made mistakes that are sometimes humorous and other times profound. He reminds us that "If children don't know, they'll have a go." However, with schooling being what it is, making mistakes is the worst thing children can do. Robinson demurs. If you are not prepared to make mistakes, he says, you will cut off your creative potential. He bemoans the fact that the arts take a backseat to literacy and math. If a child pronounces that she likes art or music, she is told that she will never be an artist or musician, so she better pay attention to other subjects. This admonition should remind us of Vincent Van Gogh's approach to stifling a talent: "If you hear a voice within you say, 'You cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced."

In a final flourish -- and a warning -- Robinson says: We must "reconstitute our conception of the richness of the human experience. Our education system has mined our minds the way strip mining mines the earth for one particular commodity. For the future it will not serve us." 5

The pantheon of scientists and scholars, those who have studied, researched and offered their particular genius to the education and human development conversation, are ignored by the rich and famous who drive education policy. This relationship seems to have been predicted by Jonathan Swift 300 years ago: "When a true genius appears, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

One more point that may unequivocally undermine the reform nonsense. Unencumbered by evidence that does not fit their picture of the world, many reformers howl with dire predictions of America's decline if we don't shore up the P-20 school systems. We will trail other countries in the international and highly publicized testing contests! The important jobs will be gobbled up by our competitors! China will eat our lunch!

Oh really?

The Global Talent Index (GTI), a benchmarking index of talent environments in 60 countries, suggests that "Talent remains an important component of countries' and businesses' long-term competitiveness. How they develop, attract and retain talent should therefore remain high on the agenda of policymakers and business leaders for the foreseeable future... The U.S. is the Stellar GTI performer, ranking first in 2011 and [predicted to rank first in] 2015." (China ranked 33rd in 2011 and is predicted to rank 31st in 2015.) 6

Teachers, parents and professors who have "skin in the game" understand that standard measures -- whether used in third grade or in college -- will not yield miracles and do not suffice to measure curiosity, humor, empathy, civic-mindedness, humility and wonder. As long as democracy and creativity are threatened by bad policy fueled by big money, our mission is not over.

It has just begun.

1.Weiss, E. (December 1, 2014). Stop Counting on Education Miracles: Policymakers who proclaim miraculous progress in education don't usually have their facts straight, U.S. News.
3.Dewey, John (2012, originally published in 1916). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. Simon and Brown, Hollywood, FL.
4.Paufler, N. & Amrein-Beardsley (June 3, 2014). In Memoriam: Teachers College's Maxine Greene from Inside the Academy. Teachers College Record.
5.Robinson, Ken (2006). How Schools Kill Creativity. TED talk.
6.Heidrick & Struggles (2011). The Global Talent Index Report: The Outlook for 2015.

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