What We Know, What We Do -- A Contradiction

Most critics of current education reform cite political shenanigans, funding sleight of hand and concerns about privatization. Those concerns are justified, but the deeper problem is educational. Education may be the dimension of contemporary life where "what we do" is most profoundly inconsistent with "what we know." Why aren't we paying attention?

Conventional political wisdom claims that education in America is not going well. That belief is more propaganda than fact. Many researchers and writers have pointed out, with substantial evidence, that the real enemies of education are poverty and racism; that schools and opportunity are inequitable; that America's schools and communities have become increasingly re-segregated; that the charter school/voucher/privatization movement is perpetuating inequality; and that many schools are underfunded because of flawed funding mechanisms and economic injustice.

Despite the intent of reformers, many of whom I assume are sincere, education reform is exacerbating the very problems it claims to address. Eminent historian Diane Ravitch has expertly and thoroughly explicated the failures and perils of the charter school/privatization movement in her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. Ravitch and many others have rebutted most of the arguments made by reformers, although she and other critics don't have the financial heft to sway public opinion like the reformers can. Just look at the propaganda, lobbying and political clout used in New York! N.Y.C. Mayor Bill de Blasio took a beating, and it wasn't because he was wrong. It was because there is big money behind the very aggressive reform machine. Money talks. And NY Governor Andrew Cuomo listens.

If not for poverty, racism, re-segregation (and education reform), most indicators suggest that education is doing just fine -- for some children.

Graduation rates and college attendance are at all time highs. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), considered by many to be the "gold standard" of assessment, are similarly healthy. Several decades of education reform have done little or nothing even when measured by the essentially meaningless metrics of standardized assessments.

The practices spawned by the testing and accountability era are harmful to children's cognitive and emotional development, even if scores were rising. But scores are not rising, which makes it a bit like suffering through chemotherapy and finding the cancer unchanged. I've never enjoyed the homily, "no pain, no gain," but it's better than "pain, no gain," which is an apt characterization of the current state of affairs.

Education has always appeared to work reasonably well for children of privilege - at least some children of privilege. Most of the success experienced by students in traditional schools, including many of the most celebrated schools, occurs despite their policies and practices, not because of them. Nearly all schools (including the one I lead) deemed "excellent" are the beneficiaries of either careful selection of students or affluent communities. Folks everywhere believe these communities have "good" schools when in fact these schools have good communities. This is not to suggest that such schools (including the one I lead!) are not doing fine work. It is to admit that kids are not a blank slate and neither success nor failure is primarily a function of what happens in a particular school.

But I write to make a broader argument: Traditional education has never worked well for all children. Never will and can't, because the premises on which traditional educational policy is based are fundamentally flawed.

Traditional education design is based on three biological, psychological and neurobiological assumptions that are fundamentally flawed:

1. Most current education policies, especially standards and testing schemes, are designed on the assumption that all children can or should do the same things at the same time.
2. Current education is predicated on the assumption that extrinsic structures that reward and punish children, teachers and schools are the optimal motivational milieu.
3. Nearly all pre-secondary education policy is based on the assumption that logical/mathematical and linguistic intelligence (IQ-style intelligence) are the primary or sole qualities to be valued, developed and assessed.

All three of these assumptions are simply wrong.

For kids who are intelligent in different ways, who develop more slowly, or who are sensitive or quirky, the educational system has been especially ineffective. Many such folks find their way outside of, or in spite of, school, but the system has always served them poorly. Borrowing Howard Gardner's phrase, "IQ-style education" is adequate for some kids and horrid for many others.

While education is not really in crisis, at least not more so than at other times, the fictional crisis manufactured by politicians and profiteers is, ironically, creating an actual crisis. This is because the cure to the mythical disease is toxic.

The worst aspects of an industrial approach to education are now on steroids: constant testing; standardization; economies of scale; Common Core; No Child Left Behind; ruthless teacher assessments; Race to the Top; loss of arts programs; limited opportunity for physical activity; failure to provide the rich sensory experiences that engage all the regions of the brain; increased stress. More than a decade of evidence that the medicine isn't working has invited no reflection or introspection -- just prescriptions for more and stronger medicine.

Traditional education is the obdurate product of political convenience, designed to distill the most able from the populace and train the rest for utility. A factory model of education has prevailed over a more enlightened approach at several key historic junctures, most aggressively in recent years. And it's just flat wrong.

This is not a radical philosophical or political opinion. Nearly all child development experts and neurobiologists would agree with much, if not all, of what I wrote in this post. I suspect that the scientific consensus on what constitutes a rich learning environment is as broad as the scientific consensus on climate change.

So why don't we listen?