Thursday, August 27, 2015

An unintentionally informative sentence about the culture of the education reform debate

From a recent Upshot post by movement reformer Kevin Carey:

If Congress removes that authority, it will mark the end of an optimistic, expansive era of federal efforts to improve K-12 education for disadvantaged students, one that began with the desegregation battles of the mid-20th century and extended to the creation of challenging standards nationwide.

Quick history lesson. There is no real continuity between Brown v. Board of Education and the national standards mentioned above. With the normal caveats about assigning lineages to this sort of thing, the initiative Carey is talking about is part of a top-down, technocratic movement that basically started with a Reagan administration report that called for [emphasis added]:
    Content: "4 years of English; (b) 3 years of mathematics; (c) 3 years of science; (d) 3 years of social studies; and (e) one-half year of computer science" for high school students." The commission also recommends that students work toward proficiency in a foreign language starting in the elementary grades.

    Standards and Expectations: the commission cautioned against grade inflation and recommends that four-year colleges raise admissions standards and standardized tests of achievement at "major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work."

    Time: the commission recommended that "school districts and State legislatures should strongly consider 7-hour school days, as well as a 200- to 220-day school year."

    Teaching: the commission recommended that salaries for teachers be "professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based," and that teachers demonstrate "competence in an academic discipline."

    Leadership and Fiscal Support: the commission noted that the Federal government plays an essential role in helping "meet the needs of key groups of students such as the gifted and talented, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, minority and language minority students, and the handicapped." The commission also noted that the Federal government also must help ensure compliance with "constitutional and civil rights," and "provide student financial assistance and research and graduate training."

[The report also created some tension between the Department of Education and social conservatives, thus providing a bit of foreshadowing of things to come.]

In its current form, the most important figure in the movement came to education through the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, yet another group quite a few degrees of separation from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. If anything, you could find more continuity in certain parts of the opposition, particularly in places like New Orleans.

Despite this historical disconnect, Carey and other movement reformers routinely depict themselves successors to Dr. King, and while a few are probably just cynically exploiting the association, I'm sure Carey and most others sincerely believe their own rhetoric,

That is where so much of the trouble starts. If you honestly see yourself as leading the civil rights movement of the Twenty-first Century, your perceptions of allies and opponents will inevitably be colored in simplistic terms. You will tend to assume the worst about those who disagree with you while being vulnerable to sharp operators who claim to be on your side.

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