How Do We Make America More “Fair” For All?

Two stories recently in the newsproposals to pay reparations to Black Americans to compensate for the legacy of slavery and the SATs new adversity scorethat is meant to quantify the unique personal challenges faced by some college applicantsspeak to our nations desire to lend a helping hand to those who have suffered through no fault of their own.  We have traditionally distinguished between those whom we deem complicit in creating their own problems and those whom we believe are innocent victims of circumstances beyond their control.  This dichotomy explains why, for example, Americans are typically far more sympathetic to the plight of undocumented Dreamerswho were snuck into the U.S. by their parents as children compared to our often more punitive attitudes toward adults detained for illegal entrywe perceive that adults have choices but children have none.

The quest for equity both drives and complicates our political discussions today.  The desire of many to promote policies that encourage diversity in many facets of our public lifeparticularly in education and employmentis born of the belief that discrimination and its resulting inequities must be remedied through the direct intervention of affirmative action programs.  These policies, however, often collide headlong with our other commitment to meritocracythe belief that it is the most fair that positions or promotions go to the most talented or most qualifiedbecause some believe these meritocratic systems are reinforcing historic wrongs by penalizing individuals whose ancestors were denied advantages that more privileged groups now take for granted.  

It could be reasonably argued that a great deal of the stark political divide in America today revolves around vastly differing ideas regarding who is actually victimized by the non-meritocratic systems now often used to create a more fair society.  Those who are favored by affirmative action policies see it as a case of justice deferred being finally set right; those who feel college admissions or jobs are being handed to someone with fewer qualifications than them believe that their hard work is being ignored in pursuit of someone elses social justice goals, which are denying them opportunitiesor ruining their lives.  

The old joke that a conservative is a liberal who has been muggedmight actually be more accurate today if it stated that many conservatives are formerly liberal (or politically moderate) individuals who believe affirmative action policies have harmed them or their families.  I suspect that the shock of the 2016 Presidential election might be less surprising if we paid more attention to this perhaps pervasive factor, which is less indicative of systemic racism or sexism and more about an individual frustration with remedies that seem abundantly unfair to those caught on the wrong end of societys great solution to all that ails or divides us.

Our individual supportor lack of itfor affirmative action programs, reparations, or other programs and ideas designed to enforce fairnessare often directly related to our own beliefs about the current prevalence of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other attitudes that lead to discriminatory attitudes or behaviors.  Having no direct and reliable method to measure what is going on in everyone’s minds at each particular moment, we seem to have taken a better safe than sorryapproach in many educational and workplace situations, presuming that everyone has some level of hatred or disdain in their hearts and heads, which accounts for the popularity of workshops and training that are meant to promote greater sensitivity and tolerance toward all.  The obvious added benefit of teaching everyone how to be polite and sensitive is, in the minds of managers mandating more and more of this type of activity, the implied promise of avoiding the legal or regulatory actions that might result if everyone at your school or workplace has not signed a form confirming they have been explicitly informed that acting like a jerk is strictly forbiddennever underestimate the power of lawyers who crave a big payday when it comes to shaping our daily lives.

Those who look at the diversity of our political, cultural, and entertainment icons and see a cross-section that captures the amazing richness of our nationcombined with the election (and re-election) of Barack Obama to our nations highest officefeel that this is clear evidence our country has left its history of overtly hateful behaviors and laws far behind us.  Others, however, point to the election of Donald Trump and his administrations apparent lack of interest in pursuing affirmative action policies as equally persuasive proof of a white backlash that aims to quash the aspirations of many by reasserting discriminatory policies disguised as meritocracy.

All these discussions become even more fraught when matters pertaining to the use of standardized testing for school or college admissions are added to the discussion.  Many believe that evidence-based studies prove that these tests are either themselves discriminatory or actually act as proxies for measuring outcomes, such as family wealth and the resulting ability to afford pricey test prepcourses, that are nothing more than artifacts of historic discrimination.  Therefore, the continued use of these tests to determine admissions might perpetuate inequities and deny diversity.  

On the other hand, others point to the predictive value of these standardized tests regarding long-term academic and career success.  In addition, they believe that quota systems meant to circumvent themwhich in some cases have reduced the number of seats available to Asian-American students in order to admit Blacks and Latinos who scored lowerare a perverse and damaging rejection of the color-blind meritocracy these tests purport to promote.  

The resolution of the many lawsuits regarding these matters will likely only further inflame tensions regarding whether reliance upon standardized tests in admissions decisions is fairor not.  In addition, we have no assurance that the best efforts of schools and colleges to mitigate the effects of the many factors that impact academic readiness or success will not result in other types of subtle discrimination if human judgments and intuitions, which are sometimes flawed or easily manipulated, suddenly become the ultimate factor in determining admissions.  

Moreover, we have to worry whether ditching these standardized tests will ultimately result in the return of the old boy networkof personal connections in admissions decisions, which is exactly what the use of these tests was designed to end.  Will seats at the best schools end up going to children whose parents know how to twist the system and, sadly enough, return us to an incredibly unfair reality that at one time allowed those with wealth and power to readily and regularly perpetuate their advantages across generations by subtlyand often invisiblyusing their influence to open doors for their own children?

It is good that we have these conversations.  Our nations ongoing commitment to justice is a feature of our nation that we should celebrate at every turn, and the passions that inform these discussions are a tribute to the continued vibrancy of our civic culture.  The debate regarding the form, function, and outcomes of traditional meritocratic systems of placement and promotion has become a mirror reflecting a broader societal evaluation of our nations progressor perhaps lack thereofin creating a nation that is more welcoming toward all.  

How we parcel out seats at selective colleges and universities, whom we choose to govern us, what factors we feel are important in evaluating employee talent and performanceand ultimately how we choose to define ourselves and our communitieswill be that which will determine the direction of our diverse, fascinating, and argumentative country in the years and decades ahead.  Although the discussions of these issues often feature the worst insults and stereotypes being tossed about by some, we need to continue to pursue an evaluation of these questions and encourage thoughtful consideration of the moral and ethical matters that are inevitably raised as we proceed.

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Education Blues

Listening to people discuss the state of public education in America today often reminds me of that old story of three blind men describing an elephant. One is holding an ear, another is holding a leg, and the last is holding the tail. Therefore, each has an entirely different idea of the elephant based on his limited “reality”.

Such is the case with so many of our assessments of public education today, and the realities described by all concerned many times boil down to naked economic and political self-interests that skew “reality” in one direction or another—and all are blind in their own wonderful ways.

Teachers and administrators working within traditional public schools see K-12 systems that are struggling against a tidal wave of societal dysfunction and doing a great job against all odds. This constituency both hates and discounts the dismal data provided by standardized testing, and they see test advocates as dupes and conspirators in a right-wing plot to defund public schools, destroy democracy, and turn our children onto compliant drones incapable of thinking of anything beyond the narrow interests of their cruel corporate and political masters Anything that even smells like an educational standard is immediately suspect because it might crush a child’s individuality and unique preciousness—and prompt unwelcome questions about academic outcomes. These individuals and their interest groups believe those who seek to highlight deficient educational results are simply partisan and wrong, and their pointed negativity also, by the way, might screw with a lot of paychecks—so cut it out!

Those outside of traditional public schools—particularly those pushing for charter schools and school vouchers—cannot believe that anyone would want to continue to pour money into public school systems that, if the numbers are to be believed, each year graduate vast numbers of young adults who can barely read, write, or perform the most basic arithmetic. They see public schools as entrenched and ossified failure factories that rob taxpayers today while producing generation after generation of illiterates who are fodder for tomorrow’s food stamp, public housing, and Medicaid programs—all of which will help to bankrupt our cities, states, and nation in the decades to come. To ignore problems with our public schools is, as far as they are concerned, a form of slow societal suicide. Give us your money, they shout, and we can definitely do a much better job educating your children than your local public schools.

As for the union bosses, think tank experts, education professors, and politicians lining up on one side or another, they are easy to both understand—and ignore. Their “expertise” is wholly a function of whatever will advance their careers. Whether they are sniffing for money, tenure, or votes, their motivations are obvious, deeply compromised, and unworthy of serious consideration—unless you are particularly partial to circular logic and pretentious posturing. If all of them were never heard from again, it would make not a bit of difference to intelligent discussions about improving the educations of our children.

Three blind men…

Those who advocate for spending more money on public schools are sometimes correct that targeted dollars can help our children, but they fail to account for a pervasive tendency to pencil whip students through the grades regardless whether actual learning has taken place, and their refusal to confront systemic academic shortcomings identified by standardized testing cripples their credibility.

Opponents of charter schools and vouchers are correct that sometimes these don’t work as well as expected, and they typically shirk any responsibility for educating children with special needs, but one simple fact cannot be denied: growing numbers of students who have escaped from traditional public schools are now succeeding in college at far higher rates than those left behind.

Politicians and education “experts” are sometimes correct that what is educationally preferable might not always be possible, but their default settings of blaming families and society for all that ails our public schools neatly avoids any discussion of the roles teachers, administrators, and staff all play and in gaming the numbers to both mask deficiencies and keep their funding flowing.

Given the countless economic and social advantages inherent in our nation, it is simply unbelievable that we stand firmly astride the lower-middle tier of nations in terms of our educational achievement, and it is a perverse tribute to the peculiar power of low expectations, active deception, and willful blindness that so many parents are still content to each day send their children public schools that will rob them of their futures while frittering away mommy and daddy’s tax dollars.

In the final analysis, the only policies that have any hope of helping each child reach their potential are those that give maximum power to parents and the least possible power to education bureaucrats, many of whom have built their careers on that most well-worn of governmental activities—spinning bad news into good. However, the feverish buffing and shining of academic outcome data that range from the mediocre to the disastrous is now unable to conceal that sad fact that we are saddled with a nation full of public schools that many times manage to combine the highest possible costs with the weakest possible results.

What should we do? The only way forward is simple yet revolutionary: partner with the schools and not the systems. I know that the systems currently control the schools and act as gatekeepers, but to the greatest extent possible parents and concerned citizens must find ways to bypass and—if at all possible—ignore those who preoccupy themselves with “adminis-trivia”, battle against any changes that might threaten their sinecures, and refuse to recognize the legitimate educational needs of students because to do so might allow for frightening honesty regarding the shortcomings of our public schools.

This is a tall order that is going to create stress for all concerned, but some discomfort might be exactly what is needed at the moment. Pursuing reforms within the parameters of what will keep the educational bureaucracies happy has produced decade upon decade of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. For all the sound and fury surrounding the many widely-touted reforms to our public schools, shockingly little as actually changed—which is just what one expects when a broken system is asked to fix itself.

The revolution will, as all must, come from below—communities, parents, and students who are tired of being ignored, shortchanged, and shunted aside so that the paychecks can keep flowing to those who are screwing over so many of our children. Stop waiting for politicians and bureaucrats to change the future; they have not yet and never will. Unless those in the trenches are willing to march, boycott, and agitate, the brick walls of bureaucratic obfuscation and impenetrable jargon will continue to serve as obstacles to improving our children’s education—and “school choice” programs are the key to real changes.

Providing parents with the power to control where their child goes to school—public, private, or parochial—is truly the only viable way to ensure that progress is actually made because a system where the money follows the student will compel changes that are never going to happen as long as we stick to funding formulas where the student follows the money. As much as many dislike and distrust President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos, their push for expanded school vouchers might be our best—and perhaps last—hope for rescuing our children from public schools that promise much, provide little, and push back against any common sense notions of accountability. Watching the frenzied efforts in Washington to bury school choice, a single question should rise in the minds of anyone who cares about our children and our nation: What are they so afraid of?

Any educational reform that fails to maximize parental power over the shape and content of each child’s education has no hope of succeeding. I realize that parents can sometimes be pushy and are occasionally unreasonable, and it is certainly true that we cannot ever allow a loud clique of parents to hold sway over any school because we run the risk of privileging the few at the expense of the needs of the many. However, the changes that are needed in our public schools will not come from above because too many have vested economic and political interests in the dysfunctional status quo—and decade upon decade of failed reforms have amply demonstrated the futility of trying to “work within the system”. It’s just like gambling in Vegas; in the long run the “house” will always win.

Now is the time for our children to win, and this is long overdue….

College Remediation Rates Reveal Significant Problems with Illinois’ Education System

Two years ago, I published a commentary in my local newspaper entitled “Data Must Drive Education Decisions” that read in part as follows:

“I have a suggestion for those who believe standardized testing in our public schools is untenable, unreasonable, and unfair: look at the national and local data on the numbers of college freshmen who require remedial coursework when they enter college and see where students who graduate from your local district stack up.    
Given that some passionately feel that testing in our public schools is rife with problems, perhaps a more persuasive case can be made for examining what happens to our area high school graduates (and the sub-groups of those graduates) after they receive their diplomas. Our area colleges and universities gather student data that matches their high schools with information on who requires remedial courses upon admission….
This would be very instructive information to make available on a school district’s website because it will allow local residents to have a very clear snapshot of whether their high school is better or worse at preparing their students for college success, and it would allow us to really drill down into what our schools are—and are not—doing well.”

I made this suggestion because I was tired of “champions” of public education who fuss endlessly about using standardized test scores to measure the performance of America’s public schools. Apparently my suggestion that we should be concerned about how few of our nation’s high school graduates are college-ready based on measures as “flawed” as the ACT, SAT, or PARCC tests was simply failing to recognize what a truly wonderful job our public schools are doing. Given the heat that standardized testing sometimes generates, it seemed to me that college remediation data would allow us to move beyond the argument and controversy so we could look at real-world student outcomes we could correlate with academic achievement at the high school level.

I also presumed this would never happen because it would shine a politically problematic light on the education provided in our state’s public schools.

So imagine my amazement when I discovered that this year’s Illinois Report Card, which provides a searchable database of every school in our state, has new charts attached to the Academic Progress tab when you type in the name of the public high school in your community: “Post-Secondary Remediation.”

I encourage every parent and concerned citizen to spend some time on the website and learn about the characteristics and academic outcomes of your public schools. Now that this information is available, pay particular attention to the percentage of your school district’s graduates who require remedial coursework when they enroll in their local community college, which is the starting point for about half of our nation’s high school graduates.

Hopefully, you will be pleased—but many will not.

What Next For Illinois Schools?

The results of the first year of PARCC academic assessments in Illinois public schools that are aligned to the more rigorous Common Core Standards are now available – and the news is not good. The abysmally low proficiency percentages now posted for our state’s high school students – 19% in Math and 35% in English Language Arts – are quite disturbing. The bald fact is that very few of last year’s Illinois high school juniors were able to demonstrate they are actually college and career ready.

So here we are. Over the weeks and months ahead we will sift through the numbers and search for answers to why a broad swath of our soon-to-be high school graduates are soon to be enrolling in remedial reading, writing, and math courses when they start college – a fact that will both increase their student debt load and drastically lower their chances for college success.

I have an explanation to offer regarding the dismal outcomes now in front of us: too many of our state’s high school students are still being pencil-whipped through dumbed down curriculum and busywork assignments in order to raise the graduation percentages for local school districts. This is happening both because many state school officials are more interested in public relations than actual learning outcomes and local school administrators understand that nothing riles up local voters more than keeping Janie and Johnny off that graduation stage – even if they can barely read their high school diplomas. After all, what could be the possible harm in allowing them to receive their meaningless credentials?

This year’s Illinois PARCC Test results, which serve only to throw decades of concerns about both Illinois and U.S. public school outcomes into ever starker relief, also lead to a more provocative question: Are we dutifully paying our school taxes in order to support a broken system that is robbing our nation of any hope for a better economic future?

A very intriguing study recently carried out by the economists Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford and Ludger Woessmann and Jens Ruhose of the University of Munich suggests that educational improvements that would bring every U.S. student to the level of competency – or perhaps mastery – across all basic academic measures would add $32 to $76 trillion to our nation’s GDP over the next several decades. Imagine a country where the career aspirations of so many adults were not routinely hobbled by deficits in reading, writing, and math skills – the explosion of human potential that is now being wasted would be an economic miracle of the first order.

We, unfortunately, seem to continue to believe that substandard educational outcomes are inevitable – despite worldwide evidence to the contrary which amply demonstrates that students can routinely achieve much more than what we expect in American public schools. To placidly presume that American children and teenagers are less able than those living within the borders of virtually all of our major economic competitors surpasses all understanding.

After over thirty years of promised improvements, “edu-speak” blather, and hundreds upon hundreds of billions of public dollars spent, it is time to put the power to change our state’s public schools right where it should have been from the beginning: in the hands of parents and students.

I believe our best course of action is to actively explore ways to convert our state’s entire education system to school vouchers and thereby allow parents and students to choose any school – public, private, or religious – anywhere they want to attend. Student funding would, as is currently allowed to some degree in half the states in our nation, follow the student instead of being handed to local school districts, and the continued funding of that student in that particular school should be designed to be contingent on both their PARCC Test scores and school grades.

In other words, we would flip the responsibility for success more toward the student by making a very direct bargain the centerpiece of this reform: if you like the school you are attending and want to remain there as a student, you had better pay attention in class and do your homework.

Individual student funding levels and test score targets for retention at a school of choice still would need to be determined through our legislative process, but I believe this plan of action would be an important first step toward both empowering our students and putting the responsibility for their success squarely on their own shoulders. This would, moreover, provide school districts with a clear choice: improve instruction and measured student outcomes or watch your students go elsewhere for better teachers and curriculum.

The biggest question is, of course, whether bold action is possible in the face of the headwinds of partisan politics that protect the dysfunctional status quo at the expense of our students and our state’s future. This is, I am afraid, still a very open question, and I cannot help but wonder whether I will be re-running this very same commentary several decades down the road because we are still trapped in the same system – but still dreaming that the results will be different some day in the far, far distant future.

Common Core Shenanigans

Sigh.

As anyone who knows me or has read my commentaries already understands, I have placed a great deal of faith in the Common Core Standards – and the tests aligned to those standards.  I have hoped they will both prompt more rigorous academic standards and provide a meaningful measure of student achievement across our nation’s public schools.

I may have been wrong.

The problem is not the standards or the tests.  The problem is (prepared to be shocked) with the politicians (double shock!) who want to dupe trusting taxpayers.

The Washington Post, in an October 3rd article entitled “Confusing Ohio test results are latest effort to unravel Common Core promise”, noted that Ohio has found the perfect answer to the abysmal academics outcomes highlighted in last year’s first year of standardized tests aligned to the Common Core standards: pencil whip more students towards proficiency by redefining “success”.

Feel free to read the depressing details by following the link below.  You may, thereafter, want to take a shower.

Confusing Ohio test results are latest effort to unravel Common Core’s promise

Whether it is simply no longer counting the unemployed as being unemployed, promising government benefits that cannot possibly be provided, or ignoring the inconvenient details of our latest foreign misadventure, one really starts to understand why Americans have so little faith in our politicians.  Elected officials are, of course, required to keep certain information secret to ensure our national security or to avoid allowing any advantage to those who would deliberately harm our national interests.  This is an allowable level of duplicity.

However, those lies that are told for the sake of simple political expediency are not allowable – and certainly not forgivable – and we have all more than had our fill of this nonsense.