Today on Meet the Press President Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan talked about how the administration's strategy in public education is to ignore "inputs," focus on "outcomes," and "not reward failure." How removing resources and ignoring conditions at troubled schools would improve them Duncan didn't say.
Here again is another unfortunate Obama capitulation to the conservative movement ideology, which has been attacking public school teachers and unions and calling for "outcome based education" for years. On this very MTP show teachers and unions were attacked by name.
There are a number of fallacies in Duncan and the conservatives' argument, chief among them the implicit belief that children are some sort of automatons upon whom you can exert teaching strategies that will automatically get them to an educational point deemed satisfactory. I shouldn't have to explain that children are complex and varied beings who bring radically different experiences to public school, and have to reconcile those experiences with the goals of public education, and that there are other factors besides teachers and their unions that affect education.
Duncan's main point seemed to be that "We need to start to focus on outcomes, not inputs. " But how can "outcomes" be predicted and controlled without controlling the "inputs"? In the case of education there are many "inputs," but in Duncan's view, and those of the other MTP guests, the only one worth talking about are teachers.
Some of the other "inputs" have a far greater impact than a teacher. For example, many children are damaged by the time they get to school with ailments ranging from fetal alcohol syndrome to having been raised in a violent home or by a television. Preschool years are crucial to the physiological development of the brain. Tracks laid down in the early brain can be difficult to undo. Domestic violence or drug abuse may continue in the student's home.
Certainly socioeconomic status has a lot to do with the success or failure of a student. SES goes a long way beyond the student himself or herself. It is in fact determined by the SES of his or her parents. Are Duncan and conservative critics asserting that schools, in order to succeed, must in part raise the SES of the families of their students? That might be implied, but the simple narrative of the bad teachers and their greedy unions has been so driven into the American consciousness by the conservative movement that even Democrats refuse to acknowledge other causes of school failure.
Under-funding of schools is another factor that contributes to success or failure. But addressing funding would involve increasing taxes, which as we all know is off the table. Whatever "reforms" are contemplated must be done on the cheap.
Thus teachers and schools become the focus of so-called "reform" efforts aimed at increasing standardized test scores. Obama's education policy not only hurts his relationship with another prime constituency, public school teachers, it will actually hurt students in a number of ways.
Perhaps most importantly the Obama/Duncan approach is a long-term political loser because it engages conservative ideology on its own terms, then adopts both the right wing ideology and, to some degree, the policy, that, in the end, will not produce results.
Explicit in this discussion is the idea that somehow the state of our education system is responsible for the country's current economic condition, and that it somehow represents a way back to prosperity. Newt Gingrich said on MTP "...education is the number one factor in our future prosperity..." But - it's not. We can't educate ourselves out of the economic bind we are in. As Paul Krugman wrote in Rolling Stone magazine, "Being highly educated won't make you into a winner in today's U.S. economy. At best, it makes you somewhat less of a loser." Fortune magazine reported that between 2000 and 2004 "real annual earnings of college graduates actually declined."
For going on 25 years each administration in Washington and in the states has proposed some new "reform" aimed at improving education and closing the learning gap between racial groups. I don't need to tell you that these "reforms" have not helped, but in fact hurt public education. What would be the effect of having your professional world re-oriented by political opportunists every few years? Instead of capitulating to right wing ideology I've got an idea: How about funding schools to a proper level and letting states and local school boards run their districts the way they want? After all, they're the ones who pay for it. And if we really want students to do better the only way is to look at all the "inputs," not just the politically handy targets.