Monday, October 31, 2016

THE SCHOOL REFORM FOLLIES: AN EXAMPLE FROM OKLAHOMA

In the 1990’s the Oklahoma State Board of Education imperiously declared that by the year 2000: "All schools will focus instruction on the needs of each individual student at all levels within the framework of an integrated curriculum."
How could a secondary teacher assigned an average of, say, 110 students per day, possibly individualize instruction for each and every one of them? This was plainly impossible. And teachers had to accomplish this within the framework of a newly “integrated curriculum” — whatever that meant. This was even more impossible.
This “reform” was also borderline impossible for elementary teachers as well. Designing and implementing instruction for small groups of, say, 5 or 6 youngsters is demanding but doable. But truly individualizing newly integrated subject matter for each of 20 or more children is just about impossible — particularly when the teacher had to keep the rest of the children orderly and learning. [1]
This alleged “reform” actually was a mind-numbing combination of wishful thinking and political hot air. But Oklahoma educators had to appear to comply. This doubtless gave rise to dozens of mind-numbing meetings and vast amounts of useless paperwork. Meanwhile, from Kenton in the panhandle to Sallisaw on the Arkansas border, this top-down  “reform” greatly interfered with educators actually doing their job.
Years have passed since the Oklahoma “reform” deadline. Was the state’s public education improved? No, of course it wasn’t. The whole “reform” effort was an odious, time-wasting, paper project inspired by a hollow slogan — “integrating the curriculum.” Worse, it was forced on educators by self-important political hacks that either didn’t have a clue about the day-to-day realities of classroom teaching, or didn’t give a damn.
One day, far in the future, a janitor will be tidying up the Oklahoma Department of Education’s back offices. In a musty corner he or she will stumble across yellowed old curriculum integration documents submitted by every one of the state’s 520 school districts in order to document how they had managed to accomplish the impossible.
“What is all of this?” the janitor will wonder as he or she struggles to carry the overflowing boxes to the trash. Meanwhile, in State Education Department board-rooms across the country, and the Department of Education in Washington, a new crop of clueless political appointees will be crafting still other top-down reforms to convince gullible voters that their particular administration really does care about children — provided it isn’t costly.



[1] These numbers are based on 2016 Oklahoma averages as compiled by the National Center for Educational Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/SASS/tables/sass0708_2009324_t1s_08.asp

Thursday, October 27, 2016

EVERY TADPOLE THRIVES: A PARABLE OF U.S. SCHOOL REFORMS


By Gary K. Clabaugh, Professor Emeritus, La Salle University

Rewritten 8/16/16
In olden times, when hope still mattered, a frog named Horace treasured tadpoles. When they thrived, Horace was very, very happy. When they failed to to thrive, Horace was very, very sad.

 
Horace lived in the Kingdom of the Frogs where Bullfrogs reigned supreme. These puffed up monsters took up the best end of the pond, ate a great deal more than they needed, croaked so loudly no one else could be heard, and conducted their most important business hidden deep in the bottom muck.
Tadpoles need nurturing and ordinary frogs used community nurturaries to provide that. In fact, they paid taxes to the Bullfrogs for community pond nurturary upkeep. The Bullfrogs, on the other hand, cared little about community nurturaries because they enrolled their tadpoles in very expensive, private ones. Here they were exempted from the omnipresent tests and measurements imposed on lesser tadpoles by the Bullfrogs.
One day the Bullfrogs began harrumphing very loudly that state run nurturaries were just plain awful. A King-appointed panel of powerful Bullfrogs even proclaimed, "If another kingdom were responsible for the awful condition of our pond nurturaries it would be a cause for war." (Bullfrogs frequently found causes for wars — though they rarely fought in them.) The panel ignored the fact that Bullfrogs ultimately determined the condition of community nurturaries.
Sub-adequate nurturary conditions closely reflected sub-adequate frog living conditions in the ever-growing stagnant end of the pond. And because they controlled the water flow the Bullfrogs determined how much of the pond was stagnant.
Anyway, as Horace came of age he thought, and thought (in the way that only frogs can think), about what to do with his life. "I know!" he exclaimed, "I'll nurture tadpoles."
Certification was necessary to become a tadpole nurturer. But that process was undemanding because of the ongoing need for inexpensive, compliant nurturers. Besides, at Amphibian University, which had a Bullfrog controlled board of trustees, the tadpole-nurturing program was little more than a source of tuition income.
When it turned out that the undemanding certification standards still were too demanding for the casually committed, the Bullfrogs set up alternative routes to certification. "Nurture for the Kingdom," was one example. When it was created a Bullfrog official solemnly croaked, "Alternative certification opens tadpole nurturing careers to bright young frogs who otherwise would choose another vocation."
Horace wondered (as best a frog can wonder), "Since tadpoles are so very important for our frog future, why do the Bullfrogs make it ever easier to become a tadpole nurturer?"
Meanwhile the Bullfrogs continued to stoke dissatisfaction with community nurturaries. They began croaking that these nurturaries would be much better if for-profit Bullfrog firms were to take over their management at public expense. (Bullfrogs are very enthusiastic about profit making — especially when it’s at public expense.)
Anyway, Horace too easily achieved certification at Amphibian U. and signed up for a job as a community tadpole nurturer in the most stagnant part of the pond.
was delighted to nurture young tadpoles. But he soon discovered that while he and his fellow tadpole nurturers were held accountable, they had no say about how the nurturary was run or what nurturing materials they had to use. Worse still, nourishment and oxygen were in scant supply. Those scarcities made the tadpoles much harder to nurture. Sometimes the tadpoles even turned on one another, or on a frog nurturer.
Some blamed Bullfrog rules and inadequate funding for this nurturary’s plight. Others blamed it on the frog administrator’s who had sold out in order to feel more like a Bullfrog. Still others thought local community nurturary board member’s lack of knowledge was at fault. (Board members weren’t required to know anything about tadpoles or teaching.)
In fact ignorance of tadpole teaching was common at all levels of community tadpole nurturary management. Even the Bullfrog who was Secretary of Tadpole Nurturance possessed none of this knowledge whatsoever. But he was well connected in the pond and very skilled at croaky solemnity. Ignoring the many environmental factors limiting tadpole growth, for instance, he pompously advised tadpole nurturers that if they just had "higher expectations" their tadpoles would thrive.
About this time the Frog King emerged from the muck on the bottom of the pond, swam to the surface, stuck his thick Bullfrog head out of the water, and croaked out a royal decree. "Henceforth," he thrummed, "every tadpole succeeds!" And with that, the King dove back down into the muck. (Little additional money for tadpole nurturance accompanied the King’s declaration).

The Frog King
 
The Bullfrogs declared that all community tadpole nurturaries must regularly measure and report tadpole growth. The results were proclaimed throughout the land and community tadpole nurturers were held publicly accountable." (There was not even a mention of measuring tadpole growth in the private tadpole nurturaries that served the Bullfrog's offspring.)
The Bullfrogs assured frogs with tadpoles that they had the right to transfer them to other community nurturaries if theirs got low scores. In reality, such transfers were very difficult. But that didn’t stop the Bullfrogs from boasting about the policy.
Horace and his fellow tadpole nurturers wondered how they could be held responsible if the tadpoles were under their care only six and a half hours a day, five days a week, 180 days of the year. The rest of the time (and that was a great deal of time indeed), tadpoles were "cared for" at home by their frog mothers and fathers — if the later could even be found.
In fact, by the time frog parents brought their tadpoles to the nurturary to be taught, their all-important early growth period was already over and the damage inflicted at home was more or less permanent. For this reason Horace often got tadpoles with needs that were well beyond his simple skills. He struggled bravely (or at least as bravely as a frog can struggle),

Horace’s Bullfrog-owned greenhouse
 
but try as he might he just couldn't get the stunted tadpoles to meet the Bullfrog’s puffed up standards.
He even tried expecting more, as the Bullfrogs advised, but that that just made things worse. “I guess I’m not very good at expecting,” Horace said to himself.
About this time a Bullfrog-owned corporation took over the community nurturary where Horace worked. The bottom line was no longer tadpole nurturing but profit making. Changes were introduced but tadpole growth did not improve. In fact, fewer tadpoles blossomed than before. But at least the Bullfrogs were more content.
With the coming of summer, nurturing ended. And there was a sad new weariness in Horace's bulgy eyes. He still loved tadpoles. Only now he kept dwelling on their frequent failure to thrive.
Horace spent the summer thinking about his future. Should he keep nurturing or not? In the end his love of tadpoles won out. Hoping things would improve he returned to his job in the community nurturary.
Actually things were worse. Over the summer the nurturary had been taken over by a for-profit corporation and love of tadpoles was entirely absent. Improving tadpole measurements in order to make a profit was all that mattered. And because the Bullfrog set standards were impossibly difficult for damaged tadpoles, some nurturers started cheating.
Horace would have none of that. He played by the rules and continued to do his best. "Worthwhile things are seldom easy," he would say to himself. But reality slowly smothered what was left of his hope. Finally, after a particularly discouraging day (and frogs aren’t easily discouraged), Horace just hopped sadly away, never to be seen again.
Some say he hopped to another pond where there were no Bullfrogs. Others say Bullfrogs dominate every pond in the world and that Horace died of a broken heart. In any case, he is gone — forever.
THE END

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

RESPONSIBILITY, SLOGANS AND TOP-DOWN SCHOOL REFORM


Gary K. Clabaugh
Professor Emeritus of Education, La Salle University

23 October 2016

School reform efforts typically employ key terms that are vague and undefined. Consider the late unlamented “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001. What exactly did “left behind” mean? That was conveniently obscure. Though by implication it meant any child, including special education students and non-English speakers, who failed to pass high stakes tests in math and reading.
Who established such a mindless definition? It was an unholy amalgam of crafty politicians, federal and state bureaucrats and professional test makers. All of whom were far, far removed from the realities of the classroom.
Historically learners had always had at least some responsibility for learning. But this “reform” placed the entire burden on educators. Even youngsters who adamantly refused to learn had no responsibility for failing. They were victims, who had carelessly, even callously,  been “left behind.”
I once heard a youngster defiantly tell a teacher: “You aint gonna teach me shit.” Was he being “left behind," or willfully refusing to get on board? Youngsters like this young man were not a rarity then nor are they now. Nevertheless, the NCLB Act placed 100% of the responsibility for learning on the shoulders of his teachers. How did such a one-sided  arrangement ever become reality? Well, for one thing the defintion of “left behind” was rarely discussed openly. It was buried in a mound of detail.
  Slogans are useful if we want to establish a broad but very shallow consensus among people of varied interests. That is why they’re employed in harmless ceremonial situations such as marriage,  awards, ship christenings, building dedications, funerals, and so forth. They create the momentary solidarity necessary for common celebration. But it is an entirely different matter when slogans are used to sucker voters, justify wars or, as in this case, sneak entirely unrealistic education “reforms” goals into law.
 So what will the next generation of presently gestating “reforms” produce? If past is prologue, they will produce nothing but distraction, wasted time and superfluous effort on the part of frontline educators. But at least they will provide protective cover for wily politicians and busy work for a lot of otherwise largely useless bureaucrats.




[1] These numbers are based on 2016 Oklahoma averages as compiled by the National Center for Educational Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/SASS/tables/sass0708_2009324_t1s_08.asp