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The more I read and think about higher education, our shortcomings, our crises, our threats, and our supposed saviors, the more I come to believe that the best thing we could do in the name of reform is absolutely nothing.

Down with the pursuit of “excellence!” Enough with innovation!

Leave some of the children behind!

Say it with me! Let’s do nothing!

I say this because I wonder what chasing the next shiniest thing has really been getting us.

What do we have to show for the era of “accountability?”

I’m looking at what’s going on in higher education and thinking about the last 30-plus years of “reform” in primary and secondary education and it makes me worry. 

Starting with the Reagan administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, it’s taken as a kind of article of faith that our schools have been “locked into an arc of decline."  But as Diane Ravitch persuasively argues in her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, the shortcomings of our schools have been debated since the 1940’s, and there was nothing particularly new or alarming going on at the time of A Nation at Risk.

(And even as far back as 1997, In the Atlantic Peter Schrag challenged the very validity of the findings in A Nation at Risk.)

Nonetheless, even before the No Child Left Behind reforms of the George W. Bush administration, we’ve been pursuing “standardization,” primarily through a relentless high-stakes testing regimen that seeks to identify schools and teachers that are “failing” students, as if these are the only variables that matter.

In 2011, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared that 4 in 5 schools were indeed “failing” under these metrics. (Never mind that the real number of these, essentially arbitrary, measurements is closer to 1 in 2.)

The Obama administration’s response has been the establishment of the Common Core Curriculum set to be adopted by 45 states. The idea here is to increase rigor and accountability simultaneously. In New York, in the first year of (albeit partial) implementation, standardized test scores dropped by 30%, somehow the exact figure predicted by John King, the New York State commissioner of education.

As argued by Carol Burris, the New York 2013 High School Principal of the Year, the test was specifically designed to demonstrate “failure” in order to reinforce the notion that more rigor and more testing is necessary, a kind of lather, rinse, repeat process meant to empower state and federal-level politicians to seize control of schools from local authorities.

Check out Burris’ discussion of a math test given to 6-year-olds as part of the testing to see how well you’d do on a 1st grade-level exam.

Even “white suburban moms” are now resisting the standardized testing regime (since they correctly recognize that their children go to good/advantaged schools) and therefore finding themselves in the Obama administration’s crosshairs.

In the words of Arne Duncan, Common Core testing will show, “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

The narrative of failure is now such a given, that it’s even infected the places that are supposed to be our models. Arne Duncan has become the Lady Macbeth of education reform, the spots of failure apparently everywhere.

But if schools are failing, why is high school graduation near an all-time high?

Why is attendance up and college acceptance booming?

And why is the “achievement gap” narrowing?

But then again, if schools aren’t failing, why are so many students not adequately prepared for college-level work?

Why do we see a “readiness gap” of up to 75% for students going to nonselective two-year schools?

The most obvious way to reconcile these seemingly contradictory metrics of failure/not failure is to recognize that while we’re making strides within certain subgroups at giving them improved access to educational opportunities, the education they are receiving is incompatible with the demands of college.

Put another way, we’re giving under-resourced students an opportunity to do better on the same worthless tests at which students in wealthy districts historically excel.

Or not, right Secretary Duncan?

Perhaps a lifetime of standardized tests isn’t the best way to prepare students for success in college. Perhaps these practices make them some combination of anxious, passive, and bored, all things that I routinely see in my students who by every measure are college ready.

Maybe the problem is that people aren’t standardized, and our attempts to make it so have led to an explosion in ADD/ADHD diagnoses – so children are better able to sit for the tests - and served to demoralize the very people best positioned and equipped to inspire students to engage with their educations and fulfill their potentials.

I’m talking about teachers.

The Common Core Curriculum is meant to better prepare students for college, but standardized curriculum is standardized curriculum, no matter how well-constructed or well-meaning. Are we really a one-size-fits-all nation?

That Arne Duncan has now come for the suburbanites and they are pushing back is particularly telling. Duncan meant his remarks as a challenge to complacency, but these parents know that their schools are good. They have well-paid and dedicated teachers, college counselors, extracurricular activities, tutors. They are places of opportunity where children excel an go to elite colleges. They recognize that the freedom their schools have been given – a freedom largely made possible by wealth that previously insulated them from the meddling of reformers – is necessary to their children’s success.

The accountability is supposed to be for the “failing” schools, the ones with the poor people and the disengaged parents, not them. The only difference between the Bush and Obama administrations is that the republicans just wanted to “reform” the “failing” inner-city schools, primarily as a vehicle to privatize previously public education, while the democrats are coming after all of us.

Hopefully this is a wake-up call, that this top-down paternalism is good for neither we nor thee.

The students have come to serve the system, rather than the other way around.

I’m with Steve Denning, a contributor to Forbes, who says, “The single most important idea for reform in K-12 education concerns a change in goal. The goal needs to shift from one of making a system that teaches children a curriculum more efficiently to one of making the system more effective by inspiring lifelong learning in students, so that they are able to have full and productive lives in a rapidly shifting economy.”

It just so happens that this sounds like a pretty promising goal for higher education, and yet here we are talking about MOOCs, and driving students towards the “practical” STEM majors, and embracing adaptive learning software that will replace teachers with digitally canned curriculum.

And here comes the Obama administration cooking up accountability measurements centered on “price” and “value.

Data, data everywhere, and none of it likely to mean much of anything.

The drive to standardize higher ed seems just as strong, both among politicians, and neoliberal, technology utopians like Bill Gates.

President Obama has endorsed high school coding classes, suggesting that as a nation, we need to prepared to work alongside our machine overlords.  

Except what about the fact that the top 5 skills employers want in their new hires has barely changed in 40 years?

1. Ability to work in a team

2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems

3. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work

4. Ability to communicate verbally

5. Ability to obtain and process information

Shockingly, programming isn’t on the list.

Does anyone else notice how the drive towards standardized curriculum and testing is the opposite of these skills? Is there anything in repetitive drilling to pass multiple choice tests that enhances the ability to work in a team, or make decisions and solve problems, or to plan, organize and prioritize work?

Is it any mystery why these are the very things my students struggle with most?

Think of the money flowing towards technological solutions to non-problems like the Los Angeles Unified School District taking public bond money and sinking it into $1 billion worth of iPads loaded with Pearson software with licenses that expire every three years, making them the world’s most expensive and glitchy textbooks.

Why would we possibly want to follow this model for higher education?

The immediate danger of pursuing increasingly radical and ill-considered reforms in higher education is in the damage it does to students, as we endlessly experiment in search of the winning combination. Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun has already declared his own MOOCs a “lousy product” for university education, less than two years after he posited that free online education would drive traditional universities under.

I’m happy to dance on Udacity’s grave and wish them well in the world of corporate training where they belong, but Thrun’s realization about his lousy product came at the expense of San Jose State students who were charged tuition to participate in the easily predictable failure.

We’ve tortured a generation of students with No Child Left Behind testing, but at least that was nominally free. College students will have to pay for the privilege of being guinea pigs for some venture capitalist’s dream of frictionless, automated learning.

This is not to say colleges and universities shouldn’t act to improve their offerings to the benefit of students. And the problem of increasing tuition prices threatens to shut off access to what is still the single greatest vehicle to upward economic mobility. Restoring public support to education of all kinds should be our first, and possibly only priority. The “Is College Worth It?” crowd wasn’t much on the scene during robust economic times. There’s reason to believe that macroeconomic improvements, particularly when it comes to employment, will at least soften, if not outright moot these criticisms.

When we talk reform, the conversation needs to be organized around an irrefutable truth, that education is the human exchange of ideas, that there are very few shortcuts for this process, and the adoption of technology comes with as many burdens (including increased costs) as it does potential solutions.

We already know quite a bit about how to engage in this human exchange of ideas, which makes sense since we’ve been at it for millennia. (Socrates to Plato to Aristotle wasn’t a double play combination.) Technology can help here by bringing people into virtual proximity with each other when physical distance makes face-to-face interaction impossible, but this should be just as intimate and interactive as the best practices of traditional education.

Of course there’s compromises to be struck. Resources aren’t bottomless. But if we take all that money and time that’s spent in the everlasting pursuit of the technological silver bullet for our supposed problems - money that would overwhelmingly flow out of schools and toward corporations - and instead invest it in the human capital of our colleges and universities, we may not see revolution, but there will for sure be improvement.

Even if we do nothing whatsoever, we’ll be better off than pursuing all these vague somethings.

All together now!

Let’s do nothing!

Let’s do nothing!


We can take the "Let's do nothing!" cause to Twitter, #letsdonothing



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