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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Public Education: There Is No Silver Bullet

Once upon a time, there was a dubious pharmaceutical company named WonderDrugs whose researchers developed a seemingly extraordinary memory enhancer they decided to call Menssana. Preliminary study suggested that Menssana conveyed remarkable and apparently long-lasting benefits to memorization capacity and recall facility, as evidenced in part by increased reading speeds, improved word/phrase recall, better retention and faster repetition of multiplication tables and "math facts," and higher speeds and more accuracy in mathematical computation. However, the great majority of the drug's benefits only accrued to those who had taken it for a period of at least several years prior to puberty, while the youthful brain and its synapses were still developing and multiplying.

News of the drug "leaked" to the press, and soon the Internet and the media were all abuzz with excitement over the prospect of technology-enabled "smart kids." This being the case, WonderDrugs moved forward with field testing on children. Their call for volunteers received so many applications from interested parents, a lottery system was established for admission to the drug trials. Of course, WonderDrugs had no way to deal with non-English speaking children or those with learning disabilities, so they were excluded from the study as soon as their presence was discovered.

Testing moved forward, but researchers soon discovered a negative relationship between the brain-enhancing effects of Menssana and processed sugar. Children participating in the study were quietly counseled to reduce their consumption of sugary foods, and parents were (equally quietly) asked to help police their children's behavior. Children whose sugar intake did not decrease were reprimanded, then the parents were called in for "discussions," and, if the desired behaviors were not seen, the high-sugar kids were dropped from the study, although always for other reasons like "failed to observe required study protocols." In many cases, the children dropped from the study were from the lowest income group, including several who came from homeless families. During the course of the study, WonderDrugs executives hired nutritional consultants to reinforce the desired behaviors, and the Gates and Broad Foundations each contributed multimillion dollar grants toward healthy living programs for the study subjects, including direct payments to the families for "appropriately supportive" behaviors.

WonderDrugs' research study concluded that Menssana did indeed increase children's measurable "brain power" significantly, as measured by memorization, recall, and reading/computational speed. They declared the advent of a new age, that of pharmaceutically-enhanced "smart kids." Education administrators and government officials in Washington and the states were ecstatic over the early research findings and the prospects they raised for major improvements in NCLB-related standardized test scores. The Secretary of Education even went so far as to suggest that the DOE might consider grants to states to help provide Menssana to as many students as possible. The expected increases in exam-measured "proficiency levels" would clearly more than justify the investment.

While this "fable" sounds preposterous, it is a mirror image of the current rage for charter schools, particularly in New York City. Self-selected participants, elimination of participants who do not meet or satisfy certain educational or behavioral criteria, huge disparities between the subject group and the population at large, substantial outside funding to improve and/or control inconvenient "external environmental factors," measurement of results based on false and easily manipulated criteria (that also fail to reflect the true goals of education), turnover of a public trust to private, profit-seeking individuals and organizations with inadequate public oversight and auditing, aggressive support from and eager adoption by government officials, at least in part for the perceived political benefits of superficial improvement -- all are phenonema seen in the rush to charterize, privatize, and de-unionize America's urban public school systems.

Self-selection of participants disregarded, population differences routinely ignored or glossed over, "non-conforming" students simply dropped from charter schools and "dumped" back onto the local public schools, standardized test performance taken as the sole measure of "quality of education," misleading and inappropriate comparisons of the children in the study to the population at large left unclarified, private interests allowed to profit (both legally and illegally, increasingly often the latter as news reports are showing) on the backs of children.

Has such a radical, transformative movement in an American institution ever taken place, involving the welfare and prospects of millions of current and future schoolchildren as well as billions of dollars in public funds and assets, based on such flimsy (and arguably, highly questionable) supporting evidence? Why is the American public, and the current Presidential administration, permitting such a large-scale, unsubstantiated, and probably irreversible experiment to take place? This is national policy born of hope and ideology rather than fact and analysis, measured by and focused on attributes (standardized exam scores) that measure not "education" (ability to think critically, reason both linearly and laterally, compare and contrast, problem-solve with creativity and persistency, etc.) but instead little more than ability to take those standardized exams.

While almost every country in Asia is busy trying to replicate at least parts of what used to be the American education system before NCLB, the U.S. is running headlong toward the very attributes and measures those countries most want to abandon, or at least mitigate. Twenty or thirty years from now, while the "Asian Union" of Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Singapore is eating our metaphorical lunch, we will likely all look back and wonder how it happened. And puzzle over how to fix it.

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