Cliff Schecter, 9/30/2011 [Archive]

Education Nation or Education Corporation?

Education Nation or Education Corporation?

By Cliff Schecter

Once again this past week, the ongoing education debate in America occupied the headlines, bylines and cable news scrolls. NBC launched its second annual "Education Nation Summit," billed as a way "to engage the country in a solutions-focused conversation about the state of education in America."

Meanwhile, President Obama, approaching warp speed on the campaign trail to try and convince us he's actually the transformational guy from 2008--as opposed to the chary chap we've found running our country since--made a fresh pitch in his weekly radio address for his version of education reform.

Of course, the problem is that we're not having an honest conversation about education in America, because many of the broader trends degrading our overall political culture are also at work with this issue. Mixed in with people who really want to improve the system for our children, there are those who see our schools as a way to bring about their peculiar version of 21st Century America--which sometimes looks a lot like 1984.

This whole cast of characters will seem familiar--much like that coffee stain you just can't get out of the carpet, or overacting in a Nicholas Cage movie.

First, there is the science-despising Christian Right, who think school is for fairy tales and the teachings of the unimpeachable sources at their weekly snake handling. If their Bible said that gravity didn't exist, it wouldn't. And if you listened and walked off a building and fell straight to the pavement a la "The Happening," it would be your fault for a three-martini lunch you had in April of 1996 or for being married as many times as Rush Limbaugh.

Don't fool yourself into thinking these people don't have a lot of influence. If you don't believe me, see "Texas Board of Education" and "Textbooks."

So is it any wonder then that in December of 2010 the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released a study showing the US ranking 17th in the world in science and 25th in math.

Just spitballing here, but it would appear there is this strange relationship between teaching kids math and science and their learning...math and science.

Who knew?

But those who would put "intelligent design" on par with scientific theory are not the only problem.

Predatory corporate entities have jumped head-over-heels onto the education-reform bandwagon. It provides numerous benefits to investors--in the form of a huge tax windfall known as the New Markets Tax Credit--realized by investing in the infrastructure of privately owned charter schools. Bonus: there's always the more-fun-than foosball opportunity to bash public-sector unions comprised of teachers, which has occurred in states like Ohio and Wisconsin.

This is not to say there are not genuine reformers pushing for positive changes to our education system. I have a friend I knew growing up who came from a working class section of Staten Island and was passionate about education. He started a charter school in East Harlem that has been thriving.

Additionally, I've worked with an education expert named Dr. Steve Edwards, nationally recognized for coming to the helm of East Hartford High School in Connecticut, and reducing violence by 50 percent while lowering dropout rates below 2 percent.

His firm, Edwards Education Associates (EES), emphasizes cultural factors in its programs to improve schools, such as facilitating communication between teachers, students, administrators and parents, and teaching leadership skills to students that instill them with the confidence to succeed. Overall, EES uses data-driven methods to individually address the myriad different challenges at different public schools. It may not be as sexy as testing--but it works.

In fact, to Edwards and his associates, the testing fad that has become as ubiquitous as bad cafeteria food is a faulty one-size-fits-all solution, often leading teachers to "teach to the test." According to Edwards, "testing should be about 20 percent of the pie, not 90 percent as some want it to be. Testing simply can't capture many significant factors that need to be addressed to turn around schools."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that whole industries have been erected, much like Roman Arcs, in homage to the glory that is testing and test preparation--just another reason some in the corporate boardrooms may have suddenly--hallelujah!--seen the light in the school classroom.

But here is something with which it is hard to argue. In the Toledo, Ohio public school system, EES worked with 47 high schools out of 61, overall. The ones that hired EES, accomplished 75 percent of the goals set by the district, while the others achieved about 10 percent of them. Elementary students working with EES reached math proficiency nearly 50 percent of the time--those not working with EES accomplished this 5 percent of the time. No, that last one is not a typo.

There is a lesson in this, not just for education, but in the political culture which helped spawn its slippery slope downward. From this issue to health care to the environment and beyond, we must repair our fraying culture and good policy will follow. Only then might we once again become what Puritan settler John Winthrop saw as "a shining city upon a hill."

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©Copyright 2011 Cliff Schecter, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Cliff Schecter is the President of Libertas, LLC, a progressive public relations firm, and the author of the 2008 bestseller The Real McCain. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffSchecter.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.




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