From the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet, by Robert Bligh
Many public policies – especially those established at the federal level – seem to be riddled
with “reasons” that are based more on hope than data. No category of public policies fits this description better than America’s public policies on K-12 education. About 37 years ago, when I became the first agency legal counsel at the Nebraska Department of Education, I began to suspect that K-12 teachers and their schools were being held responsible for things that were completely beyond their reach. Most of what I have observed since about K-12 education has supported that suspicion.
Federal statutes governing public education have been based more on hope than data since at least 1965. That was the year the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
(ESEA) was adopted as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” ESEA’s fundamental approach was to order teachers and schools to solve a host of non-education social problems that all other social institutions – especially families and churches – had failed to solve. ESEA — better known in its current form as No Child Left Behind
— and its legislative progeny have all failed. All of the problems have gotten worse rather than better.
I have long been surprised that these irrational policies have been adopted and readopted without serious objection by most education practitioners. Educators could say all of the following:
1. To Parents: “If you effectively raise your children before you send them to school, we can teach most of them. If you do not, we cannot.”
2. To Legislators: “Do not order us to repair the developmental damage that is done to children before they reach school age. We cannot do so and pretending otherwise wastes resources, damages K-12 education and does nothing to help those utterly innocent children who need it (and deserve it) most.”
3. To Reformers: “Academic achievement gaps, robust and intractable, are well-established long before the first day of kindergarten. Those gaps are not caused by teachers and cannot be fixed by teachers. What you like to call ‘reforming’ schools does nothing to help children who spend their first five years living in inadequate, often chaotic, households. If you want to help those children, you must do something to change those households. Any other approach is foolish, wasteful and destined to fail.”
Educators could say those things, but, with rare exceptions, they do not. Consider the following speculation as a possible way to explain why educators are mostly silent when their profession is slandered by politicians and pundits and crippled by irrational public policies.
I suspect that those people who are attracted to the teaching profession strongly tend to be much more humanely motivated than the rest of us. By that, I mean that teachers tend to believe deeply that human behavior is significantly influenced by human experience: the better people are treated, the better they will behave. For teachers, K-12 education is a formalized process of treating children in a manner that will tend to make them become more civilized as they mature.
Of course these humane tendencies serve teachers very well in dealing with their students. Indeed, for very many children, educators are the only humanely motivated adults in their lives. Furthermore, I suspect that these humane motivations are absolutely necessary in order to face classrooms, day-after-day and year-after-year, that almost all include from a few to a great many children who are destined to go through school as academic failures, no matter what any teacher does. For example, consider our depressingly reliable ability to identify – before they enter the 4th grade – those children who will drop out before graduation. I suspect that a person who is not deluded into believing that every child can be educated could not tolerate being a teacher for very long.
I do not use the term “deluded” to belittle educators. I am convinced that the only people I want to be in charge of a K-12 classroom are those who believe that all children can be educated — irrespective of all data to the contrary. However, what might be a necessity in a teacher is a tragedy in a public policy maker. We have accumulated 47 years of data to support that conclusion. School reform, as dreamed up by politicians has been tried many times during the last half century. It has failed every time.