Saturday, June 13, 2009

Texas now key battlefield for national standards

I found this quote interesting: " In state after state around the U.S., the move has been toward eliminating elected school boards at the state and local level in favor of appointed boards—a move welcomed by the education bureaucracy and politicians, and the result of a recommendation by the National Governors Association."

Conservatives typically want local control at the same time that many appear in favor of appointed boards. Sounds contradictory.

Personally, I think that while curriculum is core. So is governance. I wish there were a larger public discussion on this in Texas beyond caricaturistic portrayals of what conservatives versus liberals want. Especially when so much is indeed at stake.


June 7, 2009
The concept of national education standards is, at first glance, a great idea.
And that’s what the politicians, education bureaucrats and education marketers are counting on.

by Dave Mundy

At second glance, however, the adoption of national education standards completes the change of the paradigm of American public education and assures that U.S. students will never again lead the world. It will doom most school children to learning at the lowest common denominator and eventually assure the transition of the U.S. from the leader of the free world to just another Third World country.

Texas remains one of the four holdout states on the issue of adopting national standards, and it appears likely that because of Gov. Rick Perry’s reluctance to accept the strings attached to federal funding used as the lure to entice adoption, the state may continue to be the primary battleground between education traditionalists and New Age supporters of the concept.

The battle is political, and the ultimate question is: who controls public education?

Texas finds itself in a unique position. As the nation’s second-largest public school system, it is a leader on a lot of education issues, from textbook selection to school standards. Other states without Texas’ vast resources often simply pick up whatever Texas is doing and go with it.

Texas is also the home of a loose coalition of allied political causes who have made the battle for control of public education a high priority: Christian conservatives, libertarians, educators who have grown to reject John Dewey’s “progressive education” theories which dominate modern education theology, even Texas’ growing nationalist movement. That coalition has been noisily challenging the education bureaucracy, neo-conservative Republicans and mainstream Democrats for nearly two decades, fighting tooth and claw every inch of the way, and making the battle for control of public education a political football.

And football happens to be the national sport in Texas.

The conservative coalition is, admittedly, badly out-numbered—even in conservative Texas. The arguments the coalition has to make in support of its positions are often so complex that most people simply can’t grasp them. Modern public education issues can be incredibly complicated, and few folks are willing to do the research needed to make informed decisions on the issues.

Therein lies the reason 46 of 50 states have adopted the idea of national education standards: the issues are complicated, so they leave it to the “experts”—the public education bureaucracy. As a result, education performance in the United States has been falling for more than 40 years, and today’s high-school honor graduates often can’t solve problems which were once considered to be elementary for eighth-graders.

Why shouldn’t our professional educators be in charge of determining the direction of public education? After all, they’re supposed to be the experts: they have the degrees, they have the learning, they’ve studied all the methodology and research. It makes sense to put them in charge of public schools and to kick politics out of the mix.

Were the professional education industry truly learned in that regard and truly dedicated in advancing and improving American learning, the question might be more easily answerable. The problem is that today’s professional education bureaucracy doesn’t consist of our most learned minds, it is swayed easily by marketers of new products, and it is primarily concerned—as almost any government bureaucracy is—with perpetuating its own survival.

The “education degrees” awarded by our colleges are not given for subject-matter expertise, but instead for expertise in methodology. Moreover, an education degree is considered “easy” for most college students; more than 70 percent of those entering colleges of education do so with grade-point averages of 2.8 or below, averages which rapidly improve.

The real cost of public education in the U.S. has increased more than 200 percent since 1960, yet real learning has decreased. Admissions tests like the SAT had to “re-center” their scores several years back in order to create the illusion that scores were rising when in fact they are falling; when a student who gets a “perfect score” on the SAT, it no longer means he or she actually answered all the questions right.

The main reason for that cost increase isn’t laptop computers, $40 million high schools or even $20 million high school football stadiums. It’s administration.

Virtually every new program adopted by your local school board will include funding for a new administrator to be in charge of it. Once you could run a school where the administration consisted of a principal, an assistant principal or two and maybe a couple of guidance counselors; now, you now have a whole slew of sub-principals, counselors, curriculum specialists, government red-tape-compliance specialists, medical specialists, security personnel, ethnicity advocates, special-education specialists, etc.

At the heart of the debate, however, remains what is taught or not taught to students, and that is where the conservative coalition in Texas has been most vocal and most successful--and at the same time has suffered its greatest failures.

Those who write curriculum these days do so with a decided political slant, and they’re often not subject matter experts. One history electronic textbook recently examined in Texas, for example, contained nearly 700 factual errors. One book actually adopted in Texas over the objections of conservatives—State Board of Education member David Bradley actually tore it in half in an attempt to show it was improperly bound, because he couldn’t object to its content—attempts to teach math with ethnic recipes and passages about the Brazilian rain forest.

Yet another history text maintained the United States ended World War II by dropping atomic bombs on Korea. Some science tests teach that man-made global warming is a given fact, despite the fact that more than 30,000 qualified scientists worldwide have signed their names to a petition which says otherwise.

The term “educations standards” is also a misnomer, because it implies that students should know this fact or that fact. The more appropriate term should be “education outcomes,” because today’s education standards are all about what the desired outcomes of public education should be—outcomes which are defined by the multi-national corporations who often fund education research, whose agenda is to create a compliant workforce with basic, entry-level skills.

What the Texas conservatives are most adamant about is maintaining some sort of public oversight over public education. In state after state around the U.S., the move has been toward eliminating elected school boards at the state and local level in favor of appointed boards—a move welcomed by the education bureaucracy and politicians, and the result of a recommendation by the National Governors Association.

The conservative coalition maintains that appointed school boards are less likely to question the bureaucracy and less likely to hold it accountable, that taxpayers should have a say in how their tax dollars are spent, and that state legislators are unqualified or unwilling to challenge the bureaucracy—after all, when was the last time a politician ran on a platform of “cutting education funding?”

Which puts Perry back into the picture. The governor, admittedly a neo-conservative, finds himself facing a tough re-election campaign against fellow Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. It’s been demonstrated in the past several election cycles, with both Perry and George W. Bush before him, that to win the Republican primary, one has to have solid support from the state’s conservatives.

Perry is currently being urged to veto a bill (HB 4294) passed in the recently-concluded session of the Legislature which would take authority over the selection of electronic textbooks out of the hands of the elected State Board of Education and leave it in the hands of the appointed Education Commissioner.

Combined with a ruling nearly a decade ago by state Attorney General Roy Morales the state board had no authority to reject textbooks based on content—remember those history texts—it would complete, effectively, the relegation of an elected State Board of Education to a meaningless role and make it far easier for the next Legislature to eliminate it entirely, to no doubt be followed shortly thereafter by the elimination of elected local school boards.

Perry has courted his party’s conservative wing—and the libertarians and nationalists—with rejection of recently-approved federal funding because of the strings Congress attached to the measure. Texas can do things on its own, Perry has maintained, delighting the conservative coalition.

How he decides on the issue of national standards—mandated if Texas accepts the federal funding—and on HB 4294 will play a large role in whether or not he wins re-nomination in the gubernatorial race. The conservative coalition in Texas is hoping they still have enough political clout to influence that decision.

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