We're All Bozos Here

A former teacher's contrarian view of the reforms that have to precede "education reform.

If there is a constant theme in American education, it is reform. On many issues Jefferson, Washington, and the other founding fathers were as far apart as their modern political counterparts, but on one matter they were in universal agreement: The survival of their experiment in practical democracy demanded new and better methods of educating the general public. MacGuffy's readers, Noah Webster's dictionary, and the work of John Dewey are all a part of America's ongoing attempt to bring a better education to the masses.

The motives behind our apprehension have changed over generations, but the concern has not. Forty years ago, the launch of Russia's Sputnik led Americans to conclude we were losing the Cold War in--of all places--the classroom. Today it is techno-society and the global economy that are perceived as the threat. During the past half-century blue ribbon commissions on education have become a feature of the American landscape, and every one of them diagnoses a crisis and urges major change in the way America educates its young.

And what do we have to show for this chronic reform? Not much. By any objective measure the American system of public education has fallen behind that of the rest of the industrialized world. American children are near the bottom of the first world in math and science, and unlike their Asian and European counterparts, they don't study the foreign languages necessary to compete in a global economy. Most damning of all, many of the young who graduate from high school are functionally illiterate in English.

The news is no better closer to home. Take a look at the Metro section of the daily papers: Concern over Minnesota's public schools has replaced transportation, taxes--even crime--as the dominant issue in regional news. A recent KARE 11/Pioneer Press poll on how to spend the state's budget surplus found that using it for education enjoyed considerably more support than such alluring options as cutting state and property taxes. Minnesotans are worried about their public schools, and not without reason. As measured by national standardized tests, our once-vaunted system of public education has fallen behind demographically similar states such as Iowa.

We can hardly agree on anything else at the end of the 20th century, but we share a clear consensus that the public schools are badly broken and in need of a drastic fix. Unfor-tunately, the demand for reform falls on a system of such complexity that it may be incapable of healing itself. Competing cultural and economic interests make nonnegotiable demands on the public school bureaucracy. In response, a maze of overlapping political and professional jurisdictions offer complex, often contradictory solutions. In this environment, it is not surprising that people are increasingly confused and pessimistic about the possibilities for fixing the system--and increasingly receptive to radical and simplistic prescriptions
for change.

The state of affairs here in Minnesota is typical of the country as a whole. While one group of reformers strives, for instance, to take the professional bureaucracy and the courts out of the school system, another works to give government greater control. At the local level, both Minneapolis and St. Paul are experimenting with privatizing elements of the system. The Minneapolis School District has also applied for an exemption to phase out court-ordered busing and restore neighborhood schools even at the cost of racial balance. The reaction of the civil rights community has itself been inconsistent. The Urban League, according to local president Gary Sudduth, is taking a "wait and see" stance. The NAACP, after dithering for a number of months, has taken the district to court over the plan.

Equally contrary impulses are at work on the state level. The NAACP is also suing the state on broad constitutional grounds, demanding an "equal education" for all students. But while civil rights groups are trying to put the schools under the aegis of the courts, Governor Carlson, invoking the conservative mantra of the free market, wants to solve our educational problems with a voucher system that would open up the public system to direct competition from private schools. Likewise, the state school board, caught between inner-city civil rights groups and conservative suburban interests, is deadlocked in its attempt to develop new desegregation guidelines for the state as a whole.

Then there is the legislative mandate to produce rigorous statewide academic standards. Bias experts wrangle with assessment gurus, and both clash with subject area specialists. Civil rights activists fear the standards will further discriminate against those already least well served by the system. Trapped in the crossfire from competing social and professional interest groups, the standards committee has lost two directors in as many years, and has already spent $10 million to produce two very limited tests for basic competency in math and reading. In more specialized subject areas, the project is likely to end up doing little more than picking and choosing among existing standardized tests. And when all is said and done, success will depend (as project directors admit) on the cooperation of local districts--the same local districts whose failures prompted the undertaking in the first place.

What a mess. And it's far from clear that the issues which spark the greatest controversy actually have much to do with the problems. So what's wrong with the public schools? And why do our constant efforts at improving them bear such meager fruit?

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