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Bringing an End to National Education Reforms

Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard said recently that the Common Core state standards will ultimately be nothing more than another pile of ashes on the smoldering fire of national education reform. His excellent article reviewed the long and sorry history of such efforts, detailing how the Common Core came to replace George W. Bush’s vaunted (and then hated) No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, itself an effort to replace President Clinton’s Goals 2000, which superceded, that’s right, George H.W. Bush’s America 2000.

Ferguson mocks Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s pronouncement that the Common Core is the most revolutionary education reform ever by deadpanning: What, did he forget Goals 2000?

Sad to say, if we go back even farther, we may have to fault President Reagan with laying the reform-mania groundwork with his 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” Its call for higher standards in education, Ferguson notes, was an attempt to go around President Carter’s newly created federal Department of Education that was founded, in part, to address floundering public schools.

After the succession of reforms have all been tried and found wanting, where do we turn? On what comes after the failure of the Common Core, Ferguson is pretty pessimistic:

The educationists will grow restless. Someone somewhere will come up with a new reform program, a whole new approach—one with teeth, and high-stakes consequences for stakeholders. Bill Gates will get wind of it. He will be intrigued. His researchers will design experiments to make sure the program is scientifically sound. Data will be released at seminars, and union leadership will lend tentative support. The president will declare a crisis and make reform a national priority. She will want to be called an education president too.

He’s probably right. Nonetheless, we still need to ask why these reforms fail.

One perennial answer: federal education reforms fail because these directives require too much of too many institutional players in American education. Call it the Hayekian Knowledge Problem. Successful implementation would require that federal agents take federal law and accompanying enforcement regulations and sit on the shoulders of teachers, school boards, even state departments of education to ensure that the reforms are carried out. But what about the parents?

Even if a reform represents a solid improvement on existing practices and standards, the immense gulf that separates the lackluster pedagogical present from the much-improved future is too wide for reformers to bridge. As Frederick Hess noted in National Affairs:

First, state and federal policymakers do not run schools; they merely write laws and regulations telling school districts what principals and teachers ought to do. And second, schooling is a complex, highly personal endeavor, which means that what happens at the individual level — the level of the teacher and the student — is the most crucial factor in separating failure from success. In education, there is often a vast distance between policy and practice.

The Common Core’s great triumph was that it found a way through this impasse, so it seemed, with copious amounts of Gates Foundation dollars. Advocates got the important education think tanks, Left and Right, on their side, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, the national and many local chapters of the Chamber of Commerce. The coup de grace was the Department of Education’s linking “Race to the Top” dollars with acceptance of the Common Core standards. Cash-strapped states in 2009 lunged at the opportunity; several states applied before the standards were actually formalized.

Even so, failure is going to arrive as surely as the federal deficit will rise. Will anyone bemoan this? For that matter, does anyone look back wistfully to those heady days when NCLB was initially foisted on schools from coast to coast? No. The reasons go beyond the Hayekian Knowledge Problem. They reach to what education is supposed to develop within man. For the truth is that national reforms fail not only technically, but in actually recruiting our sentiments, and thereby securing our abiding consent to their handiwork.

In thinking about this, we should contemplate the 1943 lectures delivered by Jacques Maritain that were published in a book entitled Education at the Crossroads. Obviously the occasion—Europe’s renewed plunge into world war–that produced his thoughts does not match ours. But the arguments Maritain gives on the ends or purposes of education remain sound.

Maritain begins with “the two most general misconceptions against which education must guard itself.” The first is

a lack or disregard of ends. If means are liked and cultivated for the sake of their own perfection, and not as a means alone, to that very extent they cease to lead to the end, and art loses its practicality; its vital efficiency is replaced by a process of infinite multiplication, each means developing and spreading for its own sake. This supremacy of means over end and the consequent collapse of all sure purpose and real efficiency seem to be the main reproach to contemporary education.

Do we confuse the means and ends in the reforms that stretch from 1983 to today? Are we even able to identify ends beyond a raw utilitarian concern with producing workers for a global economy? The guiding standard for the Common Core is, famously, making students “college and career ready.” So we might say that we have an end, a more or less materialistic end, that reduces education to a technical function of aiding economic growth. Such needs, I think, are almost boundless. Can we ever do enough to aid economic growth? Could an education system so conceived, so purposed, ever truly be free from state control?

Maritain notes that when contemporary educational thinking isn’t confusing means and ends, it still proves unable to reason coherently on what ends it should pursue:

The educational task is both greater and more mysterious and, in a sense, humbler than many imagine. If the aim of education is the helping and guiding of man toward his own human achievement, education cannot escape the problems and entanglements of philosophy, for it supposes by its very nature a philosophy of man, and from the outset it is obliged to answer the question: “What is man?”

The Common Core presupposes that man is merely a worker, an economic entity, one called to respond to the needs of an employer in a dutiful manner. We see this most directly in its “lexile” framework that deliberately subordinates literature and history texts to the study of “information texts” or policy and news writings. This order of priority is, we are told, more relevant to the needs of employers.

We can return to Maritain’s question: Is this an education of man, or an education for a type of man fitting the needs of a society? If the latter, then it will be hard to avoid the state’s summoning education “to make up for all that is lacking in the surrounding order,” in Maritain’s words. The result of this, he says, is that “education would become a function directly and uniquely dependent on the management of the state, and the educational body an organ of state machinery.”

Our problem is that we struggle, as a result of our own feeble public reasoning, to entertain any understanding of the purpose of education beyond the rigid categories of what can be measured and assessed. This techno-vocational understanding of education may be inevitable in any society that can no longer see the purpose of a free society residing in the spirit of the person.

In short, is education for the person or for the state? Rejecting the techno-vocational system of education requires a commitment to an alternative understanding of man as a being of purpose, one whose spiritual capacities of reason, will, and wonder require educational institutions that support the flourishing of these capacities, that draw them out in study and reflection, and that lead the person to be the cause of his education. Not only is this vital essence missing from the latest federal educational reform fad, such a reform can’t even contemplate its existence.

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