More and more, we find inquiry-based curricula, such as the type criticized by the National Council of Education’s A Nation at Risk (1983) as “homogenized, diluted, and diffused” (p. 23), under attack in our schools, replaced by ones purported to be rigorous (and the same) for all.
Why? Because school districts are under pressure to rewrite curriculum to follow state standards based on federal guidelines for a variety of reasons, including funding issues and public opinion based on misinformation. Not only are our students affected by a prescribed curriculum, but our teachers are mandated to deliver a curriculum that offers them little room for autonomy or creativity – the elements that make teaching a craft. In the end, real learning and real teaching suffer due to the pressure to prepare for the test. Ayers (2001) writes of the limitations of such a mentality:
“After all, standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and functions, and the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning,” (p. 112)
What we are witnessing in the classroom as a result of government dictates of standardization – and there doesn’t appear to be any change in the immediate future given President Obama’s and Education Secretary Duncan’s recent comments – is a dulling of the curriculum that is affecting both students and teachers. This is not unlike Freire’s (2001) Banking Concept of Education, where education “becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher the depositor … The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world,” (pp. 72-73).
Preparing students for testing, for choosing the best answer from a list of five, is not teaching them to think critically. If an education is not based on imparting students with critical thinking skills, the future is in peril, because “America’s capacity to survive as a democracy … rests on the kind of education that arms people with an intelligence capable of free and independent thought,” (Darling-Hammond, 1996, p. 5).
But why might that be problematic? Bruner (1996) argues that “[e]ducation is risky, for it fuels a sense of possibility. But a failure to equip minds with the skills for understanding and feeling and acting in the cultural world is not simply scoring a pedagogical zero. It risks creating alienation, defiance, and practical incompetence. And all of these undermine the viability of a culture,” (pp. 42-43). Sadly, however, and contrary to the standard rhetoric, the goal of American education is not to equip minds with a sense of possibility or with skills for understanding and feeling and acting in a cultural world – it is quite the opposite. The goal of American education is to intentionally – and continually – undermine itself.
The recent trend toward standardization, cultivated in earnest since the Reagan administration and the publication of A Nation At Risk, is being driven by the commodification of education and is single-handedly responsible for creating and maintaining a consumer culture that has had a ripple effect from elementary schools to universities across the country, affecting both students and teachers. Education – the process of learning – has been co-opted by an alliance of business and government interests, for the dual purposes of maintaining the government’s economic interests and propelling the private sector, all while fostering a climate of continual educational crisis that places blame on a system of its own creation to perpetuate the cycle.
Lapham (2000) notes that “[t]he United States is the only country … that grants commercial interests unfettered access to the minds of its children,” (p. 8). While some argue that corporate interests and educators have similar goals, Kohn (2002) writes, “In the final analysis, the problem with letting business interests shape our country’s educational agenda … is with their ultimate objectives. Corporations in our economic system exist to provide a financial return to the people who own them: they are in business to make a profit,” (p. 7). Moreover, Kohn (2002) argues, if it were really true that today’s businesses prized skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork, as they say they do, then corporate interests would emphasize progressive, student-driven curricula, as opposed to their current emphasis, in which “they write off innovative, progressive educational reforms as mere fads that distract us from raising test scores,” (pp. 7-8) because there is no doubt that both corporations and the government want the focus to be on test scores, not on what children should be learning and teachers should be teaching.
Berliner (2006) “found high-stakes testing programs in most states ineffective in achieving their intended purposes, and causing severe unintended negative effects as well,” (p. 949). Further, “educational testing schemes often do much more to rationalize inequality than they do to mitigate it,” (Howe, 1997, p. 92). Lapham (2000) presents the strongest argument of all against teaching a drill-and-kill curriculum based on standardized test preparation: “To learn to read is to learn to think, possibly to discover the strength and freedom of one’s own mind. Not a discovery the consumer society wishes too many of its customers to make,” (p. 9). And simply, currently “much of what passes for education in the United States deadens the desire for learning,” (Lapham, 2000, p. 8). We are manufacturing mice – quiet, complacent, students.
Furthermore, while the reform movement has its way with America’s students, Berliner & Biddle (1995) make the case that they are doing the same with its teachers, who are victims of the same reform movement, politically driven and supported by “misleading methods for analyzing data, distorting reports of findings, and suppressing contradictory evidence,” (p. 4) all in an attempt to unleash a corporate reform agenda.
Similar to the rhetoric bestowed on students, Spring (2008) writes that “[a]s educational goals change so do the image and training of teachers,” a concept that is no different as the rhetoric that has shifted to what he calls the “messianic vision of teachers as the saviors of society” who are preparing students for battle in a global economy” (p. 245). In fact, the mission statement for my school district reads: “Providing students a premier education to compete in a global society,” further evidence of Spring’s claim.
Ironically, while the rhetoric imposes the gold standard for teachers, and state- and district- mandated curricula have resulted in teachers losing autonomy in terms of what they are able to teach in their classrooms, they are also losing control over how they are able to teach – their instructional methods. Such teacher-proof curricula, with pre-packaged objectives, lesson plans, readings, pacing guides, and activities, “mak[e] it difficult for teachers to improvise, create, or follow up on what they think is important,” (deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999, p. 179) effectively making teachers into mice, merely technicians in the classroom who follow pre-packaged instructions instead of reflective practitioners who are professionals – they become emasculated by corporate and government interests.
Moreover, Cuban (1990) writes that “[p]ublic officials’ eagerness to reform schools has continued unabated … since World War II[, with p]olicymakers’ assumptions about the past often becoming rationales for reform” (p. 3). What’s interesting about Cuban’s assessment is that he identifies three recurring areas of focus for school reform: instruction, curriculum, and centralized/decentralized authority, noting that their very reoccurrence begs the question of whether or not the problem lies in these areas in the first place (pp. 3-5). Instead, he interprets the real source of struggle in education over value conflicts, a result of a shift in public opinion “[w]hen economic, social, and demographic changes create social turmoil” (p. 8), a problem that cannot be solved by schooling, but “dilemmas that require political negotiation and compromises among policymakers and interest groups” (p. 8).
Interestingly, though, especially to educators, Cuban opines that there can be no winner in this battle, because, “There is no solution; there are only political tradeoffs” (p. 8). This can be seen in various shifts, whether political (e.g. democratic to republican), psychological (e.g. cognitive to sociocultural), or grammatical (e.g. phonics to whole language). Because education is a focal point for the future, it invariably holds an important position for social and political reasons, though the latter half of the 20th century brought a new innovation to education, particularly its commodification, raising its value in the market to new levels.
Critics like Hoffman (2000) point to the reform movement as one “led by politicians who are using their position of authority and power to control the actions of educators” (p. 620). Moreover, when one considers that “the feminized nature of teaching is crucial to understanding the political, economic, and ideological modes of control in the profession,” (deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999, p. 157) coupled with the fact that 71% of all teachers are women (U.S. Census, 2006), a traditionally marginalized group, the reform movement has been chipping away at teacher autonomy. What first began with state- or district- chosen texts, leaving teachers to their own devices in their classrooms in terms of instruction, has transformed with NCLB into an all-or-none proposition, where teachers are told what, how, and when to teach, undermining teacher effectiveness. One wonders if this could happen to any other profession – a male-dominated profession, for example.
As a result of market ideology, the marriage between government and business interests strongly affects literacy education in the United States in several ways. Shannon (2007) writes that Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush “each promoted market ideologies … assuming the unfettered pursuit of profit would lead business to provide efficient, effective solutions to any problem,” (p. 97). This superseded the opinions of educators, resulting in the philosophies of well-connected individuals becoming policy, whether or not the research supported it. Hoffman et al (2002) state “policy mandates have a direct influence on the content and nature of reading programs placed in the hands of teachers and students,” noting that “textbook policy actions … are shaping a national curriculum for reading” (p. 269).
Further, Hiebert & Martin (2008) note that “[w]hile approaches to reading instruction and the materials used to support this instruction have changed over the years, what has remained constant in U.S. reading instruction in the use of prepackaged materials used by textbook companies” (p. 390). What is important here is the top-down chain between policy, content, materials, and instruction. Policymakers dictate the content that textbook companies convert into materials that are purchased by schools for consumption by teachers and students. Somewhere along the way, someone figured out that education could be much more lucrative than pre-mid 20th century break-even propositions. What this means is that the instructional method in favor at any given time stands to make publishers and ancillary industries billions of dollars.
According to Lemann (1997), in the 1980s, “the idea of raising standards in public education emerged as a national cause” (p. 128). In an effort to decentralize education, the Reagan administration commissioned the National Council for Excellence in Education (1983), which produced A Nation at Risk, a report that not only identified an education crisis in the United States (p. 26), but identified only one paragraph of (vague) implications for the teaching of, interestingly, high school English (p. 33), also recommending the nationwide administration of standardized tests to measure student progress by State and local education systems to be used to diagnose and evaluate student progress (p. 36). While for the most part the results were increased graduation requirements and teacher credentialing, before the 1980s, “[t]he view in the education world [was] that politicians [had] never before tried to dictate specific teaching methods to this extent” (Lemann, 1997, p. 129). All of a sudden, issues of teacher autonomy were coming into question.
Fast forward to the Clinton administration. In 1994, Clinton signed Goals 2000 into law to advance national education standards and assessments, legislation that fizzled because of “history and circumstance,” according to Ravitch (1995), who writes that “under current law, the Department of Education is prohibited from supervising or directing any curriculum” (p. xvi). Furthermore, Ravitch writes of an NCTE/IRA proposal for National English standards readily panned by critics, such as the New York Times, who deemed them too ambiguous. Perhaps this was code for not measureable on a multiple-choice test, and therefore not marketable. Nevertheless, states continued with “higher standards for curriculum materials, more rigorous certification requirements for teachers, and new testing programs” (McGill-Franzen, 2000, p. 892).
As a result, disparate interpretations of standards were seen across the nation on all accounts. During this period, textbook companies began super-marketing as states such as Texas and California adopted state-wide texts, influencing offerings and purchases country-wide. Further, Michigan began teacher certification testing in the early 1990s, an attempt in raise standards for its teaching force. Lastly, this period saw increased standardized testing at the state level, though the testing was still in its infancy and nowhere near the high-stakes levels seen post-NCLB.
In 2000, the Report of the National Reading Panel (NRP) was released. Its subtitle alone, An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction, is indicative of the rhetoric surrounding government sponsored studies – and it did not disappoint. Its recommendations touting a skills-based approach, the recommendations of the flawed report impact literacy instruction across the nation to this day, a testament to the power – and danger – of policymaking. Tacked on to the end of this over 400-page report is a three-page minority dissent criticizing the commercial implications of the recommendations of the report (p. 2). Joanne Yatvin writes of the gravity of the sound bites that the public will hear out of context, lamenting that most will never sift through the hundreds of pages of the report:
“But because of these deficiencies, bad things will happen. Summaries of, and sound bites about, the Panel’s findings will be used to make policy decisions at the national, state, and local levels. Topics that were never investigated will be misconstrued as failed practices. Unanswered questions will be assumed to have been answered negatively. Unfortunately, most policymakers and ordinary citizens will not read the full reviews … Ironically, the report that Congress intended to be a boon to the teaching of reading will turn out to be a further detriment,” (p. 3).
And is was because of the NRP and its little sister, the Reading First Program mandated by No Child Left Behind, that single-method literacy instruction became mandated in many, often urban and underperforming, schools nationwide. Though common pedagogy dictates that “reading instruction effectiveness lies not with a single program or method but, rather, with a teacher who thoughtfully and analytically integrates various programs, materials, and methods as the situation demands” (Duffy & Hoffman, 1999, p. 11), both NRP and Reading First included language that expressed they were based on scientifically-based information, again code for skills-based, measureable activities, focusing on phonics instruction for decoding, not comprehension skills. This curriculum has influenced teaching across the country, forcing teachers to follow script-based reading programs, such as Open Court and Reading Mastery, owned by McGraw-Hill, whose chairman had close ties with the George W. Bush administration, undoubtedly influencing its use in school districts around the country (Kohn, 2002, p. 1).
In November 2008, the Reading First Impact Study was released, producing key findings. First, the program “produced a positive and significant impact decoding among first grade students tested in one school year” (Gamse, et al, 2008, p. vi). This statistic makes sense, because they were learning decoding skills. The next statistic is much more telling, because it better answers why we teach our children to read: “There was no relationship between reading comprehension and the number of years a students was exposed to RF” (Gamse, et al, 2008, p. vi). Of what importance is a federally mandated and funded reading program if it doesn’t affect reading comprehension at all?
I think of all of the children exposed to this program, this method, and it is a tragedy. I think about all of the teachers who were forced to abandon best practices in order to receive government funding. And then I begin to think about those who profited from the decision – corporations. Not only are they benefitting directly from sales of textbooks, tutoring services, privatization of schools, and direct marketing to students, but in the end they are profiting from the culture that is emerging as a result of a dumbing-down of the curriculum – a so-called standards-based curriculum steeped in boredom and measured in multiple choice, delivered by technicians, mere mice in a classroom who read from scripts, emasculated from a profession once thought to be noble.
Surely, to push programs that address phoneme recognition, as the Bush administration did, merely because they focused on skills that lended themselves more easily to testing and data as opposed to more comprehensive language programs that focused on comprehension skills that are not as data-friendly, is unconscionable. Not only do these programs fill the coffers of corporations, but they create students who read without understanding, and teachers who do not really teach. What began as rhetoric that sounded wonderful to the majority of the country – higher standards for all – has proven to be anything but that.
In 2009, the outlook seems grim. Interestingly, Ayers (2001) published his book, To Teach, the year the No Child Left Behind legislation was passed. I don’t think he anticipated the extreme fallout from that act when he was writing. At the time, when I read his book, I agreed with his view that a state or school district’s goals and objectives should not be seen as impossible barriers. Instead, as I, considered them challenges, noting that teachers tend to get overwhelmed with the long lists presented by the state, whereas if they would approach the standards from reverse, for example, what he calls “begin[ning] somewhere else,” they would realize that they are already doing much more than the standards are dictating. “The challenge is to teach well in spite of the mandates, to refuse the implied constraints and confinements and to do a good job with students anyway,” Ayers advises (2001, p. 99).
While this advice may be applicable in meeting basic standards or benchmarks, it could be problematic in schools that now expect teachers to follow a scripted curriculum, which essentially creates a classroom where teachers function as technicians, not professionals. That is, unless teachers decide to risk their employment and engage in subversive activity in their classrooms, foregoing scripted curricula in favor of addressing the standards and benchmarks using methods of their choosing, using their own pace.
But is that enough?
Darling-Hammond (1996) says, “The days of assuming that research knowledge will be put into practice by disseminating findings through journal articles, report mailings, or even bulleted synopses of study findings are long gone” (p. 8). Duffy & Hoffman (1999) “urge teachers to participate vigorously in policy debates, challenging research claims that contradict their own professional knowledge, inquiry, and practice” (p. 13).
But let’s be realistic. Teachers are already a marginalized group of people who have become further marginalized by a power elite. While ideas like Ayers’, Darling-Hammond’s, and Duffy & Hoffman’s are laudable, one could easily argue that they merely serve to perpetuate the status quo, because teachers are situating themselves as victims within a system where they are already dominated, merely employing survival tactics. Giroux (1988) argues that this is because “[t]eacher education has rarely occupied a critical space, public or political, within contemporary culture … In fact, it is reasonable to argue that teacher education programs are designed to create intellectuals who operate in the interests of the state, whose social function is primarily to sustain and legitimate the status quo,” (p. 160).
Perhaps this is why the majority of teachers are politically conservative (deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999, p. 162). Producing radical free thinkers in colleges of education and unleashing them into the system would upset the status quo and flood the system with a “language of possibility” that Giroux (1988) identifies as being absent from any current discourse about public education in the United States (p. 160). Giroux was writing well before the mandates of NCLB, however. In 1988, he wrote that part of the problem in education was teachers being viewed as technicians, indicting both individual teachers and teacher-training institutions who perpetuated the stereotype, calling instead for “prospective teachers who are both theoreticians and practitioners, who can combine theory, imagination, and techniques,” (p. 8).
As a high school student in the mid-1980s, I recall the type of teacher about whom Giroux refers – the teacher who would sit at the front of the class, deliver a lecture from the teacher’s edition notes, provided by the textbook company, then dutifully distribute photocopied handouts, again provided by the textbook company. A technician, not a teacher. It is that model that has become the poster child for post-NCLB teachers, like an Orwellian nightmare. A teacher who is safe, non-threatening, non-thinking – a mouse.
Not only is America producing students who are non-thinking robots, but those students are the ones who are entering colleges of education across the country, eager to teach. Given the research that tells us most teachers teach using the methods their teachers used, one can only wonder how far the American education system will fall into mediocrity.
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