DUNCAN AND OBAMA: ON EDUCATION, THEY DON’T GET IT
Gerald W. Bracey
They might have great jump shots, but on education they’re both tossing air balls. While both have visited charter schools, neither has entered a regular public school. Their oratory has been uninspiring and sometimes downright scary.
At the New York City charter school that Duncan visited, he said, “We’re not just facing an economic crisis here in America. I’m absolutely convinced we are facing an educational crisis as well.” Uh oh, here we go again. We had an education crisis in 1957 (Sputnik), another one in 1967 (ghetto riots—schools took the hit), 1977 (On Further Examination), 1983 (A Nation at Risk), 1998 (international comparisons in math and science) and yet another one in 2002 when George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Law.
How did we ever survive? Much less, thrive? Recall that shortly after that education crisis in 1983, the country experienced soaring productivity and the longest economic expansion in the nation’s history. In 1994, in the midst of that expansion, school critic and then IBM CEO, Lou Gerstner, announced on the op-Ed page of the New York Times, “Our schools are failing.”
How did all those lousy schools generate all that economic gain? Well, it turns out that there is precious little link between test scores and the economy. High-scoring Iceland is an economic basket case. High-scoring France is on strike and even higher-scoring Japan speaks mournfully of its “lost decade” of recession in the 1990’s and is, as of 2007, once again in recession. Institute of Management Development ranks 55 nations on global competitiveness. The U. S. is number one. The World Economic Forum ranks 135 nations on global competitiveness. The U. S. is number one Alas, both President Obama and secretary Duncan seem to have bought into the long-standing—but wrong—assumption that high test scores equals a healthy economy.
Maybe that’s why Duncan told the charter school the stimulus should spend more money on more testing. More money on more testing?!?! No wonder former George H. W. Bush assistant secretary of education, Diane Ravitch, called Duncan Margaret Spellings in drag.
Obama’s speech observed, “three quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma….” What it didn’t observe is that those occupations produce very few jobs. For every systems engineer a computer firm needs (and we have three newly-minted, home-grown scientists and engineers for each new job), Wal-Mart puts about 15 sales people on the floor. Sales people, hamburger flippers, janitors, maids, waiters—those are the jobs that people find. Given what these jobs pay, they often they find more than one so they can feed their own kids.
Of course, that “more than a high school diploma” is a meaningless weasel-phrase usually tossed around to scare everyone into thinking that everyone needs a college degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that overwhelmingly, the great majority of jobs need—and will need in the future--only a high school diploma and short-term (one week to three months) on-the-job training.
Obama told Congress and the nation, “We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation, and half of our students who begin college never finish.” Where did this dropout rate statistic come from? Secondary school programs in other nations last from just two years to more than five. Kids in other countries are tracked into different kinds of schools—vocational, technical, pre-college. How can “dropout rates” be compared?
Less than half finish college? Tell that to the dean of admissions at Stanford or even the two oldest public schools in my home state, the College of William & Mary and the University of Virginia. Where you find low completion rates is at community colleges. One reason is that, even with the low tuitions, many students have to work too many hours at paying jobs to earn the requisite number of credits for a degree. Community colleges were also conceived as a tryout: Do you think you want to stay in an academic setting for a while longer? You’d expect some people to decide, “No.”
Candidate Obama’s gave us wonderful oratory on education—supportive and humane. Now that rhetoric sounds more like a third term for George W. Bush along with Margaret Spellings in low heels. We deserve better.
Gerald W. Bracey is an independent researcher and writer living in Port Townsend, Washington. He writes two monthly columns for educational periodicals and is the author of Put to the Test: An Educator’s and Consumer’s Guide to Standardized Testing and the forthcoming, Getting Out of Education Hell: Moving Beyond 50 Years of Punish-the-Schools Reforms.