The government has an obligation to support education. It is in everybody’s best interest that all of our citizens are educated to the highest level to which they are capable and are motivated to attain.
That being said, I also believe it is dangerous for politics to be involved in education. Today the two are almost inseparable, but there was a time when statesmen existed.
When I say politics, I am referring to the art of seeming to do something good, when you are actually doing nothing or doing something harmful.
The education reforms and rhetoric about education over the last decade are prime examples.
There has been a constant drumbeat in the media telling us that our schools are lousy and teachers are to blame. The No Child Left Behind Act was enacted under the guise of improving schools but its real goal was privatizing schools so a select group of wealthy and powerful people could become more wealthy and powerful by running schools for a profit.
If you are skeptical, just think for a moment how impossible it is to have all children — poor, cognitively impaired, non-English speaking — take a test in English whose pass rate is the average for their age group and be able to pass it.
You may think there is a place where all students are above average, but it only exists in the mind of Garrison Keillor.
Is it possible the concept of mathematical average is not being grasped? An average is a range of scores from high to low. They are added together and divided by the number of scores. From an average you get a sense of the general population but have to understand that there are low scores and high scores that make up that average.
It is quite possible that half or more of the scores might be found below the average score. To expect that it is possible to have all students score above their age-range average means there is a lack of understanding of math, child development the issues of cognitive impairment or the educational and psychological handicaps created by poverty.
With the economic downturn, schools scrambled to balance shrinking budgets by dismissing teachers and raising class sizes from 20 or 24 to 30 or 40 students in a class. I won’t go into the research that shows the gains possible with small class sizes. The logic is readily apparent: The more students there are, the less personal attention and the more disruptive the class setting there will be.
So with overcrowded schools, overworked teachers and dwindling resources, the solution to our “failing” schools that is being offered by politicians and argued for by many columnists and editorial boards is (drum roll please): Have the kids go more hours per day and more days per year.
When I heard this, I immediately thought of the old Woody Allen joke about the guy who came out of a restaurant huffing, “There are two things I hate about this restaurant: The food is lousy, and the portions are too small!”
Education is actually more like a refrigerator: You get out of it what you put in. This goes for students, parents and the school itself.
The negative rhetoric about schools and teachers, the lowering of salaries, increasing class sizes, increasing hours and days in the school year, and the threat to cut pensions are not helping recruit the best and brightest into education.
Creating negative conditions in schools is not helping in the retention of the best and brightest.
Expecting the impossible and punishing our best hope for the future when the impossible is not obtained is not education reform — it is politics.
Edward O. Stewart is an associate professor at Illinois State University where he teaches Introduction to Research Methodology and Foundations of Art Education and supervises student teachers. He is also a distinguished member of the Illinois Art Education Association.