‘Education reform’ needs to focus on learners, not numbers

 Common Core prep books. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Common Core prep books. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Education Reform” is, in effect, false advertising and deceptive packaging, brought to you by sponsors who are not professional educators, but rather executives, politicians, philanthropists, and business barons — and even by national political programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Their promise is sort of like: “Lose 30 lbs. in 30 days!”

Yes, we need a fresh vision of reform — true ”learning” reform. We need a fresh look at schools, learning, the whole child, public health data, and even neuroscience. We need fresh, transparent language, and evaluation by trained professional educators throughout.

Meanwhile, essential knowledge and evidence-based decisions are completely missing in their goal of a seismic shift. Public education becomes vulnerable to privatization.

False and deceptive labelling

First, let’s be super-clear: self-labelled “education reformers” are not interested in learning itself, or about the learners. Instead, these reformers are interested in measurement, control, and accountability. The desires of adults far outside of the learning arena are driving the agenda, creating a one-size-fits-all Common Core to standardize what is taught, then administering standardized tests to (theoretically) measure results, and then taking more “value-added measures” to (theoretically) hold adults accountable for results of the standardized tests.

Meanwhile, reforms to actual learning itself are glaringly absent. We need to stop following their devious semantics.

So, let’s label “reformers” more clearly: Education “scorekeepers” or “controllers.”

Education controllers strive for a number — a single measure to identify education results — identifying (in theory) how a school is doing across all classrooms, all grades, all subjects, all student groups, across a full year of time. So the entire school (or district) is either universally “passing” or universally “failing.”

Where is the data supporting the validity of that concept? That number in turn has been used to evaluate educators, a practice already shown to be flawed. Reformers seem to be talking to themselves about meaningless scores. Even the theory is misleading.

Learning, by nature, is not efficient

Financial effectiveness, or education “efficiency,” is also about outsiders. Controllers lust for a number to hold someone accountable if the education score isn’t what they think it should be.

The most menacing deceptive “reform” agenda is the desired end-game of privatization of education. These reformers have none of their own skin or kin in the public school arena. The privatization agenda is a political philosophy going back to Milton Freidman in the 1980s. It is in conflict with an equitably educated citizenry in an effective democracy. It is also a very lucrative hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars financial endeavor. Billionaire outsider education controllers see a new source of profit — hence the motive to demonstrate or create a failure of public schools. The privatization agenda fits nicely with the research void around meaningless measures of “universal failure” for public schools. Here, again, the controllers’ blind spot is actual learning.

Learners, whole children, and their uniqueness are completely missing from the package. Yet learners are the most complex aspect of learning. My child is different from your child and different from my neighbor’s grandchild. Merely observing a classroom (the infamous “walk-through”) is not the same as understanding the perspective and context of the children. Children’s uniqueness creates dramatic variations in their learning processes. Nevertheless, education controllers focus on systems, oblivious to human learners. Odd, because successful barons of business get successful by focusing on and prioritizing consumers’ perceptions, needs and wants.

Likewise, in medical arts, educated professionals wisely center on the human beings who are pursuing health, and especially on their “pre-existing conditions.” In the learning arena, one such pre-existing condition is childhood trauma. It directly affects body chemistry, brain function and development and social responses — all natural defenses to chronic trauma. Public health research shows that childhood trauma affects 20 percent to 50 percent of child learners in America today — broader than the impact of English language learners and students with learning disabilities. The physiological reality is that learning doesn’t happen in a mode of chronic trauma.

How do you interpret education “results,” when 20 percent to 50 percent of very unique learners are presently not identified by any measurement or accountability system? Oblivious systems put children in danger of re-triggering traumas by expecting them to learn like every other student with no support. Then, the learners are robotically all given all the same tests at the same time, in the same way.

Learners and their contexts are missing from the deceptive “package” of the controllers.

Failing schools or failing paradigms?

How can we tell whether places-of-learning are universal failures or not? Is that even the right question? The customers, learners, are treated as objects in the learning process, excluded from participating in the discussion, or being a topic in the discussion. Meanwhile, they’re meticulously measured, while at desks in a life-vacuum. Learners’ lives, their stories, and their existing conditions are treated as though they are irrelevant to the system. Teachers are only slightly more often included in the discussions.

In a clear statement of the controllers’ pristine, outsider perspective:  Their learning paradigms reveal that they’re oblivious to who is missing from the discussion.  Worse, it seems controllers don’t think it matters who is in the classroom either. They use the same “system” for whoever, whenever, wherever. Looking at numbers generated in a vacuum, with large components missing from the package, do we really know what the measurements measure?

The view that student-specific context and perspective don’t matter was long ago named the “Banking Model” of education. Paulo Freire convincingly exposed and rightfully rejected the Banking Model of learning, almost 50 years ago. We have moved on, but those outsider controllers now impose the Banking Model upon our children and grandchildren.

… it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher.  The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better the teacher she is.  The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.  Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits, which the students patiently receive, memorize, repeat.—Paulo Freire, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” chapter 2

Yet controllers continue rewarming the same banking paradigm, the same discussion, the same way. There is a popular saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different result.

Maybe it’s not really a case of failing schools, but failing paradigms.

We don’t need this kind of “help.” We need to get back to learners and learning.

Towards a new learning paradigm

There is no quick, easy solution to improving learning. Don’t trust outside controllers who claim otherwise.

Put learners first.
Prioritize equal access and fair funding for all learners, before prioritizing control of scores.
Acknowledge explicitly that life experience is a core aspect of every human endeavor, including learning.
Incorporate explicitly life experience of the learner.  In particular incorporate the pre-existing, learner factors such as childhood trauma, IEPs and ELLs.
Use “learning” reform language for transparency and a reminder of the objective.
Incorporate professional teachers as central to understanding learning (and the learners), and as crucial to implementing change.
Put learning and learning research back as the priority, versus measurement and “control”.
Acknowledge explicitly that learning is an infinitely varied activity.
Secondarily, pursue a new way to evaluate infinite variety. Maybe we need more than one “number” to evaluate and report about the kaleidoscope which is “learning”.

Daun Kauffman has been a teacher in north Philadelphia Public Schools for 14 years. Daun also blogs at LucidWitness.com.

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