Thursday, February 5, 2015


I had a friend, a British fellow I met when I was at Syracuse  University getting my Masters, who was astonished upon learning how we run our education system. School Boards had him flummoxed. "It's a bloody wonder anybody gets educated," he said.

Mark Twain recognized that long before my friend: "In the first place, God made idiots, he said.  That was for practice. Then he made school boards."

Nowhere  in the U.S. Constitution is education mentioned . The only source of the forefathers views on it come from Thomas Jefferson who said "An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens." But he was smart enough to keep the federal government out of it.

Nonetheless, presidents keep trying to homogenize, democratize, and untimately euthenize the so-called American education system.Dwight D. Eisenhower established the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Lyndon Johnson gave us the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 because (he said) he wanted to equalize educational opportunity. Jimmy Carter established a separate Department of Education. George H.W. Bush (that's the one who does parachute jumps on his birthdays) wanted to be "the education President," and Bill Clinton signed the Improving American’s Schools Act. Bush the Second brought us "No Child Left Behind."

And now comes Jeb, whose actual past experience as an educator is limited to a year when, at the age of 17, as part of Phillips Academy's student exchange program, Jeb taught English-as-a-Second-Language in Mexico (and met his future wife.) As if in preparation for his political plans, as governor of Florida he managed to stick his fingers in the education pie. And the plum he pulled out was the

Foundation for Excellence in Education, a non-profit that defines its mission as building "an American education system that equips every child to achieve his or her God-given potential." (I find those "every child" and "God-given" parts particularly scary.)
Among the things the Foundation supports are policies that "set high academic standards," the use of technology "to offer students customized education," empowerment of teachers, and rewards for those who are effective. To the latter goal, the Foundation supports ending tenure, "implementation of data-based evaluations and compensation, and alternative paths to certification/licensure."
There's more, but I think you get the idea. It all sounds good, but closer examination reveals a string of contradictions. The bottom line (more scary stuff)  is summed up in the Foundation's emphasis on standards and accountability.
Students and schools must be held to high academic standards, with their progress measured and results reported in simple, transparent formats. The Foundation supports standardized measurement of student learning, including annual comprehensive end-of-course assessments in elementary, middle and high school, as well as grading schools on an A-F scale – just like students.

But here's the real bottom line. In all of these presidential efforts the focus is not on what Jefferson spoke of--nothing about the importance of collaboration, crosscultural communication, and respect for multiple points of view, nor anything promoting inquiry, reflection, effective communication, and open-mindedness. Sure, we want kids to learn how to do basic math and compose a sentence, but do Jeb and the others really want them to be independent thinkers, critical readers and listeners, citizens who can spot a politician who espouses bullshit? I think not.

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