Vice President Pence recently announced that a total of 5.1 million Americans had been tested. His report was overshadowed by the president’s prescriptive musings the previous day about ingesting disinfectants and bathing COVID patients’ internal organs in a “powerful light.”
Anyway, a reporter noted the vice president had promised 5 million tests “next week” back in early March. What had happened that the total just made it to 5 million in the last week of April?
Mr. Pence replied that the question “represents a misunderstanding” shared by the reporter and “a lot of people in the public.” Apparently at the White House, there’s a “difference between having a test versus the ability to actually process the test.” When the vice president crowed in March about millions of tests, he didn’t mean usable tests that could produce timely results.
In fact, those “old” tests were so slow, “we’d still be waiting on those tests to be done.”
It would have been nice if he’d mentioned that in March, by which I mean it would have been nice if he hadn’t concealed it.
In addition to demonstrating the cynical duplicity and deceit that currently inhabit the White House, our “misunderstanding” offers a broader reminder that — even with good intentions — vague, cosmetic, authoritative-sounding language can put a deceptively pretty face on hazard and folly.
Education reformers specialize in good intentions and vague, cosmetic, authoritative-sounding language. Unfortunately, their ardor and zeal typically exceed their experience and knowledge.
I’m not talking about the species of knowledge you find in teacher textbooks and professional journals. I mean the knowledge you gain by reflecting on daily, year after year classroom experience. You can’t reflect on experience if you don’t have any.
Reformers see themselves as agents of change. Naturally, they regard whatever new way they’re advocating as an improvement. Regrettably, education reform often doesn’t improve things. It’s frequently not even new.
Change rushes in when things are in flux. Now that schools are closed, voices on all sides are offering plans for what should happen next. Budget hawks have their sights trained on salaries, class size and consolidation. School choice advocates are advancing their demands for vouchers and privatization. Meanwhile, reformers hope to seize the moment to reinstall their 50-year-old menu of failed innovations.
Consider the proposals offered by two education professors who bill themselves as middle school specialists and teacher educators. Predictably, despite their lack of classroom experience, they’ve published multiple articles and books about classroom teaching, they train future classroom teachers on their college campuses, and they direct in-service training programs for current classroom teachers.
How can you be a teacher educator without first being a teacher? How would that work for doctor educators?
The professors regard our COVID school turmoil as an opportunity to “invent the schools we really need.” Their transformed schools would “reduce inequality,” “promote prosperous life outcomes,” and foster “economic and social stability.”
It’s hard to argue against equality, prosperity and stability. It’s also reasonable to expect that communities will be more likely to support schools that address their needs, especially in tough economic times.
The problem is the professors equate what communities need with the specific teaching methods, curriculum, and philosophy the professors advocate. And here’s where the rhetorical lipstick gets applied to post-1970 education reform’s serial bankruptcies.
It’s easy to take potshots at “traditional teaching practices,” “grades,” “standardized tests” and “completing assignments.” Letter grades have limitations, standardized test results have commonly proven meaningless, and some instructional practices, and practitioners, are less productive than others.
What’s wrong, though, with “completing assignments”?
The professors contend that students need to engage in “personal learning” they “care about” and find “personally meaningful,” that “has personal meaning,” matches their “interests and passions,” “integrates students’ passions,” is “aligned” with their “personal passions,” and that “they are passionate about.”
Get the picture?
Enthusiasm is wonderful, but much of what we need to do and learn, regardless of our age or occupation, has little to do with our passions or what we find meaningful at that moment. The personal learning plans the professors endorse are more a reflection of our age’s narcissism than they are a practical guide to equipping students with sufficient skills and knowledge so they can contribute to the economy, participate as informed citizens, and inherit the republic.
The professors urge liberating students from an “adult system” that limits them to a “menu” of “teacher-directed curriculum” choices. But it’s been nearly 40 years since A Nation at Risk warned us about the academic danger of “extensive student choice.”
Content-light “thematic units” and projects at the middle and high school level, from planting a “community garden” to designing “a new dog park,” have likewise been repeatedly discredited over the years as one reason so many students know so little about so many things.
It sounds fine to appeal to “the common good” and “core community needs,” but do most communities send their children to school to “roll out a composting system” for the school district? Is “harvest[ing] vegetables” your idea of “an essential curriculum”?
“Passion,” “conviction,” and “real world impact” are compelling words. We want students to be “engaged” and have a “voice.” But before they can play their part in the world, they need to learn it doesn’t revolve around them.
So do we. We also need to see past beguiling words.