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Posted at 9:15 AM ET, 04/30/2010

Are ed reformers ignoring American values?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author.

By Marion Brady
Education reform shaped by Race to the Top and the Common Core State Standards Initiative is rocking merrily along, but the enthusiasm for it is, well, curious.

Maybe because those originally pushing it were leaders of business and industry rather than educators, the effort was begun, and continues, without several relevant issues being addressed.

There has been, for example, no discussion of the wisdom of standardizing knowledge in the middle of a knowledge explosion. Neither is anyone asking if the "core" school subjects - the ones being standardized - are up to the challenges the future will bring.

No provision has been made for coordinating or prioritizing the work of the various standards-writing committees.

No one has been assigned responsibility for mediating the conflicts which will arise as the fans of various school subjects compete for learner time and public money.

No apologies have been offered to professional educators for telling them they don’t know how to do their jobs.

No one is addressing the fact that the world that school subjects try to explain is an interconnected whole that can’t be understood using a random handful of disconnected school subjects.

That last problem alone -- the one that helped make No Child Left Behind an intellectual farce -- is reason enough to dump Race to the Top and The Common Core State Standards Initiative.

But perhaps most curious of all is the present education reform effort’s disregard for deep-seated American values. With the possible exception of Australia, no other country matches America in professed admiration for the non-standard person.

We’re big on individualism, personal freedom, and autonomy. We resent authority, chafe at regulation, and are amused by the comedian’s line, "I’m from the government and I’m here to help." We admire the Lone Ranger, the self-made man, and the movie characters played by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

We distrust central planning, and point to the history of the Soviet Union and other East Bloc countries as evidence of its dangers. We know that no two kids are alike, and insist that individual differences be respected, a cultural trait we think explains why Americans have won more than their fair share of Nobel Prizes, medals, patents, and other awards for scientific, artistic, and athletic accomplishment.

Why, then, is there near-universal enthusiasm for national standards? Why are we destroying what little autonomy and adaptability is left in America’s schools after years of battering by No Child Left Behind? Why are we ignoring educators from high-scoring but super-standardized countries who come here looking for the secret of America’s intellectual productivity? Why are we putting our children in the service of corporate interests rather than demanding that corporate interests serve our children? When did we abandon our belief that educating wasn’t about filling industry job slots but about exploring the dimensions and potential of humanness?

Should there be national standards? Sure! But not national standards for math and science and other school subjects. School subjects are just tools. Means to an end. If we’re shopping for a jacket, we don’t care about the loom that wove the cloth, the scissors that cut it, or the sewing machine that stitched it together. We care about the quality of the finished jacket.

The same holds true if we’re in the market for a house or car. We don’t care whether the carpenters drove the nails with a hammer or a nail gun, don’t care whether a robot or a human installed the grill. We leave tool choices to the judgment of professionals, in whose interest it is to constantly look for better ones. Our interest is in the quality of the completed house or car. That’s when we bring standards to bear.

But not in education. The whole standards and accountability fad has been a monumental, misguided waste of time, money, brains, and educator reputations.

Should a standard for reading say, "Learners will be able to sound out unfamiliar words," or should it say, "Learners will develop a love of reading"? Should a standard for math say, "Learners will be able to solve quadratic equations," or should it say, "Learners will understand statistics that reveal the trends of the era"?

Corporate America has given us Big Banks - banks too big to fail. Corporate America has given us Big Pharma - a pharmaceutical industry too big to fight. Coming soon to a school near you, courtesy of corporate America: Big Ed - a centralized education system too big to question its self-serving, intellect-destroying priorities.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 30, 2010; 9:15 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Marion Brady, National Standards, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top  | Tags:  Common Core Standards, Marion Brady, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, american values, guest bloggers, national standards, national standards and american values, schools and american values  
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Valerie, most eloquently stated! Thank you.

Posted by: shadwell1 | April 30, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

How long we have waited for someone who is experienced in education, who knows school systems from top to bottom and who has been really involved in the teaching and learning discussions with a long view and perspective. I personally have sent this column long and wide to all of my friends.

In Washington, you don't get bloggers and teachers being believed because of the presence of so many educational officials, DOE, various county officials and of course the education reporters.

How wonderful of this reporter to reach out to Dr. Larry Cuban.
We have been waiting for this kind of a voice in the discussion for a very , very long time.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Posted by: bbracey | April 30, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Brady is spot-on. Our greatest strength is that we're an amalgam, a hodge-podge of the cultures of everyone who has immigrated. We accept them and incorporate what they bring with them whenever it is better than what we have now. That's one reason why English is almost the only living, growing language on Earth. We add words from other languages to it all the time. Just as we add people and their cultures to the big "us" all the time.
When (if, hopefully) we start forcing everyone to be taught and to know the same things we'll become a nation that changes no more. And that's a death knell.

Posted by: LoveIB | April 30, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

"Why, then, is there near-universal enthusiasm for national standards?" It's an matter of equity.

It would be nice if kids from Mississippi had access to and were expected to master the same rich body of knowledge youngsters from Massachusetts have. It would also be nice for kids from DC to have access to and be expected to master the same rich body of knowledge as students from Scarsdale.

Oh sure, we could continue on our merry way with fifty different sets of state standards and some kids getting a great education while others get garbage. However, who among us would want their child exposed to the state that offers the garbage for standards? NOBODY! We'd all opt for the state that offers a great set of demanding and rigorous standards so our children would all be exposed to a world class education.

Was this Marion Brady who wrote this article or Marion Barry?

Posted by: phoss1 | April 30, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

"The whole standards and accountability fad has been a monumental, misguided waste of time, money, brains, and educator reputations."

Exactly right! A waste of time and a fad.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 30, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

"There has been, for example, no discussion of the wisdom of standardizing knowledge in the middle of a knowledge explosion."

This is the kind of rhetoric that drives me crazy. The idea that knowledge of core subject areas doesn't matter because things are changing so fast is fallacious and it is this kind of thinking, and not standards, that represents part of the problem in American education.

You have to know things to be literate. You have to know things to be able to think critically. You have to know things to be able to read.

Deciding on a national level what students need to know and be able to do in order to succeed when they graduate is a good idea. Leaving these kinds of decisions to individual educators, some of whom are professionals and others of whom are incompetent or are at least not qualified to make them, is what has contributed to the astonishing achievement gap(s) nationally.

"Should a standard for reading say, "Learners will be able to sound out unfamiliar words," or should it say, "Learners will develop a love of reading"

Seriously? You're missing the point. A student isn't going to develop a love of reading unless they learn how to sound out unfamiliar words. The same principal is true for all the other examples you cited.

Ms. Strauss, I'm disappointed you post such a nonsensical piece.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | April 30, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

I agree with AJGuzzaldo. Have patiently been reading the articles by Marion Brady, and he has yet to say anything at all specific about what an effective school would actually look like. He goes on and on about how the current system (or systems, as there are several types of schools in our world now) is inadequate, but draws no connections between the values he holds and any specific change, other than that everhthing should be taught in an inter-disciplinary mode. Good luck with that one.

Posted by: jane100000 | April 30, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Right on AJ and Jane.

And AJ, if you visit this column regularly you'll continue to be humored/disappointed. This woman is (pardon my French) an airhead. She and her ilk are part of the problem with our schools. That would be you, Val.

Posted by: phoss1 | April 30, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Every time I read one of Brady's columns I realize how deep the crisis is in education. I realize how narcissitic, self-agrandizing educators can be. This column fails the laugh test. Brady anti-core curriculum rant comes from the old 60's theory that all formal government is suspect so you don't teach kids anything. I am not writing this as a Republican but as a liberal that recognizes that their is a wing of our party that still does not get that you have to know something to be a citizen. I don't call Brady's suspect everything government as an american value, I call it what it is illinformed.

Posted by: Brooklander | April 30, 2010 8:20 PM | Report abuse

Excellent column. And how sad that the conservative party-line toers like phoss1 continue to bark about the standards movement as a panacea a good decade and a half after its full implementation has proven its worthlessness and utter failure to accomplish anything productive at all.

Every single state has mandatory standards now and they are nearly identical across the country, with only slight variations. The only differences between the states are the way the standards are measured through standardized testing -- in other words, which corporation gets the millions of dollars of profits from test-making.

Conservative and corporate philosophy has been at the reins of American public education at least since A Nation At Risk in 1983 and it was cemented into place during the Bush NCLB years. Conservative corporatists controlled every single aspect of public education for the 8 years of President Bush’s presidency and interfered down to how many minutes each standardized lesson should be taught and which materials could be used to teach those standards.

Yet NAEP scores remain stagnant and the promised corporate/conservative back to the basics miracle produced nothing worthy of note with the exception of corporate corruption and ever more open forays into the coffers of public schools by corporate lackeys and self-enriching “reform experts”.

But the party liners will continue to oppose everyone who doesn’t buy their spiel simply because that’s what they do. Always.

Remember, no matter how corrupt, no matter how spectacularly they fall short and demonstrate failure, conservatism and corporatism as philosophies and means of governance can never be wrong to these people. They are always failed by the unworthy acolytes who serve them.

Posted by: GooberP | May 1, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

Some really excellent students--who read very well--have never developed "a love of reading." But they learned to read well. The "new math" of the 1960s was supposed to develop a love of math in all students as we discovered mathematical principles on our own. But eventually tests revealed that those with a talent for math did very well with the "new math," while those of us whose talents lay in using words or manipulating objects were confused and never learned even the basic arithmetic we needed to function. Worse, a lot of us blamed ourselves and decided we were just too stupid to be bookkeepers, accountants, or, in my case, even a history professor because history at the time was supposed to be a lot of statistics. I was willing to learn the math I needed; what I found most distasteful was the attitude of the school that I should have been discovering these things on my own and that I should be equally enthusiastic about and expert in all subjects.

Demanding that every student learn to read at a certain level makes sense; demanding that every student love reading is the sort of attitude that turns students off from learning a subject.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 1, 2010 8:52 AM | Report abuse

I agree with many of the points of the blog. I disagree with a few as well. My opinion is that standards are a good way of organizing my yearly effort with 20-25 fifth-graders. I use many methods to help the students learn them. Its a fascinating and rewarding challenge when I am free to do so using my energy and intellect. When the "system" and those "above" me interfere, its bordering on a nightmare. Top-down management needs to disappear (but how will they make so much by doing so little).

I agree with how the blogger relates the problems in public ed to a conflict with core American values. We are a nation of tinkerers, innovators, problem-solvers. In school this is not so much the case. Not because of the standards in my opinion, but because of meddling mid-level management that is more concerned with job security than intellectual curiosity. More concerned with checking off boxes (which the standards guru Reeves warns about) than
letting students take charge of their own learning, mistakes and all.

Many adults in the system simply cannot or will not accept where students are in their development. Students need time and space to grow with a caring adult nearby. They need to make mistakes, fail, etc. They do not need people doing their "jobs" by checking off boxes (standards-related or otherwise). They do not need people making snap judgments based on inconclusive data.

As many have said before me, its an impossible job. There are no magic bullets. But as long as I have fire in my belly and some indignation at how our country is failing kids, I will go to school everyday and push back.

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | May 1, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

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