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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 11/17/2009

BRADY: When captains of business and industry ‘hijacked’ education--and teachers let them

By Valerie Strauss

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

By Marion Brady


"We have met the enemy, and he is us," said Pogo.

We educators should make the wise little opossum from Walt Kelly’s comic strip our mascot.

The single worst shoot-yourself-in-the-foot act that contributed to our loss of control of education reform happened about 20 years ago. That’s when leaders of business and industry, convinced that educators either didn’t know enough or didn’t care enough about educating the young to be trusted, hijacked our profession. And we let them.

The new leaders were certain they knew what was wrong with America’s schools, and what had to be done to set them right: What was needed were "standards." Clear, no-nonsense standards. Tough, demanding standards. Standards that told every teacher exactly what every kid should know, in every subject, at every grade level.

The standards started coming. Then, Congress, no more appreciative of Alexander Pope's warning that 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,' got in the act.

Waving the "Standards and Accountability!" banner, they passed, with self-congratulatory cheers, the bi-partisan “No Child Left Behind” legislation early in this decade. Now states that wrote standards for school subjects, and gave standardized tests to see how well the standards were being met, would get money.

Not much money, of course, but beggars can’t be choosers. The states, routine under-funders of education, agreed to the bargain, and called on educators to produce the actual standards – page after page of lists of what kids should know about math, science, language arts, and social studies.

That’s when we pulled the trigger, shooting ourselves in the feet. Instead of knuckling under, we should have explained in simple, one- and two-syllable words, why standards for school subjects were a lousy idea – a simplistic, reactionary, off target, costly, counterproductive, even irrelevant idea.

If you’re looking for a surgeon to remove a cancerous growth, a plumber to fix a leaky pipe, an artist to paint a portrait, a caterer to produce a wedding dinner, you don’t dictate which scalpels the surgeon picks up, which wrenches the plumber brings into the house, which brushes the painter will use, or select the caterer’s kitchen utensils. Those are just tools, mere means to ends.

You want the patient to survive, the leak to be stopped, the portrait to be pleasing, the dinner to be memorable.

How the professional you’ve chosen accomplishes that task is beside the point. In fact, getting involved in the surgery issue at the scalpel level could mean writing off all the surgeons who use lasers. Telling the plumber which wrenches to use would probably just expose you to some colorful language and run up your bill.

What matters, finally, is the quality of the work. What a society has a right, even a responsibility, to demand of its educators is that they do their best to help the young develop the qualities and characteristics the society values. Proper standards are for kids, not for school subjects.

The thousands of subject-matter standards that Washington policymakers all but forced the states to produce are a curse, perpetuating policymaker naiveté, focusing attention and effort on peripheral concerns, undermining teacher professionalism and flexibility, and making the scores on primitive, intellect-stifling, curriculum-narrowing, horrendously expensive standardized tests the gauge of school quality.

But the greatest damage being done by subject-matter standards is their role in blocking adaptation to social change and the adoption of new ideas. They’re the direct enemy of the educational innovation the new administration is spending billions to promote.

Consider, for example, what the standards fad did to the two ideas with the greatest potential for moving American education to a whole new level of performance – systems theory as it had emerged from World War II, and new insights into how the brain organizes knowledge.

These ideas showed how the massive amounts of random, disorganized information schooling was dumping into learners’ short-term memories, only to be forgotten, could be welded into a single, organized, self-reinforcing, dynamic body of knowledge.

Faced with a test or problem and armed with systems thinking and an understanding of how their brains sorted information, kids could rely on logic rather than memory to find or formulate answers and solutions.

Reason is a better tool than remembering.

Little by little, those two ideas were gaining acceptance. Then, 20 years ago, when we should have said, "Stop trying to tell us how to do our jobs, just say what kind of citizens you want and hold us accountable," we said nothing.

We gave our profession to amateurs; they gave us No Child Left Behind, and now “Race to the Top” – NCLB on steroids.

A poor trade. We screwed up.

By Valerie Strauss  | November 17, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Tags:  Marion Brady, standards  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Fairfax: You've got to be kidding
Next: A critical look at the SAT and ACT


You have just made an excellent case for trashing the bulk of AP programs.

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 17, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

No...not all of us went along with these changes. Some of us had the foresigtht to see and the experience to know that this was just more b.s. and wasn't going to help improve public schools or the teaching profession.

Unfortunately, no one listened.

Posted by: ilcn | November 17, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Cry me a river.

You so called "education" experts want an unlimited amount of taxpayer money to fund your teachers and their unions but zero accountability for how that money is spent and how well the children are educated. You bemoan the intervention of politicians, but if you actually were as effective as you claim, then the public schools wouldn't have declined like they had under your watch. You constantly claim that there is a problem with having standards, and tests, but never propose an alternative for measuring how well students are learning from your supposed "experts." You think teachers should have lifetime jobs, no matter how bad they are, no matter how much money is wasted. You don't care about how well children are educated. Your only aim is to preserve the golden parachute that the unions have extorted from taxpayers.

Posted by: octopi213 | November 17, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

If memory serves me the push for standards came about because "industry" said they couldn't hire labor that with skills for the modern age at a reasonable wage.

They weren't talking about electrical engineers, they were talking about auto workers and mechanics would could read technical instructions and do things like figure out the percentage error rate that equipment was generating. You can't hardly get your car serviced without something digital being used - and skilled auto mechanics do alright for themselves if they have the skills to be competent.

"Industry" in their quest to destroy the educational establishment desired a product that was plentiful and consistent in their skill levels.

Self-esteem wasn't their goal - basic and semi-complicated math and reading was what they blamed America's downfall upon.

In retrospect I don't think the fall of the good American blue color job is entirely the fault of slip-shop educational systems. But the labor market has favored those with skills, even if they aren't college educated. It's not wrong to ask schools to produce that kind of product.

The educational establishment played into this situation by spending our monies on things like classrooms without walls and materials to encourage kids to invent their own spellings.

Generally I think industry and employers are looking for results -- it's not standards just to jerk teachers around, it's standards so employers will have the workforce they need.

Posted by: RedBird27 | November 17, 2009 7:26 PM | Report abuse

"Reason is a better tool than remembering."

This kind of argument totally ignores all of the research that indicates you must have broad factual knowledge BEFORE you can engage in reasoning and higher level thinking. Remember facts is a PREREQUISITE to both reading comprehension and higher level thinking. The research is irrefutable.

It is romantic notions of education such as these that are ruining our education system. Standards are not the problem.

Posted by: guzzaldo | November 17, 2009 10:52 PM | Report abuse

Marion Brady, is right about everything in this article except that "we", the professionals, screwed up by handing over our profession to the amateurs. We didn't hand it over, the politicians and business people TOOK it over, and had many tools of coercion to make sure it happened, i.e.:

Political Correctness - this came along,
what, 15 years ago? If a teacher or
an enlightened administrator wanted to
protest the amateur influences, they
weren't being cooperative, they were
stopping progress, stuck-in-the mud,
etc., but especially it was not
"politically correct" to complain,and
in big cities, particularly D.C.,
being politically correct was just
about everything.

Business Jargon took over - words have
great power; susceptible egos
accepted that faculty, students and
teachers were "stakeholders",students
became "products",the process of
learning gave way to "outcomes", the
end of the day became "COB" - close
of business - "Best Practices" an
everyday mantra......

At-Will contracts: Employees at most
private schools were put on at-will
contracts, meaning that one could be
let go "at will" - in otherwords,with-
out cause. This was very effective in
shutting down any sort of meaningful
academic discourse on changes being

The examples given above are but three of the many, powerfully manipulative ways the amateurs of education seduced and coerced
the professionals into going along with all of the above atrocities that Brady articulates so well.

The teachers probably should have all gone
on strike once the dangers of NCLB were fully understood; THAT would have been the only way to not have "screwed up'.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 18, 2009 8:50 PM | Report abuse

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