More on Chester Finn and school reform

Chester Finn, no less than Arne Duncan and his “Race to the Top,” labors under the (mis-)conception that student achievement levels depend primarily on what the educators, – the teachers, administrators, and politicians — do, and that downward or flat, as at the present time, achievement levels call for additional reforms.

Maybe, but so far a long series of public school education reforms  beginning in this country in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik into orbit 4 October 1957, have done little or nothing to raise the achievement levels of all our students, and have done particularly little for our most vulnerable, most impoverished and most often minority, Latino, Black and other, students, those for the most part living and attending school in our largest inner cities.

Why is this? The answer is obvious but so far educators have not been paying attention. What have we ever learned ourselves that has not come primarily from our own efforts, from our own active involvement in the learning process?

Why would it be any different for kids? For what students learn, translated into measurable achievement levels, depends most of all (as for the rest of us) on what they do for themselves, not on what we do for them.

What reforms, if any, have sought to make the students primarily responsible for their own education, for their own learning? The three reform movements of which Chester Finn speaks, national standards, data driven instruction (testing), and school choice, have little or nothing to say about the role of the students in all that.

As it is now, even the best students, the so called “good students,” are probably doing what they do in school to please their parents or teachers rather than themselves. Although they may be learning the lessons of the school and classroom, what they’re really learning, what’s becoming an integral part of their makeup, and most important for their future lives, is probably not what they’re doing in school.

When and if learning does take place, if progress is made and achievement gaps are narrowed or closed, it will be most of all thanks to the efforts of the learners, of the kids themselves.

I thought of all this while reading David Brooks writing about the devastation brought about by the earthquake in Haiti. The extent of the devastation, he says, is much more to be blamed on poverty, that which had made for a totally inadequate infrastructure of support systems, as well as permitting contractors to build without meeting proper building code requirements.

Brooks reminds us that an earthquake in the Bay Area of Northern California, on October 17, 1989, just as powerful, 7.0 on the Richter scale, did a tiny fraction of the horrendous people and property damage that we are now witnessing via the Media’s constant coverage of the aftermath of the quake in Haiti. The poverty of Haiti and affluence of Northern California are the explanation of the hugely differing quake damages in the two places.

Then Brooks goes on to say that all the development aid of the past several decades has done little or nothing to reduce, let alone dispel the poverty not only in Haiti, but in the under developed world generally. He concludes with the simple admission that “we don’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty.”

Brooks then quotes the economist Abhijit Banerjee who has this to say about the effectiveness of aid to the undeveloped world: “It is not clear to us that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control.”

And it was here that I thought to myself that similarly, or analogously the best way to raise our students’ achievement levels was not to go on tinkering with the public school environments and curricula, for perhaps making real progress in reducing ignorance and raising achievement may also not be within our power or control.

And in fact the real growth and development, that is taking place in countries like India and China, is not to be attributed to international aid efforts, such as those of the World Bank and others, but to the efforts of the Indians and the Chinese themselves. Similarly perhaps real student achievement will only take place when the students themselves assume the major responsibility for their learning.

This clearly has not yet happened.

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