Opinion Columns & Blogs

Federal officials clueless about classrooms

These past weeks have seen the Washington, D.C., establishment prove that they are clueless about what is going on in American classrooms.

First the U.S. Department of Education, after having approved the McPherson school district's use of an alternative to No Child Left Behind testing, denied the Kansas State Department of Education's request for a state waiver. Similar to most states, Kansas faces being labeled a failure under the NCLB law as the insane deadline approaches requiring 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

Second, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week earlier this month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan released an "open letter" to teachers. Teachers responded with nearly unanimous rage and disbelief, indicating that teachers in the trenches have no confidence left in the country's education leader.

If the Washington wonks actually went into classrooms and talked with teachers, they would find a high level of outrage at the direct results of recent federal actions. Thanks to a federal philosophy of blaming teachers, many states have taken away teachers' professional decision making, seniority, tenure and collective bargaining. They have narrowed the curriculum to a few tested subjects. That narrow set of test scores is used to evaluate teachers and promote "pay-for-scores" policies.

Teachers labeled Duncan's call for more highly trained teachers (at the same time his department endorsed alternative programs with lower entrance standards) as "pure hypocrisy."

Though the attacks on teachers, the teaching profession and public education began under the No Child Left Behind law, they have intensified on Duncan's watch. And though Duncan admitted that "broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms and underfunded school systems" were beyond teachers' control, his "Blueprint for Reform" enforces even more stringent penalties against schools with struggling students.

Finally, a manifesto was released (signed by a variety of individuals, including a large number of conservatives) arguing against one uniform national curriculum and test. The original report, "A Call for Common Content," was issued by the Albert Shanker Institute in March. The counter-manifesto is being represented by media as a conservative battle of states'-rightists against education reformers advocating for poor children in states that don't care.

In spite of the obvious fact that it was conservative President Bush who first brought federalized education standards to Washington, the Washington folks are framing this as a partisan debate. That would label nearly every schoolteacher as a conservative.

I pointed out how a uniform curriculum and test ends creativity in a recent Education Week blog. One insider contended it was a "red herring," that "there are protocols in every profession," and that doctors maintain their creativity.

But if current education criteria were applied to medicine: Hospitals would be closed if any patients died in 2014. Doctors would be fired or their salaries cut if patient outcomes did not climb each year, and there would be one narrow medical measurement to determine this. Anyone could enter medicine without medical school as long as he passed some tests. And all of the medical profession would be "held accountable" — that is "blamed" — for any and all medical problems in the population.

In Fantasyland, D.C., they just don't get it.