Sometimes in life we overlook what is obvious or important, because we are distracted by something less so. Such is the case of many prominent and influential education reformists.

By education reformists, I mean the combine of politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders, philanthropists, and academicians who have been working in concert for decades to “fix” American K-12 education on a national scale using corporate thinking and assets, and the power of the federal government. Their efforts are mainly based on a market economy mindset and ideology, one which is predominantly materialistic and, consequently, narrowly focused on what they think will benefit business and global markets.

These latter-day reformists have been systematically implementing a highly organized and detailed strategy developed in the wake of the 1983 Nation at Risk report, and supported by both Republican and Democratic political parties. Watching this strategy unfold at the federal and state level over the last three decades, I have observed the following ideas either implied or explicitly stated:

  1. Economic life is the most important sector of society.
  2. The primary functions of the other two main sectors—government and cultural life (including education)—are to foster economic growth and to further U.S. superiority in the global marketplace.
  3. Self-interested behavior, competition, and the desire for profit are the foundations of a robust market economy, and the same is true for a successful education system.
  4. Uniform national learning standards and standardized tests enable market forces to work more effectively in transforming our education system.
  5. Standardized tests are an essential component in identifying failing students and ineffective teachers and, in the long run, overcoming poverty and the learning gap between the well to do and the poor, and ensuring our national security.
  6. What the reformists think essential for a prosperous economy and society is what the next generation should also think.

Employing these ideas has led the reformists to create national educational goals, uniform national “Common Core” learning standards, and high-stakes standardized tests. These are meant to ensure that all children learn what is most worth learning in preparation for college and career, as deemed necessary by federal and state governments.

The rubber meets the road, as the saying goes, when elements of this admittedly untested reform strategy are inserted by federal and state education officials directly into school classrooms and indirectly into students’ homes. This intimately affects what lives between teacher and student, and between parent and child, and here the reformists and their bureaucratic agents confront a certain human trait full force.

That trait is love.

Love has multiple forms in relation to education: the love that lives between parent and child; the love that lives between teacher and student; and the love of teachers for their profession, when they experience it as a profession and calling. These are in fact the various manifestations of the heart forces underlying the opt-out movement. Love may take on a personal protective expression for one’s own children or students initially, but as the detrimental effects of the Common Core-aligned tests become an increasingly common experience among parents and teachers, it can expand to become a love and concern for all children and, ultimately, a social force.

When this feeling of love expands, deep and broad questions rise to consciousness. They arise with the realization that the unfair content and poor administration of these tests are merely a small part of a much bigger systemic issue: Who is ultimately responsible for such a horrendous assault on childhood and the profession of teaching, and what social structures and arrangements have enabled this to happen? What can we do to stop it?  And finally, how can we renew education for the benefit of all children?

Saying this does not mean to imply that all education reformers are simply motivated by self-interest and profit. To be sure, many of them are motivated by the ideals of equal opportunity for all children and national prosperity. Nevertheless, the education reform policy being touted now is to a large degree being fashioned by people and professions far removed from the classroom.  Hence their ideals are abstract and ideological, rather than concrete and practical.

The Nation at Risk Report referred to above instilled a national fear in the American public about the future security of our nation, requiring a national response. This created the justification for increased involvement of the federal government in education. The report used the image of an “unfriendly foreign power” imposing educational mediocrity on America as the equivalent of an act of war, while suggesting at the same time that “we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.” *

The education reformists used the Nation at Risk report as grounds for waging a calculated domestic war on established education, teachers unions, and teachers themselves. As in every war, innocent civilians are laid to waste; in this case, it is the students.

Certainly our education system needs renewal, but under current conditions of education reform, many dedicated teachers who love children and love the profession of teaching are leaving, or they simply stay away altogether. We must create an education policy that honors such dedicated teachers, and relies on their experience and insight to guide us in renewing education from within. The current attempts at reform from without, by ideologues and commercial opportunists employing market economy principles, clearly aren’t working.

We need an educational policy that allows love to take a central role, so that the next generation can develop and carry that capacity into all their work in the world. Then maybe, just maybe, wars and human and environmental exploitation, which are by-products of market thinking, would become a thing of the past.

I don’t see anything like that coming out of Common Core learning standards and standardized tests. On  the contrary, they are only making things worse.

 

* “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”

 

Photo by M. Connors

 

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