What the Dickens is going on?

From one perspective, these are the worst of times for American public education.  In his inaugural address, President Trump told the nation that we have an “education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” His proposed budget acts on his words, cutting federal education dollars by 13.55, or nearly $9 billion.  His Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has called public education a disgrace and a disaster. Openly hostile to traditional public schools (which serve 90% of children) she plans to use the levers of power available to her to support vouchers, home schooling, on-line for-profit charter schools, and other alternatives.

Basically, it’s open warfare against public education in Washington.

However, it’s also chaotic, because Trump’s White House does not trust any of the Cabinet departments and has installed ‘spies’ in all of them, including Education.  These Trump loyalists, often called ‘Special Assistants to the Secretary,’ report to the White House, not to the Secretary of the department they’re assigned to.  So, things have to be beyond weird at 400 Maryland Avenue SW, the home of the Department of Education.  One can imagine these ‘Special Assistants’ going from office to office, looking over shoulders and grilling confused bureaucrats.  “What do you do?” Why does what you do matter?”  And so on…  I hear that morale is plummeting at the Department.

I just came from Washington, where  some Republicans and Democrats told me that “Lamar Alexander is really in charge.”  Mr. Alexander is the Republican Senator from Tennessee and a former Secretary of Education who, as Chair of the Committee that approved DeVos, pushed through her nomination even though her statements revealed her lack of qualifications and understanding.   They seemed to be expressing the hope that Senator Alexander could and would rein in DeVos if she really got crazy.

So, it’s bad, but it would be worse if Trump’s anti-public school people had their act together, which they do not.

And there’s a brighter side to all this. Congress, which finally got out from under the widely-discredited No Child Left Behind Act when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, has now revoked regulations issued in the dying days of the Obama Administration. That gives even more power back to states and districts, who must still file their ESSA accountability plans with the Department….even though it’s not clear that anyone at the Department will read them, let alone approve them.

Trump’s budget cuts federal dollars that have been supporting State Departments of Education, so it’s reasonable to infer that State officials are spending lots of time and energy trying to restore those budget cuts.  That means they don’t have time to manage, let alone micro-manage, what’s going on in school districts.

So, with Washington engaged in in-fighting, and State Departments fighting to keep their feet firmly in the federal trough, who’s paying attention to local school districts?  Could this be a real opportunity for genuine local control?

Something is already happening out there. A few small districts have decided to devote one day a week to project-based learning, a small but significant step.  Other districts are considering cutting back on testing.  Maybe they’re doing it to save money, but so what: they’re doing it.

And speaking of local control, millions of students and parents are considering opting-out of some of the standardized tests that are approaching. When that happens again–for the third consecutive year–more of the rickety structure of federal and state control will topple, and the myth that Washington and State Departments of Education are in control will be exposed as false.

It’s time for progressives to speak up and take action.  Reach out to the 75% of households that do not have school-age children and begin a dialogue about the goals of schooling. Do not hunker down to protect the status quo but talk about what’s possible.  Can we build schools that look at each child and ask ‘How is she intelligent?’  Can we use technology to create learning opportunities for children that build on their strengths and interests?  Can we “Measure What Matters” instead of docilely accepting the standardized tests mandated by the powers-that-be?

Yes, we can.

Here’s another way to look at things. If Hillary Clinton had won the Electoral College, we’d be rehashing the tired old debate between the dominant quasi-Republican ‘reform’ that has been in the saddle for the past 16 years, and the weaker but persistent progressive wing of the Democratic party.  Little in Clinton’s past suggests that she would have turned away from the ‘test and punish’ approach favored by Democrats for Education Reform, Teach for America, much of the charter world, and many politicians.

Had Clinton won, it would be ‘deja vu all over again,’ not a happy thought.

Yes, these are tough times for public education and its supporters, but this genuine crisis is also an opportunity.  If you hear it knocking, answer the call.

11 thoughts on “What the Dickens is going on?

  1. John,
    Yes we can. That sounds familiar. Oh yes, it was an Obama slogan and one that resonates with me and many others. It’s not whether we can or whether we can’t, the question is whether or not we have the will.
    There has to be a strong desire to implement positive change not so much from the administrative bureaucracies in Washington that are mired down in discord but from every local district, superintendent, principal and teacher. Maybe it’s the chance they’ve been waiting for to ignore mandates from above, follow the minimum requirements for funding and then work like hell to make a difference in the lives of children. Wait no longer, full STEAM ahead, pun intended.


  2. Is bumbling and fumbling a good thing? While the current administration is in chaos, it is time for teacher, in the trenches, to take back their profession and create innovation from the ground up. Don’t ask permission, just get those of kindred minds together and go for it! If not now, when?


  3. “It’s time for progressives to speak up and take action. Reach out to the 75% of households that do not have school-age children and begin a dialogue about the goals of schooling. . . Can we “Measure What Matters” instead of docilely accepting the standardized tests mandated by the powers-that-be?

    Yes, we can.”

    No we cannot “measure what matters”. And that false idea, of “measuring” the teaching and learning process, i.e., “what matters” is one of the most insidious and harmful ideas to have taken hold in education in the last 50 years.

    The most misleading concept/term in education is “measuring student achievement” or “measuring student learning”. The concept has been misleading educators into deluding themselves that the teaching and learning process can be analyzed/assessed using “scientific” methods which are actually pseudo-scientific at best and at worst a complete bastardization of rationo-logical thinking and language usage.

    There never has been and never will be any “measuring” of the teaching and learning process and what each individual student learns in their schooling. There is and always has been assessing, evaluating, judging of what students learn but never a true “measuring” of it.

    But, but, but, you’re trying to tell me that the supposedly august and venerable APA, AERA and/or the NCME have been wrong for more than the last 50 years, disseminating falsehoods and chimeras??

    Who are you to question the authorities in testing???

    Yes, they have been wrong and I (and many others, Wilson, Hoffman etc. . . ) question those authorities and challenge them (or any of you other advocates of the malpractices that are standards and testing) to answer to the following onto-epistemological analysis:

    The TESTS MEASURE NOTHING, quite literally when you realize what is actually happening with them. Richard Phelps, a staunch standardized test proponent (he has written at least two books defending the standardized testing malpractices) in the introduction to “Correcting Fallacies About Educational and Psychological Testing” unwittingly lets the cat out of the bag with this statement:

    “Physical tests, such as those conducted by engineers, can be standardized, of course [why of course of course], but in this volume , we focus on the measurement of latent (i.e., nonobservable) mental, and not physical, traits.” [my addition]

    Notice how he is trying to assert by proximity that educational standardized testing and the testing done by engineers are basically the same, in other words a “truly scientific endeavor”. The same by proximity is not a good rhetorical/debating technique.

    Since there is no agreement on a standard unit of learning, there is no exemplar of that standard unit and there is no measuring device calibrated against said non-existent standard unit, how is it possible to “measure the nonobservable”?

    THE TESTS MEASURE NOTHING for how is it possible to “measure” the nonobservable with a non-existing measuring device that is not calibrated against a non-existing standard unit of learning?????


    • You misunderstand me, sir. When I say ‘measure what matters,’ I mean getting beyond simple tests. If we care about the arts, for example, then let’s ‘measure’ how many hours of art students have per week. Care about physical fitness? Measure time devoted to recess and monitored physical education. If continuity of staff matters to you, measure teacher turnover. If community service matters to you, then figure out ways to measure that.
      In other words, measure what you value, instead of simply valuing what’s easy to measure.


      • Thoroughly concur with the concept of your last statement except using the word measure instead of more appropriate in meaning (both connotatively and dennotatively) evaluate, judge or anaylyze. It may seem to be a minor quibbling but it isn’t due to the enormous difference in what actually occurs with measuring something vs analyzing, evaluating, etc. . . .

        My beef is the usage of the term “measure” when other terms would be more appropriate and indicative of the truth of a situation which in many educational settings could be analyze, count, evaluate, judge and any other word/phrase instead of the misusage of the concept of to measure something.

        Yes, we “measure” time by utilyzing the agreed upon definition of time along with devices that measure the time with “x” accuracy. However, just counting hours or days is a very truncated, at best, concept of supposedly”measuring”. We use the number of hours/days in evaluating, analyzing, judging whether or not a program may or may not have enough time to be effective.

        It seems to me that the reason the term “measure”is used is to give a false sense of objectivity when only a subjective decision is onto-epistemologically appropriate.

        In other words how does one measure the love one has for his/her parents, spouse and/or children? Well, one doesn’t and can’t because that very human emotion cannot be standardized, calibrated or measured. And I contend, against the current grain of usage, that we cannot “measure” student knowledge, achievement, abilities. We can count correct answers on tests, quizzes and/or any other assessment or we can assign a numerical value to a student’s product/work but that is not measuring anything. And that is what I was trying to point out in my comment above.

        I further explain the problems of standardization and false measuring in the teaching and learning process in my forthcoming book “Infidelity to Truth: Educational Malpractice in American Public Education”. If you would like to read a draft I’d be happy to email it to you. Feel free to email me at dswacker@centurytel.net putting “book” in the message line.

        And yes, thanks for the intelligent and courteous commenting!


      • knit picking again Duane. Measure is just fine. But we have had this discussion many times before. John used time as an example while your response ” However, just counting hours or days is a very truncated, at best, concept of supposedly”measuring”. Redefining John’s comments as “either or” is a well known trick when John only used time as an example. Politicians redefine what others say to suit their needs.


      • No, caplee68, not nit picking again and I am not the one playing politics with the term. The difference between actually measuring the time it takes something to occur and the number of times that something occurs are two totally different concepts-two basic onto-epistemological categories. Both can be used in evaluating something. Perhaps that thought didn’t come through in my comment-my bad.

        Again, my beef is that the term measure is, I believe, purposely being misused to imply a certain specificity, accuracy and objectivity, in other words what I call scientificity, i.e., pseudo scientific “sheen of approval”. Please show me how it is possible to measure the nonobservable (latent traits-what someone knows, can do, etc. . .) with no standard unit of measurement, no measuring device calibrated to an exemplar of that standard unit of measurement.

        Now one might insist that time is non-observable and we have managed to come up with an agreed upon standard unit of measure, an exemplar and measuring devices of varying accurracies. Yes, we have. But we have no such unit for the teaching and learning process.

        How do we measure that teaching and learning process and/or “student achievement”, caplee68, without an agreed upon standard unit of measurement, no exemplar or measuring device? And no a test is not a “measuring device” due to the lack of a standard unit.


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