I can never quite get myself into the whole podcast thing, but a friend recommended I check out a recent episode of the Fordham Foundation's Gadfly podcast and it was... illuminating.
|Not actually Robert Pondiscio|
The show actually starts with a quick audioquote of "What Does Gadfly Say," an in-house wacky video that Fordham made a few years back, and, well, it's brave of them to keep bringing it up. But wackiness, or perhaps just mid-level jauntiness, is the tone we're after here. So no super-serious Masters of the Universe or Evil Geniuses, but just the gang hangin' out and talkin' ed policy. The program is hosted by Alyssa Schwenk and Robert Pondiscio, and they start with some introductory banter. Schwenk introduces Pondiscio as the "Adele of education reform" and I don't know what to do with that-- he's actually a talented young British woman? Pondiscio (the current Big Cheese of the Fordham) gets a bonus point for working in "Isn't it pretty to think so," from the end of Hemmingway's The Sun Also Rises. So, we're wacky, but also well-read.
Checker Finn is given a "who needs no introduction" introduction; if you think he does, know that he is one of the Old Guard of reformsterism, long-time cheese-in-chief of Fordham, current VP of the Maryland Board of Education, frequent scolder of Kids These Days, champion of charter marketing, and common core cheerleader. He's also game for the wackiness, noting that his father had a cousin named Adele-- "does that help?"
But now it's time for business, and that means PISA and TIMSS scores. Finn notes that these measures of education achievement have placed the US in the "middle of the pack" for a very long time and that nothing has really changed in the last three years. Minor gains here, minor losses there, but all three agree that there's a bit of a "blind man's elephant effect" with the scores, meaning you can find whatever you want in the data. Finn bottom-lines it-- achievement is essentially flat, and that flatness is confirmed by NAEP, SAT, ACT, etc etc etc. We are flat, stalled. Pondiscio offers "educationally becalmed" and Finn reaches into his bag and comes up with "beset" noting it was once used to indicate a ship that was locked into the ice. So, no ambiguity about the flatness.
(It is somewhere right around here that I realize that Finn's voice reminds me of Peter Schickele. Do with that what you will. )
Pondiscio notes that the results include survey info showing that fifteen-year-olds like science more than they used to and might even like a career there. Finn pooh-poohs that there's a long history of Kids These Days thinking they're doing well when they're not (damn kids with their participation trophies and the rap music and the baggy pants). And Pondiscio asks if it will eventually hurt the US economy if we fail to catch up and I would like to ask, to whom? Where is the nation that is starting to eat our economic lunch because of their superior test-taking skills? Are we not being hurt in part because of other nations' superior Willing To Work for Subsistence Wages in Dangerous Conditions skills, and are those skills measured by the PISA? Finn says that middle of the pack will not be good enough and Pondiscio wants to know if we're running out of time, which I suppose seems like a reasonable question given that reformsters have been chicken littling this for over thirty years, at least since A Nation At Risk warned that we were going to get clobbered Any Day Now.
And here comes Finn's rather startling admission. He notes that it's been a gradual down, so it will probably be a gradual up, a slow slog. And then he says
If you look at the last twenty-five years at all the reforming we've been doing and still see [scores staying] flat and slow slog as the main outcome, it's pretty discouraging.
So then Finn and Pondiscio get into a discussion of how, after twenty-five years of failed reform policies, the reform movement needs to abandon its big failures and consider new directions in education policy, starting with greater dialogue with trained education professionals. Ha! Just kidding. They don't talk about that at all. Having noted that the policies they've pushed and pursued for twenty-five years have not produced the results they hoped for, at all, these guys then move on to discuss other stuff.
That other stuff includes a frank discussion of how their insistence on policies like Common Core have not only failed to produce results, but have also eroded public faith in the institutions of both schools and government, creating a backlash that helped pave the way for a monster like Trump to make "get rid of common core" part of his campaign and ride into office, and they feel bad about that and in the future should be more careful about-- ha!! Kidding again! They have no such discussion.
No, mostly they go on to note that "outsourcing to China" is not the only threat to jobs and lots of jobs are being lost to automation, and next someone says, "So I guess that stuff about having to be more competitive with other countries isn't all that important after all and we need to educate our students to compete with robots!!" and--oh, wait. That was me saying that, rather loudly, at my computer. Finn and Pondiscio just shift into crystal ball mode to consider some future issues.
Do the slightly better TIMSS forecast a better PISA in the future? Pondiscio asks what the forecast is for 2019. Finn glumly notes that the forecast is "flat," because twenty years of experience make it clear that "flat" is the safe call.
Can we steal ideas from the better-scoring PISA countries, like, say, non-tracking? Finn says probably not, because they are different countries. And by the way, Finland did a little worse this time, and China, finally forced to stop cheating quite so baldly on the test, did a lot worse. Finn indulges his personal sense of schadenfreude, and I don't blame him a bit.
Petrilli asks "If you are Trump's ed secretary, do you pay attention to any of this?" My answer is that, obviously, if you are Trump or Trump's secretary of anything, you don't pay attention to facts or data or expertise or anything except your own personal agenda. But Finn says ignore the policy advice (OECD is anti-ESSA and anti-Trump) but use all thermometers available to take education's temperature.
Which would sound like eminently reasonable advice if it weren't coming from people who keep saying. "Well, the data says our reform policies are failing, so let's just keep doing them more." Because when you're hammering on the wrong nail in the wrong spot, the obvious solution is to hammer harder.
I mean, maybe the PISA is one more thermometer, but if you know the temperature and you know it hasn't budged in twenty-five years and you know your stovetop hasn't budged it a bit, what more do you need to know? Taking the temperature is a pointless exercise if you're going to ignore the data that you have collected. There was a time when reformsters could argue that their ideas were new and just being launched and we had to wait a few years to see if they really worked. We waited. We can see. They didn't work. What else do you want to know?