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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Are You an Education Obstructionist?

Carl Wieman, 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics winner, wants to fix science education in America.

We are now at a watershed in higher education. We are faced with the need for great change, and we have the yet unrealized opportunities for achieving great change. The full use of the research on teaching and learning, particularly as implemented via modern IT, can transform higher education, and allow it to do a far better job of meeting the higher education needs of a modern society.

We already know how to teach.
While there has never been a shortage of strongly held opinions throughout history regarding "better" educational approaches, there is now a large and growing body of good research, particularly at the college level in science and engineering, as to what pedagogical approaches work and do not work and with which students and why. There are also empirically established principles about learning emerging from research in educational psychology, cognitive science, and education that provide good theoretical guidance for designing and evaluating educational outcomes and methods. These principles are completely consistent with those pedagogical practices that have been measured to be most effective.

But “the bulk” of American society does not benefit from science education research. Prominent among education writers is John Taylor Gatto, who counts no less than twenty-two education obstructionists (also known as "stakeholders") with entrenched interests in the maintaining the status quo.
At the most fundamental level “Indeed, it isn’t hard to see that in strictly economic terms this edifice of competing and conflicting interests is better served by badly performing schools than by successful ones. On economic grounds alone a disincentiveexists to improve schools. When schools are bad, demands for increased funding and personnel, and professional control removed from public oversight, can be pressed by simply pointing to the perilous state of the enterprise. But when things go well, getting an extra buck is like pulling teeth (emphasis in original).”

Mr. Gatto goes on to name a whole crowd of obstructionists, but there may well many more than twenty-two. What are the entrenched interests that make an education stakeholder an obstructionist?

FIRST CATEGORY: Government Agencies
1) State legislatures, particularly those politicians known in-house to specialize in educational matters
2) Ambitious politicians with high public visibility
3) Big-city school boards controlling lucrative contracts
4) The courts
5) Big-city departments of education
6) State departments of education
7) Federal Department of Education
8) Other government agencies (National Science Foundation, National Training Laboratories, Defense Department, HUD, Labor Department, Health and Human Services, and many more)
SECOND CATEGORY: Active Special Interests
1) Key private foundations.2 About a dozen of these curious entities have been the most important shapers of national education policy in this century, particularly those of Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller.
2) Giant corporations, acting through a private association called the Business Roundtable (BR), latest manifestation of a series of such associations dating back to the turn of the century. Some evidence of the centrality of business in the school mix was the composition of the New American Schools Development Corporation. Its makeup of eighteen members (which the uninitiated might assume would be drawn from a representative cross-section of parties interested in the shape of American schooling) was heavily weighted as follows: CEO, RJR Nabisco; CEO, Boeing; President, Exxon; CEO, AT&T; CEO, Ashland Oil; CEO, Martin Marietta; CEO, AMEX; CEO, Eastman Kodak; CEO, WARNACO; CEO, Honeywell; CEO, Ralston; CEO, Arvin; Chairman, BF Goodrich; two ex-governors, two publishers, a TV producer.
3) The United Nations through UNESCO, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, etc.
4) Other private associations, National Association of Manufacturers, Council on Economic Development, the Advertising Council, Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Policy Association, etc.
5) Professional unions, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, Council of Supervisory Associations, etc.
6) Private educational interest groups, Council on Basic Education, Progressive Education Association, etc.
7) Single-interest groups: abortion activists, pro and con; other advocates for
specific interests.
THIRD CATEGORY: The "Knowledge" Industry
1) Colleges and universities
2) Teacher training colleges
3) Researchers
4) Testing organizations
5) Materials producers (other than print)
6) Text publishers
7) "Knowledge" brokers, subsystem designers

Here are some more stakeholder/obstructionists: parents, students, teachers, school administrators, real estate agents, real estate industry, law enforcement, construction, contractors, computer vendors, bus companies, local planning commissions, (more?). Think not? Think again. Each one of these groups has an interest in maintaining the status quo, even to the overall detriment of society. That is precisely why our society has the education system it wants, even though it may actually be opposed to the best interests of that society.

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