In a move that qualifies as one of the most ignorant and opportunist positions ever taken by a local politician; the Dumanis Mayoral Campaign announced its “Bold” educational initiative this past Thursday at a press conference. The details of the effort—expanding the school board, creating oversight committees and establishing a bureaucracy within the City government to oversee “liaison” efforts were widely reported in the local news media. Candidate Dumanis got lots of face time on local tv news as her plan was uncritically rolled out to the electorate.
The local press failed to notice that Carmel Valley, where the Dumanis presser was held isn’t even in the San Diego Unified School District. The Mayoral candidate appeared blissfully unaware that schools in that area are part of the San Dieguito district as she prattled on about “Leadership, vision and experience are needed to put our schools on a new path because it’s clear the path we are on today is the wrong one.”
Asked about who she worked with in drafting her plan, Dumanis would only say that she’d consulted with an unnamed group of teachers, parents, students and others interested in reform. It’s clear though, that if you look at her list of campaign contributors, the “Bold” plan is largely drawn from the wreckage of the failed San Diegans for Great Schools ballot initiative that, despite receiving over $1 million in donations from a few well heeled “philanthropists”, couldn’t gather enough signatures to be placed in front of the voters.
Although it’s possible that she’s quietly slipped in and not been noticed, the fact is that many observers believe she’s never actually attended a meeting of the San Diego Unified School Board. Certainly her ‘plan’ reflects a lack of understanding of the concerns of parents and other groups that are actually involved with their children’s educational challenges. If she’s ever been to School Board meeting, she’d know about the heady mix of parents, students and teachers who make the effort each week to express their concerns about all the details small and large of what goes on in the local schools. If she’d bothered to listen, she’d know that the challenges that educators face does not come from a lack of concern on the part of the citizenry. San Diego Unified School Board meetings are a wonder of small “d” democracy in action.
A Little History
The Dumanis plan does, however, reflect the concerns of a collection of politicians, pundits and prosperous donors that have sought to change the landscape of education in the United States over the past thirty years. Dating back to the 1980’s with the “A Nation at Risk” report that shocked the public with its conclusion that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people”, these “education reformers” actions have consistently attacked the very concept of public education using fear tactics based on very little provable evidence.
The factual basis that was used for the original report, for instance, consisted of statistics that purported to show that SAT scores had suffered serious declines in the years prior to 1983. When researchers later challenged –“To our surprise, on nearly every measure, we found steady or slightly improving trends.” –the data, they were told by David Kearns, Deputy Secretary of Education at the time, “You bury this [report] or I’ll bury you”.
“A Nation at Risk” (1983)
What the report claimed:
- American students are never first and frequently last academically compared to students in other industrialized nations.
- American student achievement declined dramatically after Russia launched Sputnik, and hit bottom in the early 1980s.
- SAT scores fell markedly between 1960 and 1980.
- Student achievement levels in science were declining steadily.
- Business and the military were spending millions on remedial education for new hires and recruits.
The Sandia Report (1990)
What was actually happening:
- Between 1975 and 1988, average SAT scores went up or held steady for every student subgroup.
- Between 1977 and 1988, math proficiency among seventeen-year-olds improved slightly for whites, notably for minorities.
- Between 1971 and 1988, reading skills among all student subgroups held steady or improved.
- Between 1977 and 1988, in science, the number of seventeen-year-olds at or above basic competency levels stayed the same or improved slightly.
- Between 1970 and 1988, the number of twenty-two-year-old Americans with bachelor degrees increased every year; the United States led all developed nations in 1988
“A Nation At Risk” was a shrewd political move by Republicans. Polls taken during the early years of the Reagan administration indicated that women still tilted toward the Democrats, who owned such close-to-home issues as housing, health, and education. By portraying the educational system in such a negative light its analysis lent color to the charge that, under liberals, American education had dissolved into a mush of self-esteem classes. In his memoir, Reagan’s Secretary of Education wrote that the… “high political payoff, stole the education issue from Walter Mondale — and it cost us nothing.”
It’s doubtful that the Gipper ever actually read the report. Reagan thanked the commissioners at a White House ceremony for endorsing school prayer, vouchers, and the elimination of the Department of Education. In fact the report never mentioned any of these issues.
“At Risk” morphed into “No Child Left Behind” which was modified by the Obama administration into “Race To The Top”. All these programs have supported rigorous testing, a back-to-basics curriculum, higher standards, more homework, more science and math, “accountability”, and a gaggle of other often daunting initiatives. All these programs included charter schools, standardized testing, a variety of punitive measures for those that failed to measure up and the promise that things would get better real soon if those obstructionists clinging to a failed status quo (like teachers) would just get out of the way.
What we have achieved over past thirty years of educational reform is that, as “At Risk” commission member James Harvey now posits, “educational decisions have been moved as far as possible from the classroom. Federal officials are now in a position to make decisions that would have been unimaginable even two years ago. They’ve established the criteria for disciplining schools, removing principals and teachers, and even defining appropriate curriculum for American classrooms.”
Power to the Bonnie Bureaucrats
The Dumanis plan will further remove educational decisions from the classroom by injecting Mayoral political concerns and creating yet another governmental agency to monitor the School District. None of the money used to fund Dumanis’ overseers will go towards books, computers, school nurses, librarians or even arts programs. The kids won’t see a cent.
None of these measures bandied about by Dumanis and her new-found reformer friends have a track record of success, but the actual facts get obscured by Hollywood films (Waiting for Superman) and connected corporate groups looking to earn a quick profit. It’s hard to get into the conversation when the corporate side of education reform uses the term as a bludgeon against anyone who questions its agenda — even when the concerns are supported by research.
The fact is that students in well-funded American schools from high-income families outscore nearly all other countries on standardized tests. The problem with our aggregate scores being low is that most students do not come from well-funded schools with high-income families. The reality is that the U.S. has the highest level of child poverty in the industrialized world and children living in poverty are achieving far below their affluent peers. Nothing in the grand Dumanis plan even stops to consider that this might just be a factor. It’s all about post the curricula, test all students, and punish those who fail.
Her plan does, however, facilitate the further bureaucratization of education and enables politicians, not educators, to control schools more effectively. This may look all fine and good on paper if you’re convinced that the current method of governance—electing school board members– has failed. But what happens when some “future” politician—assuming Bonnie’s motives are as pure as the driven snow—wants evolution theory yanked from Biology classes or certain books banned from the School Library? Like it or not, there are perfectly good reasons why Schools and City politicians shouldn’t mix too often.
A critical part of the “Education Reform” movement has been the enabling and creation of various groups purporting to speak out on behalf of parents outraged that their children are being short changed by the system. To be sure, there is and always has been, a very vocal group of real parents fighting for what they hope will be the best education possible. A plethora of organizations like Michelle Rhee’s “Students First” or the locally based “Up With Ed” have arisen in recent months and the kind of reform they’re looking for sounds suspiciously like the same stuff that’s been going around for the past thirty years. And the same kind of ideas that Bonnie Dumanis claims to have received from her anonymous concerned citizens.
The links in the previous sentence point to excellent coverage by CityBeat writer Aaryn Belfer, who’s done a great job of smokin’these folks out. I should also call out her coverage on Opting Out of Manditory Testing, parts one and two. It’s good stuff and I encourage you to check her out.
After thirty years of plans, revisions, and rhetoric some parents are saying “enough!”. Who doesn’t want the best possible education for their kids? And why is it always “my way or the highway” for these well funded (and often shadowy) ‘reform’ groups? Why have a large chunk of their past “bold initiatives” failed so spectacularly?
Of particular interest to those who are committed to real educational experiences for our kids—as opposed to the ‘teach to the test’ mentality that is ascendant—should look towards Washington DC come the end of March. United Opt Out, a coalition seeking to end high stakes testing in public education has joined with the Occupy movement in planning a four day long occupation of the Department of Education in Washington DC.
Using the slogan “It’s time to put the public back in public education” the DC actions will also be mirrored in cities throughout the country with teach-ins and rallies.
Candidate Bonnie Dumanis has pulled a publicity stunt designed to raise the profile of her thus far listless campaign for Mayor. Once you look beyond the blue smoke and mirrors, realize just how clueless she is and understand how this “bold” plan is merely a reflection of a national agenda promoted by people that put profits before children, then it’s bankruptcy becomes obvious.
Post script: To adequately cover all the points that I’ve raised in this post would require about another 10,000 words. I encourage you to visit the links I placed throughout the article for more background.