Hell Is Coming to Breakfast

The Outlaw Josey Wales–Click to view video

Sitting in the Ronald Reagan National Airport Saturday morning I could feel the partisanship oozing out of DC. Airport kiosks with “Four More Years” on one side and “Vote for Change” on the other, cynically playing to both sides remind me of the raft owner in The Outlaw Josey Wales. His loyalty to the north or south depends on who is crossing the river. This is a guy who could live on K-Street in the 21st century.

Cynicism aside, as I travel back to work, I’m increasingly struck by how little our decision makers understand about education. Reagan was, in many ways, almost the quientessential American President. He valued education, but only up to a point, and he was certainly interested in making people aware he was just “common folk.” Much like President George Bush (the son), an Ivy League MBA, it was important to him that we saw him working a chainsaw and riding his horse.

Both these men left educational legacies and I want to give them their props. They cared, but like almost every politician, they also fell into the data death spiral. Education is about failure and messiness. We can’t assess learning in any effective way. We can’t nationalize knowledge and measure progress with standardized testing in ways that transform “American Education.” Reagan’s and Bush’s eventual educational legacies are mixed and trending downward. One might argue both have pushed higher ed toward the high tuition, high stakes mess in which we exist today by trying to over-simplify a complex system.

This isn’t to say that such testing and the collection of data is not useful. Certainly, TAKS tests, ACTs, and ACT test scores tell us how students do as measured against other students. I’m not even opposed to considering standardized knowledge. Clearly, we need to have basic math skills and all students must understand the language of power. Standardized tests can offer us a comparison. They can even tell us, based on the premise that those who have mastery of this standardized knowledge, who will succeed. We just need to develop an efficient, effective way to teach using best practices based on the data available. It seems so simple. Or, should I say so simplistic.

We have to move beyond measuring outputs and pretending that all students enter into an educational situation with equal skills. Even in Texas where we are struggling under the remnants of Bush’s state level educational reform, our students who pass the TAKS (or STARR) come to us with such a wide-variety of skills, we can’t generalize abilities or create classes that work for everyone. Remember that the TAKS is a minimal skills test. Over 30% of college students enter our universities needing remedial classes. More data isn’t going to solve the problem. We have to remember that some students enter the tests with a greater knowledge of, and greater long-term access to, the standardized knowledge we claim to value and some students enter the exams without any access to the language of power.

It seems to me we have forgotten that our educational system is unique throughout the world: we are trying to educate every child, regardless of ethnicity or income. Think about that for just one minute and imagine the complexity. Think about the last time you had to learn something or the last time you were in a meeting listening to a speaker (or heck, if you are married, think about a time your partner droned on about his/her day). How long could you listen and how was your recall of the events? More to the point, how would you feel if we judged everyone based on such data? Consider, as John Taylor once did, how we might judge dentists under this philosophy.

Now think about what impacted your ability to listen: hunger, your partner mad because you told him he “droned” on and on (and on) before you left for work, a head cold, a new good looking colleague, ill parent, ill child, season premier of your favorite show, a snub at the water fountain: the list could go on and on. Notice none of those are really measurable educational statistics and yet every one of them has a major impact on how you learn.

And this is why data leaves us scrambling and fighting amongst ourselves. Feeding every student before they test won’t necessarily improve scores, but that doesn’t mean we eliminate free and reduced breakfasts. More money doesn’t necessarily equate to higher educational achievement, but that doesn’t mean cutting funding will help. Better technology in the classroom will not create more STEM students, but un-wiring the school won’t help engage students.

About the only thing we can all agree on is that education matters. But if we keep trying to create national policies that are “data” driven, we also have to recognize that our education will continue to disappoint us and it will continue to fail. Hell, won’t just be coming to breakfast. It will stick around for lunch and supper also.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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