The Education Reform Follies: The Columbus Syndrome

Several years ago, I had a polite argument with a top-level editor at a major newspaper, an editor who routinely was supportive of including my commentaries on the Op-Ed page.

My submission was a strong critique of the accountability era in education, and it specifically detailed that South Carolina was an early and important adopter of the standards/testing-based policies and practices that now mostly define public education across the U.S.

The argument centered on my outline, noting that SC had accountability legislation in the late 1970s and then standards as well as the BSAP and Exit Exam process being implemented in the early 1980s (when I began teaching as a high school English teacher in 1984).

The editor argued that accountability began way later, in the late 1990s—although I was offering the actual experiences of a classroom teacher who was charged with and held accountable for SC standards and testing from the very first day I entered the classroom in August of 1984.

This is illustrative, I think, of the newest round of education journalism that seems to suggest that the accountability era I have taught under and criticized since the early 1980s is now being declared a failure. Just for a taste of this edujournalism of the day:

One aspect of this so-called shift in political, media, and public attitudes toward education reform based on accountability (standards and high-stakes testing) worth noting is that it exposes a powerful but often ignored truism about any work aimed at equity: good intentions (whether sincere or not) are never enough.

Many, if not most, education journalists have good intentions; much of the public also has good intentions. Pundits and politicians, I think, are often using the veneer of good intentions for political and ideological ends.

None the less, this cannot be stressed enough—good intentions are not enough.

Yet, acknowledging this is not enough either. Let’s consider why good intentions are inadequate.

Edujournalists, politicians, and pundits who hold forth on education are mostly not educators; they have no experience (except as students) or expertise in education.

They suffer, I think, from the Columbus Syndrome—the delusion that because you witness something, you alone have made it come into being and you have through the simple act of witnessing alone the right to evaluate and control that which you have witnessed.

The editor I argued with in the opening believed education reform had only existed in her time of witnessing it as a journalist, and she resisted listening to me, despite my experiences and expertise in the reality of education reform.

This is the essential flaw with education reform since, as I and many others have been documenting for decades, education reform is almost entirely driven by those not in education.

Columbus as the embodiment of colonialism—the erasing of people by an aggressive force—is a harsh version of the missionary zeal, I admit, characterizing education reform and education analysis in the media, among politicians, and throughout the public.

Missionary zeal is just as destructive as colonialism, but missionaries believe in their essential goodness, their essential rightness, and that they are ordained to do to and not with because those to be saved are lesser.

But the Columbus Syndrome and missionary zeal are paternalistic and doomed to fail because they depend on ideology instead of experience and expertise.

Accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing was never the solution in education because that paradigm does not match the essential problems that burden universal public education, problems almost entirely linked to inequity.

And who has been offering credible witnessing to those problems of inequity for well more than a century in the U.S.? Who has been offering alternatives to education reform for at least the past twenty-plus years?

Educators and scholars of education—the exact voices demonized, the exact voices ignored.

Thad Moore’s Post and Courier article linked above acknowledges that accountability reform simply has not worked in South Carolina, but Moore also suggests that throughout the accountability era, alternative reform has been ignored.

Several journalists at and many articles in the Post and Courier continue to beat a steady drum about educational failures and needs, focusing on Charleston, SC—a powerful and disturbing monument to grossly inequitable public education and political negligence.

Charleston is an uncomfortable mosaic of social injustice—the poor and the affluent—and how that is reflected in and too often perpetuated by public institutions such as public schools.

Yet, here in SC and across the U.S., I remain deeply skeptical that we are entering an era when educators and education scholars will, at last, be heard.

My skepticism lies in understanding that our solutions are too complex to be heard, too antithetical to ideologies that remain sacred to the media, the public, and political leadership.

Virtually all failures in the U.S. can be traced to inequity—class privilege and disadvantage, racism, sexism, etc. Public schools and our students are victims of the greater political refusal to address social inequity, and in-school only reform has been a decades-long effort to distract the public from needed social reform.

None the less, there are very clear messages that have been ignored, and reform that would, over time, drag our education system and even our society toward greater equity.

I have made the case, with evidence, dozens and dozens of time. Yet, education reform has resisted and even chosen reform that directly contradicts efforts to create greater equity for children.

Here, however, is a list of where to start, emphasizing the essential understanding that social reform must precede or at least be concurrent to in-school reform while both must seek equity, not accountability:

  • Food security for all children and their families.
  • Universal healthcare with a priority on children.
  • Stable work opportunities that offer robust wages and are divorced from insurance and other so-called “benefits.”
  • Ending the accountability era based on standards and high-stakes testing.
  • Developing a small-scale assessment system that captures trends but avoids student, teacher, and school labeling and punitive structures.
  • Ending tracking of students.
  • Ending grade retention.
  • Insuring equitable teacher assignments (experience and certification levels) for all students.
  • Decreasing the bureaucracy of teacher certification (standards and accreditation) and increase the academic integrity of education degrees to be comparable with other disciplines.
  • Supporting teacher and school professional autonomy and implement mechanisms for transparency, not accountability.
  • Addressing the inequity of schooling based on race and social class related to funding, class size, technology, facilities, and discipline.
  • Resisting ranking students, teachers, schools, or states.
  • Reimagining testing/assessment and grades.
  • Adopting a culture of patience, and rejecting the on-going culture of crisis.

Columbus did not discover the Americas. Even more disturbing is that this mythology allows us to ignore that Columbus did usher in a very long history of horror for native people.

On a smaller scale, education reform has echoed that process, teaching an unintended lesson that ideology and missionary zeal are dangerous even when intentions are good.

See Also

The State (Columbia, SC): Hartsville documentary reminds us of failures of SC education ‘reform’ efforts

“Minimally Adequate” in SC: Funding and Understanding Public Education

Education Reform in the Absence of Political Courage: Charleston (SC) Edition

The State: South Carolina should focus on education opportunity, not accountability