This Monday is the 101st Anniversary of the end of World War I.
Teachers help students to remember the causes of WWI by using the acronym MAIN: Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism. These causes can be translated into current problems with education policy and the environment surrounding the debate on the future of our public schools.
In the years leading up to WWI, European powers demonstrated militarism by building up their armies and increasing support for military endeavors. These actions fueled rivalries between countries and created an arms race in Europe.
Today, policymakers arm themselves with standardized tests, software, and scripted curriculum and attempt to justify their actions by saying that poor teaching, and by default teachers, are the biggest threat to student achievement. This militarism is reflected in the increasing animosity toward teachers from some government officials and private citizens and is fueled by outside groups trying to cash in on public education budgets.
In the face of rivalries on the European continent, countries sought to insulate themselves with alliances. Competing alliances led to a domino effect of war declarations after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
Alliances between the government and companies producing tests, software, and other materials for schools pose a major conflict of interest between these companies and policymakers. Companies have received billions of dollars from state governments largely to produce materials inferior to what teachers create for their own classrooms. These companies are major proponents of the “big data” infused into education policy as we attempt to quantify what is unquantifiable through standardized testing.
Another alliance that jeopardizes the well being of public schools is the alliance between charter school management companies and lawmakers. Charter schools have been promoted as alternatives to public schools, and supporters claim that their existence will encourage competition, which will in turn motivate public schools to improve. A false narrative has been created that charter schools are superior alternatives to public schools even though data shows charters are largely ineffective in improving student performance, even when cherry picking the students they accept and allow to continue in the school, and offering fewer services to students.
For companies peddling educational materials and charter school entrepreneurs, tapping into public budgets is big business that robs public school students of resources. A business approach to teaching children does not work. Our products are not widgets, they’re people with basic needs, emotions, and thoughts. Education is not a business, it’s a public institution that produces citizens ready to participate in our democratic republic.
Imperialism was another source of friction between European countries as they sought to expand their empires throughout the world. In practice, these imperial powers stripped their colonial possessions of their resources for the benefit of the “mother country” and were operated without regard for those who lived there.
K-12 education policy has been imperialized by those with no teaching experience. It seems that people believe they know how to run a classroom because they were once a student. I’ve watched movies, but I couldn’t make one. Some policymakers seek clout by citing family members who were teachers. My parents worked for the post office – does that make me qualified to be Postmaster General?
The phrase “lions led by donkeys” was coined during WWI and highlighted the disconnect between front line soldiers and politicians. This disillusionment with realities on the ground is the same perception that many teachers have of policymakers who feel compelled to “take over” our schools. Our lions in the classroom are left out of decisions that they have the most extensive qualifications to make. Education policy has shifted from localized decision making within classrooms and districts to heavy state involvement prescribing more demands while supplying little support, on top of the nationalization and commercialization of education.
The growth of nationalism in Europe also led to World War One. The unification of countries such as Germany and Italy minimized local jurisdiction by centralizing power in the national level of government. The arrival of these new kids on the block disrupted the European balance of power and fueled rivalries for dominance in Europe. Nationalization of education policy has further eroded the role of those on the front lines in making decisions to help kids learn.
Teachers were striving to leave no child behind long before national legislation coined the phrase, however we do not believe an emphasis on testing over teaching is the way to leave no child behind. No multiple-choice test can measure critical thinking or creativity. By nature, these tests prioritize low level thought processes at the expense of skills that have given the United States a reputation for its ingenuity.
Race to the Top was another national policy that demonstrated wrongheadedness in its attempt to improve education by collecting more data, increasing the number of charter schools, and restructuring teacher evaluation systems to include data from scientifically invalid tests.
No scientific experiment would be deemed valid with so many uncontrolled variables that go into student performance. Policymakers insist that there is a causal relationship between a teacher’s teaching and a student’s test performance. This ignores other variables such as a student’s socioeconomic status, home life, nutrition, sleep, work ethic, and parental involvement. Policymakers dismiss this point as an excuse. These variables are not excuses. They are the reality of what influences a child’s education. Dismissing these variables is irresponsible and addressing them should be part of the solution to improve student achievement.
The premise of these practices are that teachers cannot be trusted to improve student achievement. This premise is counterproductive. When soldiers in WWI spoke out against the horrors they witnessed as a result of incompetent decisions, they were labeled crazy or cowards and received “treatment.” When teachers speak out against policies that they believe harm their students or their profession, they are labeled greedy, close-minded, or socialists.
The stagnation of WWI was a practical result of battlefield logistics in trench warfare, but the politicians and the public were anxious to see action and military officers were forced to oblige. Any troops who did not follow orders to go across “no man’s land” were labeled cowards at best, and executed at worst. As a result, World War One became a war of attrition in which millions of men were sacrificed as they were ordered across “no man’s land” to attack the enemy on what were essentially suicide missions. This happened repeatedly as military officials were pressured by politicians to “do something!”
Pressure to “do something” comes from the public buying the false narrative that our schools are failing. Instead of money for smaller class sizes, student support personnel or textbooks, the “something” politicians prescribe is throwing tests, screens, or outsourced curriculum at our students. It doesn’t matter that these items do not align closely with the curriculum standards, emphasize low level skills, or are a snapshot of a student’s ability. People want to see action regardless of its value. Those selling these “products” find value for themselves.
The results of WWI also parallel our current education policy making environment. At the time, the war was known as “The Great War” and was sold as the “war to end all wars.” We now know that it only served to further polarize Europe. This polarization continues between teachers and policymakers. Just as WWI did not make more progress in building a more cooperative European continent, current education policy has done little to make progress in improving student achievement.
Our Treaty of Versailles comes in the form of hostile legislation disguised as accountability. Teachers today are experiencing the effects of a “war guilt clause.” The assumption is that if a student does not succeed, it is the teacher’s fault. This has created a chain of policies that focuses on teachers, not on students.
The war on public education has manifested as a war on teachers and our students are collateral damage. It results in making teaching an unattractive profession, and low morale within schools. Vilifying teachers and neglecting them from the creation of policy while praising entrepreneurs motivated to siphon public money for private interests will only prolong the stalemate of improving student achievement.
If more public education supporters who value teachers as education experts are voted into office in 2020, we can celebrate next year’s Armistice Day with an end to the pillaging of public schools.