Monday, March 23, 2009

The Prichard Committee in Wonderland: When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead

In response to my recent post "The Death of KERA," Susan Weston at the Prichard Committee Blog characterizes me as "spinning wondrous tales" over the years about a KERA dragon that ravages the land eating educators caught teaching spelling and setting fire to villages caught administering multiple choice tests. The real story of KERA, she says, "has been dull by comparison."

I've heard KERA called a lot of things, but this may be the first time it has been called "dull." After disagreeing with the dragon narrative, Weston relates her own narrative--one in which everyone lives happily ever after:
KERA delivered stronger and fairer school funding, reduced political corruption, and vastly improved facilities and technology. It nurtured more focused teachers, better instructional leaders, and a big step up in justified pride in public education. We've still got work ahead to strengthen classroom work, not because the primary program, extended school services, or sustained professional development were mistakes, but because we didn’t put in the hard work to help them succeed.
I'll leave it to readers to determine which is the fairy tale.

I don't remember actually comparing KERA to a dragon, but I do remember comparing it to Alice in Wonderland. In fact, my career as a prominent KERA critic back in the 1990s began with a public debate in the Danville newspaper with none other than Susan Weston, a debate in which I compared the rhetoric about all students being equal to the caucus race in Lewis Carroll's book, an event in which everyone wins--and everyone get's a prize.

That was only one of the silly and sometimes surreal practices that were foisted on schools when the reforms were implemented. It was a bit like being in a Jefferson Airplane song. There was best guess spelling, and the new New Math, and open classrooms, practices most of us thought were discredited in the 1960s, but which those implementing KERA thought the rest of us had forgotten. The only thing missing was tie-dye T-shirts and peace signs.

I remember a retired superintendent calling me one day after something I had said in the newspaper. "You're absolutely right," he said. "We had just put the walls back up in our building that they had torn down when we were doing open classrooms, and then we had to tear them back down again for the non-graded primary program."

Oh, and I didn't see anything in Weston's tale about the year that, under the KIRIS testing system (the precurser to CATS), the best school district in the state (Anchorage Independent) was rated the worst. Not exactly a result that comports with logic and proportion.

It's a story I've told many times, but just for old time's sake, I'll tell it one more time. I went to an inservice day in 1992 at Lawrence Dunbar High School with a friend of mine. The Department of Education presenter approached the podium and began her harangue about the evils of traditional education techniques and explained why we needed to replace them with the "new" practices under KERA.

"When you learn," she asked, "do you sit in straight rows of desks, sitting under phosphorescent lights listening to a lecture? Or do you do it better sitting back on a couch, with the sun coming through the window, and talk with your best friend?"

Exactly how we were going to provide this experience for the tens of thousands of school children in Kentucky wasn't exactly clear, but I remember leaning over to my friend and whispering, "Look around the room." We were surrounded by teachers and administrators sitting in straight rows of desks, under phosphorescent lights, listening to a lecture.

To make any sense of that, you'll have to go ask Alice (when she's ten feet tall).

Or maybe I'll just take Susan up on her offer to visit her at her favorite hangout: Danville's "Hub." I suppose it is fitting that the debate over KERA should begin and end with the same two people jousting over education policy. I might even try those "magic free muffins" she mentions they sell there--although I'm not entirely sure, given her fantasic account of KERA, that those muffins don't have something baked into them.

1 comment:

Richard Day said...


I'm glad to see the Danville elite are hard at work on their metaphors.

Magic-free? What? No mushrooms?

The first part of Susan's statement is largely verifiable:

"KERA delivered stronger ($1.26 Billion)and fairer (much more equitable) school funding, reduced political corruption (well, nepotism at least, which some lament), and vastly improved facilities and technology(particularly in poor districts - it showed up less in "rich" districts). It nurtured more focused (yes, they got focused all right)teachers, better instructional leaders (More so earlier than recently - but that just may be my own bias), and a big step up in justified pride in public education (OK, that's only an opinion but I agree with it)."

Susan and I depart on the Primary Program, which if it had been supported properly was simply not worth the effort. Children can be organized for instruction in many ways. The trick is to support whatever it is you want to implement. To the extend factors work against each other - whatever the plan - its likely to run into trouble.

Martin, take care not to lump all of public education's dumber ideas under KERA. Open classrooms were largely gone by KERA - although the primary program certainly harkened back in several significant ways. Dead by the 80's, New Math was never a part of KERA.

Best guess spelling? KERA stands guilty as charged. The smart teachers only used it with first drafts. Worse was whole language's pressure on teachers to abandon phonics - something we completely ignored at my shop.

As long as we're reminiscing, as I recall the first time we spoke was a phone call about KIRIS. As a principal, it was making me crazy because it was changed annually. We were expected to hit a moving target. At the time, we had a test, but no curriculum. That's kinda like being expected to prepare students to be successful on a curriculum you don't teach. In such cases we invariably end up measuring family background factors more than our students' learning - at least, the learning they get from school.

Anchorage was never rated the worst in student performance. It was labled "a school in decline" for small downward variances from it's top spot. My neighbors at Morton Middle School suffered the same fate. In that regard KIRIS was exactly as illadvised as NCLB has been.

I wonder if I attended the same meeting at Dunbar. Much of your account sounds familiar from the earliest days of KERA. I've certainly heard a bunch of silly stuff over the years. Sometimes it helped not to listen.

But taken as a whole, and viewed historically, KERA was a major step forward for schooling in Kentucky.