Monday, April 2, 2012

Governor Kasich and His Mullet: What Next in Education Reform?

WHAT'S NEXT? The return of the mullet? I mean, we all know that Republicans miss the glory days of President Ronald Reagan. But who dreamed they'd be leading Ohio schools back to those halcyon days of 1988?

What have Ohio lawmakers got up their sleeves now to fix the schools? If you've been too busy catching up on last season's episodes of Game of Thrones to follow the news you might not know the Third Grade Reading Guarantee is back.

Governor John Kasich:
Education reformer extraordinaire.
Perhaps you're too young to remember what happened when a previous generation of lawmakers "guaranteed" the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. It's a guarantee. That's good, right? Well, it sounds good if you're standing on the floor of the Ohio Senate, talking smack about a subject you don't understand.

No doubt about it. The "guarantee" looks fine on paper when you say that no child in Ohio can move to the fourth grade until they can read at the third grade level--because you want to help every Buckeye boy and girl succeed in life and reading is the key.

It looked good two decades ago, too, when we first tested out this concept.

Almost as fast as the guarantee was implemented, our noble politicians lost their nerve when they discovered that setting a hard-and-fast standard and trying to stick to it was going to rile up a whole lot of parents.

We mean, of course:  voters.

Teachers had been expressing doubt all along; but when do politicians ever listen to teachers? Educators warned that it might be counterproductive to hold kids back who were good in other subjects, who were working hard in school, but still behind three or four months in reading. They said it might not work to hold back kids who had chronic absentee issues, unless you addressed that problem, too. They cautioned that it might be hard to "guarantee" reading levels for kids who spoke English as a second language and pointed out that if you held back kids in grade three and any other grade thereafter, when they were older they tended to drop out with alarming regularity.

With problems multiplying, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee proved to be an unworkable failure and it was scraped before voters could unleash their wrath on the hacks who came up with the idea and teachers shook their heads. Now it's back again, as good as new, or just as bad as ever, and just as likely to live a long and healthy academic life.

(I give it three years.)

BUT WAIT, AS THEY SAY on TV game shows, there's more! On a second front, Governor Kasich (and    who doesn't think our chief executive would look fantastic in a mullet) and his allies in the legislature have turned back the clock to a time when Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston were still putting out hit records and the Bengals were Super Bowl contenders. Now we will require the teaching, in grades 4-12, of "founding documents," including the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance and the U. S. Constitution, ordering teachers to turn to the "original documents."

Again, this might be brilliant--if it was 1988 and we had lost our collective consciousness. But if you remember those days, you remember that school reformers were bragging about plans to fix schools then too. You might recall that the State of Ohio created a battery of what were called the "Ninth Grade Proficiency Tests" to implement their master plan. New curriculum standards were put in place and suddenly teachers were required to teach about the Northwest Ordinance, the U. S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

As a history teacher, I always focused heavily on the U. S. Constitution and Declaration, anyway. But the Northwest Ordinance? Not so much.

Now, I developed an entire lesson on the Ordinance; and ended up having fun linking land sale provisions of the law--$1 per acre--and additional legislation which followed, culminating in the Homestead Act in 1862 (land for free)--to development of the "American Dream."

Like a dutiful soldier, following orders and charging up the hill, I increased coverage of government, as State mandates now required. Soon I was giving my seventh graders a test over government (state, local and federal) consisting of 150 questions, an exercise designed to take two entire days of class. I made all my students memorize the 84-word section of the Declaration below. And we even defined the words in caps, to start.

Teach a little vocabulary, you know:

We hold these truths
 to be SELF-EVIDENT,                                                       
that all men are created equal;
that they are ENDOWED                                                   
by their Creator
with certain UNALIENABLE RIGHTS;                                                         
that among these
are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;                  
that, to SECURE these rights,                                           
governments are INSTITUTED                                          
among men,
DERIVING their just powers                                             
from the CONSENT of the GOVERNED;                            
that, whenever
any form of government
becomes destructive
of these ends,                                                                  
it is the right of the people
to ALTER OR ABOLISH it,                                                 
and to INSTITUTE                                                 
a new government.

Then I tried to make sure every person in my class could answer the following questions:

1. Government gets its power from ___.
2. If government does not work we have the right to ___.
3. Governments are set up to ___.
4. If government works as it should everyone will be treated ___.
5. Certain basic rights cannot be taken away from you by ___.
6. Government should leave you alone to enjoy ___.

SO, WHAT CAME NEXT? To put it in a legislative nutshell, State proficiency tests didn't really do the trick. The federal government stepped in next, with No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002; and now we had a new Grand Plan to fix the schools.

A new State of Ohio curriculum was drawn up to meet the challenge of  the new rules coming out of Washington--and pretty much eliminated all mention of the Northwest Ordinance. There was certainly nothing about the "American Dream," an omission I found then and still find, odd. And now you could score perfectly on the new social studies section of the new "Ohio Achievement Test" (created after much study and at great cost) if you could write one crappy five-sentence paragraph and include any two ideas found in the Declaration of Independence.

I had been spending three days on the Declaration and its import, including the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers, who failed to adhere to founding principles.

Suddenly, a student could be declared "proficient" by the State if he or she could write an essay no more impressive, intellectually, than this:
"The Declaration of Independence was important in American history. This is since it says "all men are created equal." Americans are required to live by that idea. It says governments must protect our rights. John Hancock signed it really big."

Across the state social studies teachers focused on preparing pupils for the brand-spanking new Ohio Achievement Test (OAT). We went to meetings and learned the little tricks to help students write five-sentence paragraphs, and studied the new curriculum with care, and tried to adapt lessons to what we were told we absolutely had to cover. But it costs a lot of money to give all these standardized tests and grade them, too, and besides, the social studies section of the Ohio Achievement Test turned out to be very, very badly designed, which I could have told you the first time I saw it, and saved the State of Ohio millions of dollars in the bargain.

The social studies section of the OAT, implemented with great fanfare in 2004, died an ignominious death five short years later.

NOW THE LADIES AND GENTLEMEN of the Ohio General Assembly and our great leader in the Governor's Mansion want to lead us backward in time to "success" again.

I'm retired from teaching now. Maybe I shouldn't let this get me riled up. But I'd like to sit a few of those lawmakers down in my old class and make them learn about the history of stupid legislation, at both the state and federal level.

IT MIGHT be fun to turn to original documents. It might be cool, too, to require all our lawmakers to grow their hair out in mullets.

Really, what have we got to lose?


  1. The third-grade reading guarantee makes a lot of sense if your goal is to destroy the public school system and enrich private and charter schools, which is the only explanation that covers all the "reforms" coming from Columbus -- and many from Washington. If that's not the goal, then you have to figure that our guvnor, like our former frat-boy President, governs from the gut and relies on faith more than data. And a mullet wouldn't hurt his appearance or dignity a bit.

  2. Well, it's a bad sign (for me) when the comment is funnier than the post; but well-said.