Mike McMahon AUSD
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Source:Columbia Teacher College

New Rules, Old Responses

Published: 8/31/2004

Each year, my annual report takes the form of an essay. This year, I am writing about a revolution that has occurred in America's expectations for its schools-how they should function and what they need to accomplish. Revolution is a sensational and much overused word. In our hyperbole-prone culture, social problems are regularly termed crises and trivial changes are called revolutionary. I want to make clear that I mean exactly what I have written. Our nation's education system has been wracked by profound and disruptive changes brought on by shifts in the demography and economy of the country. This essay discusses the nature, causes and consequences of that revolution. Using as examples several education policy issues that exploded into the headlines this year in New York City, it describes a mismatch between what is being demanded of the schools and what school people and government are actually thinking and doing. Let's begin by looking at what has changed.

"Everything is Changed"

As our country makes the transition from a national industrial to a global information economy, we are living through changes far greater in magnitude and many times more rapid than any generation in human history. Everything around us appears to be in flux-things as fundamental as how we cook, shop, communicate, and entertain, and as basic as how long we live, where we work, who our neighbors are, how safe we feel and what our country's relationship is with the rest of the world.

The effect of change on this scale is profoundly disorienting for all of us who live through it. The rules and customs by which we have made our lives are bent and abridged without announcement or warning. We see parts of the world we have known dying and a new world as yet inchoate and indeterminate being born to replace it. It is far easier to see what is being lost than what is coming into being. Historians have the task of giving coherence and a name to the confusion and uncertainty people live through each day.

Washington Irving's 1819 tale of Rip Van Winkle, the story of a man who falls asleep for 20 years and wakes thinking he has slept a single night, is often used as a metaphor to describe the impact of the change we are experiencing. Upon awakening, Rip Van Winkle no longer recognizes the people in his village; the very buildings are different; the names over the doors are strange; his wife is dead; his children are grown; and friends have died in a Revolutionary War he has never heard about. Near mad, Rip screams, "Everything is changed, and I am changed and I can't tell what's my name and who I am."

Today, our condition is similar to that of Rip Van Winkle's. The pace of change is so swift that an individual could go to sleep one night and wake up the next day feeling that the equivalent of 20 years had passed. But all people and all institutions are not affected equally by the change. Some are touched much more deeply.

In the current era, the schools are one of the institutions that have been profoundly affected by change. The demographic, economic and technological changes sweeping our society have given education greater importance and impact than ever before in determining the success of the nation and its children. What we need from our schools in this environment today is different from what we needed from them yesterday. What we are asking them to do now is not what we asked them to do before.

To understand how this happened, it is necessary to examine the changes that have occurred in the country and the forces that have caused them. Population shifts and an economic transformation, each occurring in the context of a shrinking globe and burgeoning new technologies, are individually enormously powerful forces. Together they represent a whipsaw for a society and its institutions, acting simultaneously, independently, concertedly, randomly, consistently and conflictingly, all at once.

Let's look at the impact of demographics first. Today, the population of the United States is increasing, aging, changing color, coming from other countries and redistributing itself across the nation at a frantic pace. In the past two decades, the population over the age of 65 increased by a third and those numbers will balloon as the oldest of the Baby Boomers hits 65 in 2011.

In terms of race, over the same period, America became considerably less white. While the Caucasian population increased by 9 percent, blacks grew by almost a third, Hispanics more than doubled and Asians nearly tripled. The immigrant population of the country increased over two fold, reaching the higher proportion in three-quarters of a century.

Meanwhile, the population of the nation moved west and south to the regions that now constitute a majority of the U.S. population, remaking the political map of the nation. On the way, the middle class left our inner cities, leaving urban America more isolated in poverty and more segregated by race, and America became a majority suburban nation.

These changes rocked the world of education. They brought with them a tidal wave of teacher and administrator retirements; the need for an army of new teachers to fill the classrooms of an increasing number of school children, particularly in the sunbelt; and with the high turnover in inner city schools, the necessity of continually replacing teachers and administrators. This in turn forced the states to find as many as two and a half million new teachers by 2008. To contend with an enormous number of potentially vacant classrooms, 43 states chose to reduce the entry requirements into teaching, creating new or alternative routes into the profession, and allowing people who had not been educated as teachers to fill their growing list of unfilled teaching positions.

Demographics also meant changes in the population enrolled in the nation's schools. Inner city schools became increasingly segregated-largely the province of low-income children of color with low high school graduation rates; schools all across the country enrolled a rising tide of students for whom English was not their first language; and the nation found itself facing a stagnant achievement gap between whites/Asians and blacks/Hispanics. Demographics translated, too, into education becoming a key item on the national agenda. The well-educated Baby Boom generation, a potent political force comprising over a quarter of the U.S. population, became parents, producing a Baby Boom echo of children for whom they demanded better schools. It meant that politicians running for any office from dogcatcher to President of the United States had to have an education platform of some kind if they wanted to get elected.

In this environment, the federal government, which launched a more than 30-year school improvement movement with a report entitled "A Nation at Risk," became an education activist at a level not seen since the Great Society of the 1960's. Washington embraced an increasingly larger and more powerful role in schooling, even getting involved at the state and local level, to the point of mandating state testing, determining acceptable reading curricula, and specifying failing school remedies as requirements for federal funding. The national government also defined what constituted appropriate teacher education and acceptable forms of research in education.

Now let's turn to the second force, the new economy. As the nation shifted from an industrial to an information economy, the sources of wealth changed. The new sources were derived from intellectual activity and knowledge rather than physical labor and natural resources. The new economy demanded more education and higher-level skills and knowledge than ever before in history simply for adults to function successfully in society, necessitating more and better schooling for all of our children. Jobs requiring higher levels of education multiplied, and low-end education jobs dwindled. For instance, the assembly line job once available to people without high school diplomas, which had offered an income adequate to support a family, were lost. The demands of the new economy led most states to raise their expectations for high school graduation rates, as well as the requirements students needed to meet for school promotion and graduation. States also attempted to improve the quality of their teaching forces by raising the bar for teacher certification, which was the opposite of what they were doing to increase the quantity of teachers. They were moving simultaneously at high speed in opposite directions.

The shift in the economy changed the focus of education as well. The emphasis in an industrial economy is on process, epitomized by the image of an assembly line. In contrast, an information economy stresses outcomes. Our schools were a product of the industrial era and resembled, to some extent, an assembly line. That is, they educated children by age in batches of 25 or so through 180-day school years, from 8:00am to 3:00pm daily, teaching five major subjects, each in 45-minute blocks for a period of 12 years. In concert with the economic change, the schools were asked to shift focus from assuring access to this common process to assuring the outcomes of their education, placing their emphasis on student achievement-on what students actually learned. Specific student outcomes to be attained by the schools were mandated by 49 states, statewide tests were implemented to assess whether students were meeting these standards, and schools were to be held accountable for the results.

The rest of this paper was lost during  a website upgrade.

In 2014 a report on career technical education enrollment in California was published.