In 1991, the following statement was circulated by the New York State Education Department, putting forth its position on educational reform: "The problem with education is not that the legions of dedicated people who work in our schools are limited or uncaring, or that they are unwilling to exert themselves to serve our children. On the contrary, the schools are filled with intelligent, conscientious, even idealistic people eager to be effective. The problem is that the system they are caught in - schools as we still organize and run them, prevailing notions of curriculum and instructional method, the existing allocations of responsibility and authority - has become obsolete."
"We must re-conceive the system itself." (Quoted from a New Compact for Learning, NYS 1991)
Also in 1991, a federal level request for proposal was circulated that gave me hope we were headed in the right direction, so I decided to spearhead the development and submission of a comprehensive restructuring plan for public schools under guidelines that appeared to represent forward-looking thinking. This proposal was consistent with the following:
-"Assumptions about how students learn and develop, what they should know and be able to do, are completely re-examined.
-"Visions of the nature and locations of schools are reconsidered.
-"The manner in which communities create, govern, and hold their schools accountable is redesigned." (Taken from Designs for a New Generation of American Schools, NASDC, 1991)
It was rated by Rand Corporation in the top 15 percent, 17th out of nearly 700 proposals submitted. Funding from outside sources did not materialize to underwrite 30 proposals, as initially intended, so only seven were finally authorized. Among those funded were such "far-reaching" designs as a return to "The Little Red Schoolhouse" authored by William Bennett, former secretary of education. The winners were publicly announced by the commissioner of professional football, and a lot of money changed hands.
In 1994, the Goals 2000 Educate America Act was enacted.
In 1998, Article 56, Section 2850 of the Education Law introduced charter schools in New York state. It was advertised as authorizing and encouraging efforts to create high-quality "laboratories of learning" in public education from which we all could learn.
In June of 2000, believing something positive could happen, a group of colleagues and I joined together to develop and submit a charter school proposal. Recognizing a need created when the State University of New York at Plattsburgh decided to close its Laboratory School and that our Teacher Education Department would no longer have a facility equipped with the latest designs for research and development for our area, a proposal was created for a school to be housed on the air base that would serve all the schools of this area with "a center for teaching and learning."
We first submitted our proposal through SUNY Central, even though officials at Plattsburgh State University voted not to support the project without any consultation with its principals. Since many of us were from SUNY, we thought our efforts would likely be received with enthusiasm, but to our surprise, our proposal was dismissed with derision, igniting a resolve to pursue the same project (under a different name) through the State Education Department.
Our response to the review of our proposal by the SED prompted this statement: "Expecting an open and responsible review of our proposal, consistent with the 'Charter School Application Process' ... we were simply naive in looking forward to a cordial and constructive face-to-face dialogue with the ... review panel. Imagine our feelings when instead of such an invitation to discussion we were sent a two page written statement of dismissal so curt, arbitrary and absurd that even the least of academics would blush to acknowledge it."
It seemed clear at the time that statements from the New York State Department of Education and the Board of Regents, the Legislature and then-President Bush expressed a philosophy that provided a legitimate opportunity to establish an improved educational system, based on a thoughtful examination of the present system and the creation of a new system with public support.
Incredibly, what has evolved is the establishment of an arbitrary set of mandated Common Core standards, profit-making charter schools and excessive uses of standardized assessments with data mining that appears to be for commercial purposes (A source is found on www.nysape.org, maintained by the Allies for Public Education. The work of Leonie Haimson gives a clear interpretation of the potential for data sharing by inBloom Inc.), along with coercive techniques to force compliance with a problematic plan that was instituted without public input, field testing or careful study - a plan that may well be in violation of human and states' rights. We are now facing a "juggernaught" of forced standardization that threatens the survival of locally run public schools. The health and welfare of our children is what's at stake.
It should have been obvious that the current changes in our public schools were hidden in the good-sounding rhetoric of the 1990s. We were simply too trusting and disregarded embedded profit motives that were there from the start. The Business Roundtable and its compatriots had a plan all along; we just didn't recognize it. Unfortunately, it is doubtful educators would have done anything differently, even if it had been recognized, given the fact that many decision makers support the present situation and others think returning to the past is the solution.
Not surprisingly, the counter-movement against the Common Core and standardized testing is spearheaded by parents whose children are being victimized, and these parents are pleading with politicians to solve the problems of education. They support their schools perhaps for reasons they seem not yet to have fully explored.
The educational community must now collaborate with parents and government officials to develop a systemic plan that will truly respond to the needs of children, accepting the fact that the school is unable to accomplish it on its own. This opportunity exists as a result of the counter-voices of parents who are taxpayers and voters.
A proposed series of workshops designed to clarify legitimate, commonly shared criteria for judging the quality of reform efforts could help meet this goal, if sponsored by representatives in each Assembly district.
Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. He is the author of the State Education Department-funded Goals 2000 project "Essex Schools Consortium for New Standards Implementation" and the book "Remaking our Schools for the Twenty-First Century - A Blueprint for Change/Improvement in our Educational Systems." Find out more at www.robertlarnold.com.