Guest column: Children 'maimed' as Michigan chases latest biz fix for schools

By Scott Baker

In late spring, Bridge Magazine looked at data on college readiness in Michigan. It prompted a question:

Did the data analyzed by Bridge Magazine take into account poverty levels and their negative impact on student achievement? There are reams of research (i.e. Berliner 2009, Turkheimer 2003) demonstrating this. How will (another) new set of standards make any difference?

As a teacher for the past 20 years, I have witnessed the devastating effects of misguided education policies (actually thinly disguised "business" policies) inflicted upon students and teachers by politicians, at the behest of the corporate America. And now, after a decade of failed effort under NCLB comes Round Two: Race to the Top and The Common Core Standards.

I’ll save all of us lots of time and money, and tell you how this latest effort is going to turn out. Spoiler alert.

Teachers will spend many hours aligning curriculum to the Common Core Standards (just as we did when they were called Grade Level Content Objectives). We will attend many professional development sessions (just as we have been doing for years). We will attend multiple trainings on the latest "research-based" instructional methods (with the "research" often provided by the company selling the training, oddly enough). We will plan lessons and present them accordingly, and prepare our students for the latest form of the MEAP or the Smarter Balanced Assessment or whatever worthless (yet expensive) test Pearson Education Management conjures up.

And students will score on those tests just as they have before, demonstrating a near perfect correlation with their socioeconomic status. The results will then be used to bash public schools and make the case for for-profit charter schools. Again.

Those of us in the trenches see the damage that is currently being done to young people. I am, on a daily basis, witnessing the intellectual maiming of an entire generation of children being carried out in the name of the economy.

I mean this literally. Treating children as empty file cabinets simply to be stuffed with a "business approved" curriculum is inhuman. It results in a system of reward and punishment that might work for training circus animals, but is a lousy and counterproductive way to treat human beings. Meanwhile, the root cause of poor student achievement – poverty - is given lip-service or ignored completely. 

Instead, we get greater government intrusion into the very serious business of raising our children. Both state and federal law recognize the right of parents to guide the education of their children, yet no one asked me, or any parent I know of, our opinion on the Common Core Standards, just as no asked us our thoughts on No Child Left Behind. We have simply been informed of it and are apparently expected to submit our children for the indoctrination planned and paid for by those caring folk at the National Business Roundtable.

A few powerful social Darwinists have confused their personal wealth with their personal worth. In a stunning display of hubris they have decided that they are the only worthy shepherds of the flock. In their view, the needs of the economy trump the natural (and legal) right of parents to direct the education of their children. We have since been buried in faux "research" meant to justify the takeover of our once vibrant and effective education system.

The results have been a lost decade in student achievement. Continued reform measures that shut out parents and teachers, while doing nothing to address the effects of poverty, are doomed to fail as well – spectacularly and expensively.

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Tue, 09/04/2012 - 9:17am
Mr. Baker you sound just like every other commentor on the education system, whine without the cheese and crackers. If you want to change the conversation tell us what the kids should be learning and how they should be learning not simply that this latest round of changes will cause the same disappointment as such changes have made in the past. "the root cause of poor student achievement – poverty – is given lip-service or ignored completely." This suggests that the 'poor' will always under perform that thay some how ability is in directlt relationship to the economic status of the parents. I disagree, it has to do with expectations. The expectations of the kids, which generally reflects the expectations of their parents, their teachers, their peers, the administrators, the community, and who ever else is allowed to get involved in their education. You can point the finger at socio-economic correlations, unless you are offering a means to change that it is nothing more than a rationallization of perforamnce. What I have seen is that by changing the educational expectations of the students can break that performance disappointment. "“business approved” curriculum is inhuman" what arer these subjects? Do they exclude reading, writing, 'rithmatic, a bit of civics, some science? Complain all you like becuase without giving specific information that is all it is, complaining. That maybe how you teach and all those in the 'trenches' do, but that isn't how business taught me to prevent problems from reoccuring. "the root cause of poor student achievement – poverty – is given lip-service or ignored completely" you keep saying that but you never explain how or why. It is your excuse for everything. Do you feel that if every family were given a $1million they would instantly have smarter kids, that they kids would instantly become more dilligent in their studies, that they kids self confidence would grow, that they would instantly see the value of education? Simply blaming anything doesn't change anything. If you look at every student an determine whether they are 'rich' or 'poor' then by your reasoning you have already decided who will succeed and who will fail, that sounds like a self fulfilling provacy (expectations). If the Teacher has that expectation then why should the student have a different expectation. If they are 'poor' they will fail so why make the effort. "we get greater government intrusion into the very serious business of raising our children." as much as I have seem government intervention and programs do more harm than good, why should we be surprised since the teachers aren't offering an alternative, we do see the Union commercials about lower class size. However, as you say it is all about poverty to the exclusion of everything else so whine all you want, but until you offer a new approach that overcomes 'poverty' you will get the polticians and the government in your business. "justify the takeover of our once vibrant and effective education system." Can you describe what a vibrant and effective system looks like, can you tell us when we had that? So you don;t simply blowoff these remarks, I have been 'poor', my kids have gone to two different school system, one where 8th grade graduation was a bigger evnet than high school and one where post high school was the expectation (rural Michigan). The kids expectations were what determine their success more than the teachers, more than the parents, more than anyone else. If you doubt that then ask you self why some 'poor' kids will succeed and why some 'rich' kids will fail.
Paul Barbour
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 10:59am
Excellent response comment. I also grew up in a poorer family, father was a minister, however I was lucky enough to live in a parsonage in the Highland Park area of St. Paul, MN when in grade school, then moved to Fargo, ND. for Jr. High and HS. Both school districts have excellent education ratings. I did not go to Kindergarten because we lived in Manitoba where it was private, not public. I feel that I received an excellent education at all levels, then went on to graduate from NDSU. Before we criticize our MI school system or individual schools, we should look at the schools nationally that have high scoring graduates and see what they do that works. For example one thing that Fargo does is have 2 hour after school detention same day for students being late for or skipping a class, also that person, if on a sports team does not play that week. What do high rated districts do to encourage good teachers and get rid of bad teachers? There are many areas to learn from, rather than just criticize,
Scott Baker
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 3:59pm
Duane, I could have gone more deeply into the topic of poverty and its effects, except that I was limited to 600 words. The effects of poverty of student achievement are well-documented. Depending on which studies you read, 60 to 85 percent of student achievement is attributable to factors outside school. If you are born into poverty you have a much higher chance of receiving poor pre-natal care and nutrition, greater likelihood of being exposed to environmental toxins, narcotics, and violence, suffering from nutritional scarcity, and having less access to books and libraries. All these things affect the development of the brain, especially during the crucial early years before a child enters school. Of course the scope and depth of these conditions varies from child to child, but still, if you are born into poverty, by the time you start school it's like starting a race five yards behind everyone else and having a refrigerator strapped to you as well. Our response is to legislate that, regardless of your starting position or burden, you shall run as fast as everyone else. You might as well pass legislation making gravity illegal. I think a better, smarter solution is to help young children get a better, fairer start in life. In the long run, it will be much cheaper. You seem to doubt that we ever had a "vibrant and effective public education system." With all the public-school bashing that's gone one these days, your's is a common sentiment. Most people point to our poor performance on international tests, but don't bother to take a closer look at the numbers. When you compare schools that serve a student body with similar levels of poverty, the US does quite well. On the 2009 PISA for instance, Finland placed tops in the world, but their poverty level is 4%. If you just look at US schools where the student poverty level is 4%, we outscore Finland, and everybody else. There's an article available by a Mr. Tirozzi(?) entitled "It's the Poverty, Stupid" where he parses the data more thoroughly. Where US scores fall off is when you reach those schools serving populations with 40%+ of their students growing up in poverty. And the US has so many of these students (20% - the highest in the industrialized world) that those scores drag all our other scores down, and you end up with the US in 9th, or 14th place. Two excellent books you might like to read include Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality by Gerald Bracey. Also take the time to read Diane Ravitch's Death and Life of the Great American Public School System for the best overview of what's happened to education in the US during the past decade. You're comments tell me you are an involved parent. That is exactly what I'm fighting for. I want your voice, my voice, and every parents' voices to matter when it comes to the education of our children. Right now, those decisions are being made by the National Business Roundtable and the American Chamber of Commerce. Do you think they care more about our children than you or I do? Somehow I doubt it. There are actually quite a few good ideas out there on improving school, but this focus on standardized curriculum and standardized testing are stifling what could and should be a lively and productive discussion on some real change for the better. I think I wrote more here than I did in the original letter. Best regards, Scott
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 10:48pm
Mr. Baker, Thak you for your response, it did add inforamtion. There are a few things I need to clarify. I did not say we never had a successful education system, I simply asked how you would describe it and when did you feel it existed. Unless we describe what success looks like so others can learn it we will lose it. I was involve at a former employers in investigating success not just the errors, for if you only focus on the errors all you will have is a never ending battle with errors, If you focus on success and teaching others what success looks like then success will be sustained. I will give you my understanding of 'poor', there was a kid in my class through much of my elementary years that had brain damage from an extend fever over 106. It was about what his parents did or didn't do. But to suggest that all the 'poor' kids have those deficiencies preclude that any of them will succeed. For you have already lower your expectations for them and that all but assures that they have lower expectations for themsleves. We all have things to overcome, it is the choices we make, the purpose we establish for ourselves that differenciates us. Have you ever asked why a 'poor' kid succeeds or a 'rich' kid fails? I will offer it is the expectations they have of themsleves. It is now my grandchildrens education, it is the invlovement that is reinforcing what I learned through my education, through my childrens education. In my school district, if you have no kids in school they have no interest in getting you involved or even telling you what is happening. "I think a better, smarter solution is to help young children get a better, fairer start in life. In the long run, it will be much cheaper." you through the terms, better, fairer, around rather easily. The reality is that unless you define them they at best mean different things to different people and they will never help things change, for noone know what you are looking for. "Do you think they care more about our children than you or I do? Somehow I doubt it." Again you have low expecations ot others. At one time I had the opportunity to work for one of those Roundtable companies and with people from other companies in the Roundtable. Our employers were so supportive of education that they encouraged us to work with teachers to create lessons for teachers to use in the classroom that gave a practical side to science. We setup an annual training seminar for the science teachers in our state to instruct and provide the lesson tools. You are underestimating the people who have succeed because of their education. If you want to get help, get a list of Roundtable members, develop a proposal with a purpose, measurable expectation of impact, metrics for measuring performance, and perfromance 'milestones', just like their employees have to do, and send them to those companies. I doubt all will respond but some will, asking for more information, and even providing a contact person or funds. You seem to have low expectation of the 'poor' and of the 'successful', are you surprised when they meet those expectations? Success in school is not about running fast it is about getting the basic tools for it is after graduation and those tools are put to use that tells whether the system worked. I don't have never be one to say A's are what tells the schools success, it is whether they kids have to overcome what is taught in school or whether they can use what is taught.
Chuck Fellows
Sun, 09/09/2012 - 11:11am
Unfortunately you fall into the typical rant against teachers in your counterpoint to this article. Here are some effective solutions (effective in the rest of the world and in pockets here in the US) - let the teachers teach - student as worker teacher as coach and mentor - assessments are a subjective process that are done daily by teachers- every child is unique and learns in a unique way - trust (and train) our teachers and treat them as professionals with the authority that is commensurate with the responsibility they have. And to wake you up out of your lazy and comfortable paradigm please visit,, and also look at, Its not about education, its about LEARNING - there is a big difference. Finally, view the three videos by Ken Robinson at beginning with "How Schools Are Killing Creativity'. Stop grazing the meadow of our clock driven pseudo objective one hundred and thirty year old "system" of education that clings desperately to the Carnegie unit for credit, one size fits all standardized testing which is totally bogus ( for evidence), content driven by, yes, the business community and academics living in University, academic dogma for learning and get yourself into a classroom to help create change. Stand in a teachers shoes for several years - I did full time when retired - and learn.
Liane Lancaster
Thu, 10/11/2012 - 5:38pm
Here, here! Duane, be fair. You were raised in an affluent neighborhood in St. Louis Park. That is where Dr. and lawyer kids attend school. You got a better education than the kids in the poorest region of North Minneapolis. Each of those kids go to school knowing someone in jail or someone who has been shot. The focus there is not on going to the museum on the weekend, it is on staying alive for the weekend. Those kids are behind before they start. Your upbringing was very different than theirs.
Wed, 09/05/2012 - 11:03am
Thankyou Scott Baker for your very excellent effort here. I wish you were a regular contributor to the site. Bridge needs a lot more of your kind.
Scott Baker
Wed, 09/05/2012 - 10:37pm
Dave, You're most welcome. And I have to thank Ron French and Derek Melot for the opportunity. This guest column started out as a rather snippy response to an article Mr. French wrote. As a teacher, I've developed something of an allergic reaction to the seemingly constant barrage of articles criticizing public education. Much of the time these articles originate from think tanks and foundations funded by the very people pushing for-profit schooling. I responded to Ron's article as another such attack. His thoughtful reply and sincere questions made me investigate Bridge Magazine and the Center for Michigan a little more deeply. They seem truly interested in asking questions and listening to a wide variety of responses in an effort to generate real solutions, rather than claiming to have all the answers. They even thought to ask a teacher about teaching. A rare thing these days. Godspeed, Scott
Wed, 09/05/2012 - 6:45pm
"Treating children as empty file cabinets simply to be stuffed with a 'business approved' curriculum is inhuman. It results in a system of reward and punishment that might work for training circus animals, but is a lousy and counterproductive way to treat human beings." Well said, Mr. Baker. I agree with the commenter who wishes you were a regular Bridge contributor. The entire accountability movement has been based on the wrong things: test scores rather than deep learning, carrot-and-stick motivation rather than teacher professionalism, the elevation of school governance models over parent satisfaction and school communities. A lost decade, indeed.
Sun, 09/09/2012 - 1:03am
Mr. Baker, No one can discuss things without the observations of those that have the input of experienced teachers within our own system like yourself. Certainly, people and their children are negatively effected by low economic status. Which, is why we have publicly funded education to begin with. It would be interesting to hear your input on some steps toward improvement.
Scott Baker
Sun, 09/09/2012 - 12:56pm
Hi John, First and foremost, do whatever it takes to reduce the impact the poverty on children. Reduce the number of children being born into poverty and at the same time work to mitigate the impact of poverty on children's development. This would have the greatest greatest positive effect on student achievement. These are major policy issues, but they must be addressed. Poverty drains resources from everyone, and money spent (successfully) fighting poverty should be viewed as money well spent and an investment in our future. As far as school, I think we need to re-think the whole enterprise. What we're doing now I liken to trying to cross the ocean in a car. Despite countless hours and money put into the maintenance and improvement of the car, it keeps sinking - because it's a car. We have to realize that the way we are educating our young people is still in the experimental stage. Compulsory schooling has made made a few appearances throughout human history, and always as attempts to socially engineer a society. Until the past 200-300 years, the vast majority of majority of humans have grown up under a much more natural system. In what you and I would call "primitive" societies, every child learned the skills they needed to survive by about the age of fourteen, without once ever sitting at a desk, but by freely interacting with the members of their society who were doing the things necessary to survive in their particular environment. We instead have decided it's better to remove our children from the daily life of the community, lock them away with other children their own age, and provide one adult model who isn't actually doing anything adults do in real life (creating, producing, and cooperatively solving problems with fellow community members). Adults solve a math problem when it's necessary of improve their lives. Children solve math problems because it's ten o'clock and that's what's on the teacher's lesson plan. School, as we do it, is artificial and can only provide artificial experiences. Children know this even if they can't articulate it, and that has much to do with the misbehavior we see in classrooms. If it was work worth doing, most would take part eagerly. Here's a secret that's not so secret - children want to learn, in fact are driven to learn. They just might not want to learn what someone else wants to teach them at a particular moment, even if it is part of the "mandated" curriculum. You can't mandate interest or curiosity in a topic or skill, try as we might. We've written so much curriculum as of late, in complete disregard of the fact that every human born on this planet arrives with a curriculum. We are hard-wired to make sense of our environment and our place in it. We don't need to motivate students. Let their curiosity drive teaching rather than a pre-packaged curriculum and lesson plans and we'll see much better results. Decades ago a rather awful experiment was conducted in which dogs were subjected to electric shocks on a metal grid. One group of dogs could escape the shocks by jumping over a four-inch fence. The other group of dogs were restrained and unable to escape repeated shocks. When the restraints were later removed, the dogs in this group made no effort to escape the shocks, though they had the ability. This is defined as "learned helplessness" and it causes me to wonder what happens when a child's natural curiosity is constantly stymied and restrained for seven hours a day by authority and enforced curriculum. Actually I don't wonder because I've already seen the result - my first twelve years of teaching were spent at the high school level trying to get disenfranchised and unmotivated students to take part in their education. I've already written on much of this on my blog, PerfectlyDocile. I don't even know if it's still out there, but the parable of the car is part of it, along with some other observations on education. Tomorrow I have to climb in the car to embark on another fruitless attempt to cross the ocean but, good news, we have a staff meeting Tuesday morning where we will discuss the supposed benefits of hanging some fuzzy dice from the mirror. Meanwhile, if you know of anyone who has an interest in building a boat, send them my way. Godspeed, Scoot
Mark Higbee
Sun, 09/09/2012 - 8:04am
Mr. Baker, thank you for this detailed, fact-driven, historically informed analysis. Very well done and very important! One commentator asks when public education worked, or words to that affect. I'd say there was no golden age when public education worked everywhere, for everyone -- but for most of the middle of the 20th century, public education was given adequate funds to serve the majority of students in the country. Now, we have countless public schools with dwindling budgets and students in need. Typically, the poorer the school district's families, the more seriously their budgets are cut. It is a mistake to think of public education as just one thing, and to ignore the huge disparities in local conditions. I especially value your highlighting of poverty as a good predictor of school achievement. This is a fact that should be recognized regardless of one's politics, as it is a fact that largely shapes American educational realities. For the last dozen years, our national dialogue has largely buried the fact of poverty and focused on "expectations" as if high expectations create an easy road to equal achievement. They don't, much as we might wish that they could. best, Mark Higbee, Professor of History, Eastern Michigan University
Scott Baker
Tue, 09/11/2012 - 11:54pm
Mr. Higbee, Thank you for the kind words. Poverty is the "elephant in the room" and I've discovered after 20 years of shoveling elephant dung that you share the room with five types of people: Those who can't see the elephant. They want you to just keep shoveling. Those who see the elephant but believe it is too big to move. Again, just keep shoveling. Those who profit from the elephant. They keep it well fed, and protect it from harm. Those who run around the room chasing hamsters, because they believe all the poo is from the hamsters. And finally, rarely, someone who will drop their shovel and join you in poking at the elephant with pointy sticks in an effort to get it out of the room. This of course is bitterly opposed by the elephant profiteers. And there is the rub. School, as we practice it, is an immensely profitable enterprise. The current ed reform trend is nothing more than an cynical attempt by corporations to get a bigger slice of the pie. Why pay teachers, aides, cooks, and custodians decent wages when that money could be going into corporate coffers instead? There are, I believe, some places where the profit motive fails us miserably, and education is one of them. I think we will realize that in the end, hopefully before the damage is too great. Best regards, Scott
Joel Jones
Tue, 09/11/2012 - 7:48pm
Great dialogue! Wish that the people who need to read this the most did. It seems as though no one is listening.