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Transforming Education: Fourth in a series

TRANSFORMING EDUCATION TODAY
(Fourth in a series of interviews with Education Leaders)
Featuring Dr. Arthur E. Wise

Note from Chuck Cascio: Given the difficult issues facing educators today in the USA, I have been running a series in which I contact established educators and request their insights, in their own words, on a number of vitally important education issues. I am pleased to present as the fourth interview in this series of the views of Dr. Arthur E. Wise, whose profile followsReaders who would like to comment on the views expressed may email me at chuckwrites@yahoo.com. My Twitter handle is @ChuckCascio. Not all comments will be responded to by me and/or the individuals interviewed, but all will be read and, if appropriate, forwarded to others engaged in meaningful education reform. Help spread the word with: #TransformEducation

Dr. Arthur (“Art”) E. Wise is an accomplished education author, consultant, policymaker, executive, and advocate. Throughout his career, Art has used the tools of educational research, policy, and advocacy to advance education for poor and minority students. An author of several influential books, he has had hundreds of articles published, first achieving national prominence in 1968 as the author of Rich Schools, Poor Schools: The Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity, a book that conceived the idea of the school finance reform lawsuit. Since then, a majority of state supreme courts have ordered the equalization of state school finance systems, boosting spending in poor districts and narrowing the disparity with affluent districts. As president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) from 1990 to 2008, Art introduced performance-based accreditation and led efforts to develop a system of quality assurance for the teaching profession. He has also held positions—among others—at the RAND Corporation's Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession; the National Institute of Education, Department of Health, Education and Welfare, where he helped create the cabinet-level Department of Education; and the University of Chicago as associate dean and associate professor of education.

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>>>What inspired your career as a leader in education?

     While I am uncomfortable with the designation "leader,” my aspiration to improve the chances of less fortunate children was set at an early age, or so it seems in retrospect.  I grew up in the Roxbury section of Boston as it evolved from an all White working class neighborhood to an all Black neighborhood.  Observing the challenges of this transition and watching on TV the disturbances produced by desegregation efforts in the South, I resolved to dedicate my career to public service. At age 17, I left Roxbury and entered Harvard College thinking that I would become a social worker. As my perspective broadened, I concluded that client-oriented social work would not have enough impact to satisfy my aspirations. In college, my coursework in social sciences, my research assistantships at the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, and my observations of education leaders caused me to focus on educational research, policy, and leadership in order to influence the course of education for poor and minority students. 

     As I considered my options I formulated an audacious, even arrogant, plan: I thought, rightly or wrongly, that the traditional path of a program in teacher preparation followed by several years of teaching would actually slow my drive to influence education. Besides, as an ROTC graduate, I faced a two-year military obligation to be served whenever I completed my studies. So I decided to save time by trying to enter a PhD program in what was then called “educational administration.” The University of Chicago took a chance on this "non-traditional" candidate and admitted me to a program designed to prepare professors of education administration. Upon completion of the program, I entered the U.S. Army where I served as assistant director of research at the United States Military Academy, West Point. Upon completion of this service, I was on my way to fulfilling my aspirations, although the precise goals I would pursue and the specific career trajectory I would follow were uncertain. And, as a practical matter, my ideals would have to be pursued in parallel with my need to support my family.  

>>>Identify a couple of accomplishments that you and/or members of your school and/or organization achieved that you feel have had a lasting impact on education.

     My first, and perhaps most lasting, “accomplishment” happened early—in 1963-64, my first year of graduate school. I was enrolled simultaneously in courses in School Law and School Finance. In the law class, we were studying, among other matters, Brown v. Board of Education and related cases concerned with desegregation and the legal reality that schools and school funding are a state responsibility. Among the topics we were studying in the finance class were the large discrepancies in funding between rich school districts and poor school districts. I began to wonder:  

     While desegregation was important, how educationally appropriate was it for Black students to be desegregated into poorly funded schools? For that matter, why should the state be able to discriminate against poor and minority students in the allocation of state funds? Is the denial of equitable school funding a further denial of the equal educational opportunity promised in Brown?  Is unequal educational funding even legal under state law?

     These questions became the basis of a term paper in the law class. My professor, Donald Erickson, was intrigued by the argument and, as the editor of a journal, published my paper Is Denial of Equal Educational Opportunity Constitutional? in 1965. The paper was the first published suggestion that courts might declare existing school finance laws unconstitutional as a matter of Federal and State Constitutions and Laws. The paper attracted some attention and, when it was time for my doctoral dissertation, I felt compelled to develop the argument more fully.  Studying just enough law, I completed my dissertation: The Constitution and Equality: Wealth, Geography and Educational Opportunity in 1967. 

     With a deep sense of relief that I had completed my studies, I left for the Army that year. However, the dissertation did not sit on the shelf for long.  The University of Chicago Center for Policy Studies held a conference to discuss its implications in 1968 and the University of Chicago Press published it in 1969 as Rich Schools, Poor Schools: The Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity. Even before its publication, word of the book began to spread, lawsuits were filed, and other advocates and scholars joined the fray. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its 5-4 decision, upholding the status quo but noting explicitly that there was inequity in public school finance and that the Court’s decision did not preclude state courts from acting on state grounds. Thirteen days later, the New Jersey Supreme Court invalidated that state’s school funding scheme.  

     From that day to the present, nearly every state has had one or more lawsuits with more than half favoring the interests of children in poor school districts. Today, the cases remain controversial, as advocates continue to seek equity for poor and minority students and advocates for wealthy students seek to maintain their privileged position in the public schools of their states. 

     A second major concern of mine took shape in the 1970’s when I noticed a not too subtle shift in the use of standardized testing. Prior to then, standardized tests were used primarily to make judgments about individual students, an assessment external to the classroom, to determine whether a student had learned the material taught and/or was ready to move on to more advanced work. Later, at the national level, the National Assessment for Educational Progress, the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, and others were aggregated to provide a high level picture of national and state trends. Beginning in the 1960’s, however, state policymakers began to engineer systems of “accountability” which used collective results on standardized tests to judge teachers, principals, and schools. In 1979, in Legislated Learning: The Bureaucratization of the Classroom, I warned that this use of test results to manage the schools would ultimately narrow the curriculum, turn teachers into bureaucrats, incentivize corrupt behavior and drive the joy out of teaching and learning.

     Needless to say, my warning was largely ignored. State governments and then the Federal Government enacted more accountability legislation culminating in the No Child Left Behind Act and took other measures to evaluate teachers and schools by grouping test results. From the 1960’s to the 2010’s, as accountability legislation was implemented, educators and even some policymakers noticed that the managerial use of test results was not improving education and was having the predicable negative consequences. The trend continued until 2015 when the Federal Government enacted the Every Child Succeeds Act, which has begun to roll back some of the dysfunctional managerial use of standardized testing.  

     A third concern of mine also took shape in the late 1970’s.  I had long believed that the quality of a student’s education depended on the quality of the student’s teacher, an observation shared by most educators and parents and confirmed by research. Through my research and the research of others, it also became clear to me that teaching talent is not randomly distributed and, instead, follows predicable socio-economic patterns.  What I think we should do about these two observations will be discussed below.

>>>What do you see as the major challenges in education today?

      Of the major challenges facing education today, I will mention one that is often overlooked and lies at the core of others. We have forgotten why states established public schools. States established schools primarily as a benefit to the state, a way of promoting the general welfare. State constitutions and laws make it clear that the state establishes schools and requires attendance to protect itself (i.e. the rest of us) from the consequences of those who cannot properly exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, contribute to the economy, or who run the risk of becoming a public charge or criminal.  Secondarily, schools thereby—and incidentally—provide private benefits to the individual. Over time, however, the accepted view has become that schools exist primarily to provide private benefits to individual students so they can compete in our economy. Education has become a consumption commodity with student consumers or their parents buying as much as they can affordThis view flies in the face of the rationale for the common public school, which is to develop all students according to shared American values.  Since the public purpose is now secondary at best, it also leads down the slippery slope to the use of public funds to support vouchers, tax credits, and private non-sectarian and religious schools.   

>>>What do you consider to be the appropriate line between politics and education--including the role of Federal, state, and local governments as well as school boards--in establishing standards, content, and policy, particularly in K-12 public education? 

     When I think about the governance structure for public education in America, I despair. We have three levels of general government—Federal, State, and Local—each with three branches—legislative, executive and judicial—and each of which can, and does, set directions for the public schools. In addition, we have three levels of education government, each of which has multiple structures to direct public schools—US Department of Education, Secretary of Education; state board of education, chief state school officer, and state department of education; and, finally, local board of education and local superintendent. It is a wonder that it works at all. In our legal structure, schools are creations of the state that the state has authorized to operate locally. Early 20th Century reforms sought to remove education from partisan politics by creating state and local boards of education. How has that separation fared in the 21st Century?  Under the Constitution’s General Welfare Clause, the US Government, in the mid-twentieth Century, began to expand its inherent powers over the schools.  It is a wonder that the schools can operate at all.  I will make no specific recommendation here except to urge that those who choose to influence education be mindful of their place in this complex and uniquely American governance structure.

>>>What makes you optimistic about education when you look ahead for the next 3-5 years and what concerns you the most over that time period?

     I have always approached education as an optimist, though that optimism is being seriously tested these days. There is one trend in American education that has had, and will continue to have, an upward trajectory. We are all familiar with the term “gross domestic product,” which is the value of goods and services produced by a nation. Imagine now the “gross educational product” which would be the value of all the knowledge and skill acquired by students pre-K to post-graduate. Formally calculating the GEP would be a tremendous and difficult undertaking. A crude approximation would be the number of years of schooling acquired by an ever-growing population. 

     In the beginning education was for the elite.  As democratic norms took hold, more and more students had at least a few years of schooling. As norms shifted, mandatory education was accepted, high school graduation became expected, most graduates entered some form of tertiary education, college graduation became fairly widespread, the number of fields requiring masters degrees increased and professional preparation programs lengthened. At one end of the spectrum pre-school is likely to become universal. At the other end, internships and post-doctoral studies become more widespread. How sanguine we should be about this trend is debatable, but so far there are few signs of a decrease in the growth of education.  In all likelihood this trend, along with population growth, will continue along with the demand for teachers, professors and other educational personnel.  

>>>What would you consider to be the single most important key to positive transformation of education in the US?

      For me the key to improving the quality of education has been, and remains, the transformation of teaching into a profession. By “profession” I mean that the title “teacher” signify readiness to teach independently. The system of quality assurance for teaching has too many “by-passes” for the public to have confidence that everyone bearing the title “teacher” is ready to teach. Many teachers are graduates of accredited teacher preparation institutions, licensed (in some states) by a rigorous licensing process and have completed a supervised internship or closely mentored first year of teaching. Others begin with little or no preparation. At times of adequate teacher supply, states make teacher licensing more rigorous. At times of inadequate supply, like now, they lower standards to find an adequate supply. We must have a system of quality assurance that signals to the public that all teachers have been determined to be ready to teach independently

     This rigorous licensing system must be balanced with commensurate compensation and conditions of work.  The marketplace for teaching labor must be allowed to operate freely to determine the level of compensation necessary to attract a sufficient supply of qualified teachers. This fundamental economic lesson from business has rarely been introduced to teaching; salaries must be such that the supply of labor matches the demand for labor, without reducing the quality of that labor. In addition, the structure of the profession and the teaching workplace must be made more attractive so teaching can compete for the services of top college graduates. As long as there is a shortage, poor and minority students will be assigned “inferior substitutes.” If the supply of teachers is adequate, then all students, including those in urban and rural schools, will be taught by competent professional teachers. If this happens, poor and minority students, as well as other students, will all be taught by competent professionals. 

     Attracting and retaining qualified teachers has long been a challenge.  However, in today’s political environment, we can expect the challenge to increase.  The need for strong independent professional teachers has never been greater.  We need a strong profession of teaching. 

Copyright: Chuck Cascio and Arthur Wise; all rights reserved.

For comments and/or reprint permission, email: chuckwrites@yahoo.com