American Schools, Part 1: The Great Leap Forward

After Mao Tse-tung (or Mao Zedong) the communist dictator took control of China he decided to develop industrial production as quickly as possible. His goal was to catch up with the nation of Great Britain, a hated imperial power, in the production of food and iron and steel. He did this by instituting a series of 5 year plans…the most important  called the “Great Leap Forward”. China was going to “leap” over a century of industrial and agricultural production in a few short years.

To do this,  the Mao bureaucracy assigned production goals of food stuffs and raw iron to  every commune. The commune  leader was responsible for meeting those goals. One of the ways to meet the production of iron ore was a multitude of “backyard” furnaces. Small furnaces in which the communes throughout China purified iron ore, pots, pans and scrap metal  for pig  iron, later to be used in the production of steel. The peasants and communes “enthusiastically” responded. (The toll in human life to these policies is well documented elsewhere).

Now, if a commune failed to meet it’s yearly quota the leader of the commune was demoted and a new bureaucrat took his place. If the commune did meet the quota the government often increased the quota slightly more the next year. After a couple years of this system the Chinese communes were producing massive amounts of pig iron. The Great Leap Forward was a great success. Or was it?

As it turned out the production of food and iron was pretty much a fantasy of the bureaucracy. In order to keep your job you had to turn in production totals. People lied. All the production was on paper, not in reality. After all, the government gave them no help and had production goals that were unreachable. In reality. And the iron that was produced was of such low quality that it was virtually useless.  But on paper all was well. After three years the Great Leap abruptly ended. A massive failure.

Which brings us to the current Great Leap Forward in American public education. We have heard ,  well,  forever, that US schools are “failing”.  Despite the fact that the US has one of the best educated work forces in the world. Just look at test scores. Look at those failure rates. Bring up those test scores. Demolish those failure rates.

Once, teachers were expected to teach youngsters. How to read, write, think, express and do all those other things educated folks are supposed to do. Teaching is hard work. Learning is harder work. It isn’t easy getting 14 year old boy to study . Video games, sports, the internet are all much more interesting than Pythagorean’s theorum. Or the causes of WW1. Or Darwin’s theory. Learning is an active process, after all. And if a youngster does not put in the time he will not get the reward. Should he?

Except. Those test scores. Those failure rates. If the test scores are low we have to blame someone. If the failure rates are high we have to find a scapegoat.  And the principals and superintendents and media and politicians and parents know exactly who is to  blame. The teachers. The unionized, lazy teachers. The overpaid peons. The peasants. The commune workers struggling to make pig iron in those backyard furnaces. Without much help.

So, what do we do? Have a Great Leap Forward. Just like Chairman Mao. Tell the peasants to “produce ” more with less. Just give us those “test results”. And raise those “passing rates”. And we will be happy. Lower the passing requirements. Make the tests easier. Produce test grading systems that boggle the mind (Like 40 out of 50 correct equals a 95). Do whatever it takes. Or heads roll. Superintendents get replaced. Principals get fired. But those damned teachers have tenure. Not what do we do?

Massive dishonesty. If  a student fails it is the teacher’s fault. Or the school’s fault. Or the parents’ fault. Never the student’s responsibility. The numbers look bad. Fix them. Some teachers and administrators cheat. Better to produce good test scores than lose your job. Keeps the community happy. No teacher is ever criticized for having too many passing grades. Drill, baby, drill. Forget about learning. Forget about the process of discovery. Focus only on the test. And then wonder why real students get bored. Doesn’t matter. It is all about the test scores. The production quotas. The pig iron. Forget quality, just produce the pig iron.

And when the Great Leap Forward (No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top) fails miserably, we know what has to be done. Blame the peasants. Blame the teachers. Privatization.

Next essay: The Great Privatization Scheme.

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1 Comment

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One response to “American Schools, Part 1: The Great Leap Forward

  1. Deb Meeker

    Your analogy works. Also, I continually hear people complain about property taxes. I’ve never understood how communities believe they can have excellent schools while capping and lowering the tax funding necessary to support those schools. So the politicians agree to cut school taxes with an eye toward re-election, the shortsighted real estate owners are temporarily happy, and the kids get the result of lower funding – cut programs, fewer teachers per classroom, and crumbling, ill equipped schools.

    Like

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