Bush-era education reforms faded

I listened attentively to the many tributes aired on television concerning the life and accomplishments of the late George H.W. Bush, our 41st president. Not once did I hear any reference to President Bush’s efforts in 1991 to become the “education president.” He was the driving force behind the development of NASDC, the New American Schools Development Corporation, that sought “Designs for a New Generation of American Schools.”

NASDC was a nonprofit corporation involving the business community with assistance from the Rand Corporation, charged to elicit plans to “break the mold” with innovative, whole-school reform proposals.

Rand Corporation issued the RFP (request for proposal), and it featured what my colleagues and I considered a serious effort to reform education, so we submitted a plan that was ranked 17th among over 700 proposals submitted. Lacking private investments, only 11 were funded out of the 30 proposed for support, and those proposals have all but vanished. Along the way, the New American Schools project apparently lost sight of its mission, and the plan became more of typical Washington insiders rather than educational revolutionaries.

Nevertheless, the Bush initiatives sparked innovation in New York state. For example, the Goals 2000: Compact for Learning plan was funded by the Clinton administration in 1995, and subsequent charter school legislation was established in 1998 to accomplish, among other objectives, “to improve student learning and achievement and to encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods.”

The several proposals submitted from our region featured seven innovations described in detail by this author in “Remaking Our Schools for the Twenty-First Century — A Blueprint for Change/Improvement in our Educational Systems” (2013) and in many subsequent publications.

1. In response to mixed views of the public about what constitutes effective education, what is known is documented in four basic areas including individual development and learning, communication and group development, the nature and acquisition of knowledge in all realms of meaning, and general systems theory applied to education, especially systems design and systems analysis.

2. Comprehensive teacher education that is based on the four areas mentioned above.

3. Systems design considered a process of learning compatible with human development and systems analysis as a strategy for assessment and evaluation of learning outcomes.

4. Introduction of the CARES Model (Constructive Assessment, Recordkeeping and Evaluation System), a student-managed, systems-oriented and computer-based system compatible with individual development and learning.

5. Introduction of Philip Phenix’s six Realms of Meaning that describe creative processes of academic disciplines to be engaged by students.

6. Primary online data banks in support of inquiry in disciplines in each Realm of Meaning.

7. Establishment of a governing structure based on participatory democracy with an instructional branch, a management branch and a quality assurance branch guided by a written constitution and by-laws, supported by a validated foundation knowledge base.

Building on the contents of the NASDC effort, the proposal we submitted under Goals 2000 was called the “Rural Schools Consortium for New Standards Implementation.” Willsboro Central School was the designated lead agency that involved six other schools in northeastern Essex County.

Like the NASDC efforts, this project encountered its share of resistance from conventional wisdom about education and a move underway to standardize education. Undaunted by rejections from those forces, an effort was launched in 1999 to further the attempts to break the mold in North Country schools, this time using the charter school legislation to establish an educational research and demonstration center on the old Plattsburgh airbase, designed to replace the abandoned Sibley Research and Demonstration Center.

Subsequently, George W. Bush, with support from Sen. Edward Kennedy, promulgated the “No Child Left Behind” legislation and its offspring, known as the Common Core curriculum and standardized testing. We are now witnessing a new effort to change things through a renewed project-based education within the STEM programs of this era. These efforts were also reflected in the NASDC projects, and it was noted in published autopsies, project-based education is subject to an incompatible assessment and evaluation system required to validate successes or failures.

It seems we are no nearer to recognizing the needs for systemic reforms than when President Bush initiated his plans in 1991. It’s unfortunate President George H.W. Bush was unsuccessful in his efforts to reform education. He must have felt, as we did, great disappointment at the time. He probably would have liked to have had his heartfelt concern at least mentioned to call attention to what we could learn about efforts to affect needed systemic reforms in this 21st century. It also would be nice if our efforts were afforded a serious review. It shouldn’t be a mystery as to why his efforts and ours do not receive mention. There are impenetrable traditions afoot that prevent even a friendly discussion.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at SUNY Plattsburgh.