Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Difference in Framing

Non-reformer writes: "Because we know that poorly educated parents and poverty are the root causes of poor achievement."

Reformer responds: "We don't know that at all. In fact, all historical and global evidence would completely contradict that hypothesis. What we know is that poor children in the U.S. are not educated well within the U.S. public education system."

Non-reformer  responds: "Of course it is not poverty itself that affects learning but the EFFECTS of poverty ...."
Curiously, if one could sum up the education Reform mindset, it might come down to this difference in framing.  Reformers tend to want to diminish the effects of SES, and emphasize teacher efficacy.  The response from Non-reformers is generally to push back and emphasize SES.  The Reformer often calls this "making excuses", famously "the soft bigotry of low expectations".  The term reform itself has become loaded as it sets up one particular framework as being reform, and anything else as, well, non-reform.  And when everyone agrees the education system is broken, the non-reformer becomes defined by an implication that they support the system as it stands.

However, most Non-reformers I know (which also happens to be most teachers and non-teachers), actually want even greater reforms to education.  They don't see teachers as the problem, but larger social problems.  They point to all the things the Non-refomer referred to - the EFFECTS - of poverty as being what we need to reform.

Now, part of the difference in frameworks might have to do with a broader sort of political temperament.  Reformers have been so successful because they have built a coalition of conservatives and neo-liberals.  As a group, a common feature is a tendency away from radical, progressivism.  Yet this is exactly what non-reformers would champion. 

The reality is of course, that the public is in no mood for radical progressivism.  There is simply no political momentum toward an agenda of going after the EFFECTS (as Linda so succinctly put it) of poverty, which would require massive (OK, *cough* I use this term relatively!  "Imagine if they had to have a bake sale...") state spending. 

So the neo-liberal model, biased as it is towards the political *possible*, essentially has thrown in the towel on looking at SES as the real reform and emphasizing instead the marginal benefits of squeezing more achievement out of teachers.  Unfortunately, the result has been so good.  I realize my bias as a non-reformer, but there just doesn't seem to be much evidence that union-busting, charters, performance-pay, punitive testing, etc. has really done much at all.

Non-reformers would say, of course, "See.  I told you so."  And the system has been really screwed up.  Teachers feel completely demoralized, their jobs as un-meaningful as ever, expectations higher than ever yet their tasks only more daunting, humanity removed from the profession and countless punitive professional development sessions and administrators forced by their bosses into a bizarro world that fundamentally misunderstands the classroom.

Personally, I think all this "reform", based as much of it has been on an attempt to find consensus and work within political realities has not only made the system worse, but has moved the debate away from where it really should be.  To use an analogy, it would be as a bus were speeding towards you and instead of jumping out of the way, you start running in the opposite direction, hoping it won't catch up.  Well, I think it's finally caught up. 

Reformers talk about making "excuses".  However, I would argue it is they who are the real excuse-makers.  By constantly shifting the blame away from larger, more serious social problems, they excuse them.  The reality is that the achievement gap is based on a fundamental reality: SES means human and societal capital.  The advantaged have a lot more of it than the disadvantaged.  Reformers would have us believe that this inequality can be overcome simply by "better teaching".  They would have us believe that teachers in a poor community should be expected to work twice as hard - be twice as good - as teachers in affluent communities. 

Yet in the end, what this tells poor communities is that, despite your lower levels of human and societal capital, we're not going to give you any more support.  We're going to force to to rely on the same teaching pool as everyone else, even though your needs are so much more profound.   Imagine if we did this with police departments.  What if every neighborhood only got a limited number of service calls, then we blamed the police for the rise in crime rates?

That isn't reform.  It's perpetuation of social inequality by a privileged class who doesn't want to sacrifice for those less fortunate.  It's also a betrayal of what public education has always been about.

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