Yesterday, the Economic Policy Institute held an event, co-sponsored by the “Broader, Bolder” education reform group, on reforming No Child Left Behind. This fact was commented on in a post on Crooked Timber, and within eight posts, you could read that ” The goal of NCLB was not to improve education, it was to destroy the teacher’s unions and take away the hard won rights including tenure and the ability to act as professionals…One group sees education as a way to instruct the young with the essentials of the society and turn them into docile citizens who will provide the workforce and consumer base that the elite depends upon. This group favors an authoritarian, top down, approach to instruction,” and “the “Broader, Bolder Coalition”—whose manifesto openly embraces using education policy as a stalking horse for a broad political agenda…has little to do with educational standards.”
And there, in a microcosm, is the state of our current education reform debate: one group, loosely grouped around the “Broader, Bolder” coalition, and another group, loosely grouped around the Education Equality Project and they hate each other worse than Communists hate Trotskyists, and with the same sectarian flair. Apparently the Broader, Bolder folks are either your standard left-of-center education policy wonks and activists who emphasize the need to tackle the social environment of schools or a stalking horse for the teachers unions out to destroy education reform. Likewise, the Educational Equality Project people are either a very similar group of wonks who focus on the achievement gap between white students and students of color, or a neoliberal plot to destroy teachers unions, force students into becoming standardized-tested drones, and privatize the public education system. Oh, and they’re both the only true “reformers.”
Problems With Existing Reform Groups:
Personally, I think that the state of debate has become so poisonous, so tainted by mistrust and (more importantly) unspoken ideology wrapped in the flag of “science-ism” that I’m reluctant to dip a toe into these waters. But I feel that something is being missed here and in some important ways both sides are wrong. (I know that comes off as a hideous high-Broderite splitting the difference, but I actually have a point here)
I think the overarching issue here is that we have two different views about what education should be about: making kids into good citizens, and making kids into good workers. And while the knee-jerk reaction might be to say, in fine Deweyian fashion, that education should only be about the latter, that’s actually wrong. You can’t have a Deweyian citizen (someone capable of engaging in democratic discourse, of using their powers of pragmatic reasoning to sort through the pros and cons of elections and public policy, someone who reads the newspaper and writes letters to the editor, and who can stand on a street corner or go door to door) if they’re illiterate and innumerate. Especially if you believe in John Dewey’s views about the importance of education for democracy, you need people who have the training to be “virtuous” citizens – and that training requires a rigorous grounding in academic skills, because in Dewey’s view social change, the kind of social change actually needed to transform the social environment around the schools that the “Broader, Bolder” folks see as the major problem in education, requires active citizens to do the work of changing it.
Likewise, the Educational Equality folks, for all that their emphasis on abolishing the achievement gap is laudable, have a giant gaping hole in their theory of educational reform. (At this point, it doesn’t matter whether they’re genuinely progressive or neoliberal) No matter how well you drill your students, no matter how many students you get to college level, unless you actually change the socio-economic order, you’re just trying to bail the ocean with a sieve. The idea of education as the leveling force in American society is an attractive illusion, buttressed by our constructed histories of worthy marginalized communities (be it Jewish-Americans, Asian-Americans, or even the black middle class) pulling themselves out of the ghetto by pushing for educational excellence. But it is just an illusion. There are larger social forces – the structure of persistent discrimination in the real estate and employment markets, the structure of housing and job availability (whether there are enough affordable homes close to living-wage jobs out there to go around), and the way that the credit and financial system exacerbate these problems – that education policy is not strong enough of a lever to shift by itself. At best, what you’ll end up with is a situation where you have a larger black and Latino middle class, who still face an income/wealth/promotion/housing/education gap with whites, who are still perched in a fragile economic situation in segregated middle-class black or Latino suburbs, and the people left in a shrinking ghetto will be in an even more dire situation, and their schools will get even worse.
As a last note in this section, I would also add that the label of “reform” is being used in a very evil way here, in that it is being used to create a narrative of the heroic, selfless reformer (on the side of the poor, downtrodden, and passive minorities) against the evil institution, no matter which side is using it. The problem is that “reform” can be applied to anything, any change no matter how good or how bad, so calling for recruits to the cause of “education reform” is in my mind a highly suspect political effort.
Why This Is Important:
What makes this sorry state of affairs all the worse is that we actually desperately need a society that is actively democratic. You take a look at any major poll,and you can find signs that the electorate think that you can have a free lunch,, or are willing to toss away or defend civil liberties depending on the phrasing of a question. We need a citizenry that can actually parse through the spin – although I will say that the growth of the internet and the blogosphere is a reassuring trend, and I believe that if John Dewey was alive today, he would be one of the leading bloggers in America in his spare time.
At the same time, however, we also need a society that is more economically egalitarian, both for economic and democratic reasons. Dewey’s vision of an active democratic society was also a world in which working people were economically secure enough that they could take the time to read the paper, self-educate through public libraries and evening courses, go to political meetings and engage in debate. And as much as it is a thin reed, education does seem to be one route to boosting wage income. I would still dispute whether the college wage gap is a function of supply vs. demand, and whether expanding college graduates towards 100% of the population will actually lead us to a more egalitarian economy or just depress the wages of college graduates.
How to get past the mistrust is something I still haven’t worked out. The EEP people have a nasty tendency to bash unions and be far too cosy to conservative privatizers and voucher-floggers, and at least to this union member (UAW 2865, representing 12,000 teaching assistants, tutors, and readers of the University of California) that makes me leery of them. The Broader, Bolder people get accused of wanting to whitewash the manifest problems of a racially and socially unjust system, and that their political efforts lend towards the preservation of the status quo. I’m biased in their favor, but I at least want to recognize the claims.
Where To Go:
Regardless of whether these two groups can get past their problems with each other, I think there are some issues that have fallen off of the education agenda that I believe are crucially important for making education “reform” genuine reform sans scare-quotes.
- The Affordability Question Has Fallen Off the Radar – here at the University of California, which was at its inception a truly Deweyian institution dedicated to the proposition that higher education was a right of all citizens, the price of a college education has doubled in the last six years, from less than $4000 per-year (in-state undergraduate) in 2003, to over $8000 per-year in 2009. This situation is replicating itself across the public universities across the country, as cash-starved legislatures de-fund and privatize their state universities to balance their budgets. And yet, we don’t hear anything much coming from the EEP folks (who should be outraged at the fact that a major reason why the poor students and students of color that they strive to place into college don’t graduate on time is because of money issues) or the Broader, Bolder folks (who should be absolutely on the ball about such an obvious social problem) about this. Simply put, this should be at the top of the education reform agenda: public higher education should be free of charge.
- We Need to Do Something About Vocational Education – while I fully believe in college for all, I also know that there are plenty of good careers that don’t involve going to college, and I’ve known people who were frankly miserable in college because they didn’t want to be there. One of the problems in American education that’s not being addressed is that we treat vocational education like the last resort for people who’ve failed, at the same time that technical schools are exploding in numbers, largely because they’re replacing the kind of career tracks that used to be represented by a union apprenticeship. Yet neither side is talking about ensuring that technical colleges and training programs should be regulated or evaluated to ensure that they’re not just fly-by-night diploma mills, and neither side is talking about how we need to restore the social status of skilled labor, that becoming an electrician or a welder or a plumber is a viable and honorable means of economic mobility. Bottom line – vocational education needs the same kind of resources and oversight that academic education gets now.
- If We’re Going to Train Citizens, Let’s Bloody Well Train Citizens – there’s often a lot of talk from the Broader, Bolder style of reformers that our education systems should be training students to be citizens, but not a lot of follow-through. The fact is that we need to be teaching real civics – by which I mean teaching people how to form political groups, how to use Roberts Rules to structure a meeting, how to put out a press release or a flier, how to use the media and spin your story, how to organize a protest and put pressure on the political system, how to run a block-by-block get out the vote campaign, how to blog – the nuts and bolts of how to exercise political power. But beyond that, we need to inculcate a certain attitude towards power and authority, namely a proprietary one. As citizens of a democratic republic, we own the state and we employ its officers, and that begins by teaching our students that when you see someone breaking the rules, you don’t just accept it, you blow the whistle and go to the media; that when someone abuses their power, you should push back by using every right you have available to you.
- A Radical Suggestion – MORE Union Control of Education – one idea that has occurred to me in the past is that one of the fundamental blocks to reform is that the teachers, through their democratically-chosen unions, don’t trust their administrators, governments, or outside reformers (which they see as, well, management). They view the teacher quality “movement” as a cover for union-busting. By contrast, the EEP people see unions as inherently anti-reform. One suggestion: if the EEP really care above teacher quality above all else, let’s make a different bargain. Why not put the unions in charge of hiring, firing, and promotion through the time-honored method of the union hiring hall, with a quid pro quo of improved outcomes (in return for higher salaries and union job protection)? That way, the unions would have to deliver, and the EEP people would have to choose whether they cared more about teacher quality or administrator’s ability to hire and fire at will.
– Steven Attewell