Tuesday, January 28, 2014

False Narratives Dogging Public Education

Yale Commencement, 1962
In annual class discussions about slave history, almost always some student asks, “Why didn’t slaves resist slavery?” Of course, this is a fallacious question. I do not blame the annual questioner since the premise is rooted in a false narrative retold many times in the historiography of American slavery.

I have learned to anticipate the question and use it to launch into deeper lessons about false narratives in history. The retelling of the slave compliance myth was certainly a byproduct of our country’s persistent racism. Thankfully, ex-slave testimonies and the work of revisionist historians challenged this myth and unveiled how slaves resisted slavery often and in many ways during America’s antebellum era. However, the yearly recurrence of the slave resistance question in class discussions shows how these false narratives dog the study of American history long after facts have refuted the myth.

Likewise, many falsehoods persist in the public education narrative. The central approach of historian Diane Ravitch’s brilliant new book, Reign of Error, is to counter the many national myths dogging public education. As anticipated, Ravitch’s facts are ignored by the opponents of public schools in defense of their strong held beliefs that government can do no good and MBAs know more than teachers about schools and students. Corporate-minded reformers cling to their beliefs and turn a blind eye to the facts.

In “Belief Culture: ‘We Don’t Need No Education’,” the insightful Paul Thomas highlights the development of false narratives in public education and American culture. Religious fundamentalism, Hollywood, and the sensational U.S. press feed the belief beast. Sprinkle in partisanship politics and, as research shows, facts often do not matter to believers.

The truth is devalued and beliefs dominate in too many public school decisions. Corporate-minded believers dismiss truthsayers as naysayers. As Ravitch points out in Reign of Error,

They exist in a giant echo chamber, listening and talking only to one another, dismissing the concerns of parents, teachers, and communities.

The facts conclusively show corporate reforms do not work in public education. As Ravitch recently wrote,

All the competition, testing, accountability, merit pay, privatization, and other policies have failed. They fail again and again. They don’t improve education. They are damaging our precious public school system, skimming off the best kids when they can or discouraging them by taking away the joy of learning. They are hurting children, demeaning education, demoralizing educators.

Like with new fashions and fads, educational reforms tend to start on the coast and in urban districts before making their way to the typically more methodical Midwest. Not being a trendsetter has its advantages. By avoiding the pole position, Wisconsin and my local school district are in a great situation to learn from the failings of the corporate reform movement in other states and districts.

Sadly though, the national reform trends have trickled down to my kids’ school district in Wisconsin. Beliefs trump facts. Local believers are racing to hardwire business-world beliefs in the local public school system. Surveys, data, metrics, merit pay, business-world dress codes, stack ranking systems, high-stakes standardized tests, accountability measures, global competition, and a “no excuses” mantra dominate the local education discussions. The believers provide little educational evidence that the aforementioned initiatives matter much and that the school system previously in place was in need a major overhaul. Local believers, like the national reformers, are trying to fix what is not broken. Believers walk a faith-based journey full of fallacies.

Just as I do for my students who fall into false narrative traps, I have some sympathy for local believers caught up in the corporate-style reform movement. Like the slave compliance myth, the false narrative of failing government schools has been told loudly and many times over. Sensational movies, politicians of both parties, the national media, and powerful force$ market the myth. What else are school leaders to drink when only Kool-Aid is being served?

Digging for the truth beneath the anti-public education propaganda is an arduous task. Working regularly with professional educators takes time and resources overworked administrators and school leaders do not have. For school leaders serving in the more controlled and data-driven business world, the multifarious and qualitative nature of public education is foreign to them. By relying on limited statistical evidence, believers miss the larger truth.

Research shows it takes far more than three licks to get to the center of the tootsie roll pop. Likewise, I realize it will take many more licks to get believers to the center of the counter reform movement. With the past being the best predictor of the future, we can guess that the false narrative of failing government schools will dog public education for years. Thankfully, revisionists, like Ravitch, are relentless in speaking the facts.

The facts show that the “reformers” are getting it wrong.  As the truthsayer Paul Thomas writes,

...without addressing childhood poverty, workforce stability and quality, the costs of living, single-parent homes, and concentrated high-poverty communities, most education reform measures are doomed to be fruitless.

It is not too late for my kids’ school district to learn from the fruitless reforms efforts of those who have gone before us. The truth is school leaders need to embrace the reality about student poverty and act in broader and bolder ways.

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