Jeff Bryant
Published: Wednesday 30 October 2013
Changing the false narrative of “reform” to a true discussion about how we mitigate education inequality and poverty is the first order of business now.

The Education Reform Conversation We Need vs. the One We Have

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This past week, two videos captured just about everything you need to know about the status of the movement known as “education reform.”

The first filmed event was a staged encounter between two prominent advocates for what is conventionally thought of to be “opposing points of view” in the current debate over how best to implement top-down government mandates for public schools.

On “the right” of this crossfire was the American Enterprise Institute’s chief “scholar” on education policy, Frederick Hess, who speaks voluminously of the need for “busting” through and “breaking the status quo” that apparently confines the nation’s schools.

Stage left, we had President Obama’s chief PR spokesperson on education, Secretary Arne Duncan, who incessantly calls for “raising the bar” and racing “to the top.”

Ostensibly, amidst all this busting and breaking and raising and racing, there was to emerge some kernels of wisdom to clarify the best pathways forward for America’s public schools, which are uniformly deemed to be in “crisis.”

But the most clarifying moment by far actually came after the cross-pontification when an audience member dared to bring up “the conversation nobody wants to have.”

The second video – in three segments (at the end of this post) – was an excerpt from Saturday’s Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC, which had a different intent to be sure but ended up embracing the conversation the Hess-Duncan face-off refused to engage.

In this case, the conversationalists were chief critic of the education reform movement, Diane Ravitch, and a slate of experts and journalists who are representative of a population that the education reform movement is purported to be about – racial minorities.

Emerging from these contrasting videos – the former, an exchange between purveyors of education reform, versus the latter, skeptics of education reform who question its actual results – was a clarifying “aha moment” about a conversation America ought to be having but currently isn’t.

Keeping Equity Out Of The Discussion

Billed as a verbal slugfest over the Common Core and the federal government’s role in education, the back-and-forth between Hess and Duncan started off predictably enough.

Like dueling fog machines, over-stuffed with rhetoric we’ve come to expect from D.C., Hess spoke of “slippery slopes” and “bright lines” while Duncan waxed effusively about the apparent evils of “dummying down standards” and “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Outside the Beltway, almost no one talks like this or imbues these kinds of phrases any significant meaning.

So anyone declining to watch the whole video could be forgiven. But then, you would have missed this…

At around the 0:56:00 mark, an audience member asked, “When are we going to have the conversation nobody wants to have … that we live in a society that educationally and otherwise has policies that favor some groups at the expense of others? When are we going to have a panel that doesn’t consist of white males in suits who have no children who are at risk?”

“The policies that are in action,” she explained, “I don’t have any say in those. How can we believe that the policies that are created are not doing what they are doing, that they are not designed to create a permanent underclass?”

The response that followed from the lectern was hardly what could be called a “conversation.”

Hess demurred to answer the question at all. Duncan launched into a lengthy explanation about how much he “gets” the question while demonstrating definitively the exact opposite.

Duncan began his lecture with an anecdote about a lawsuit he brought against the state of Illinois over funding equity issues when he was in charge of the Chicago public schools. He complained of funding unfairness that ensures “kids who need help the most get the least.” He carped about “a system that exacerbates the funding differentials between the haves and the have nots.”

But he didn’t offer a single example of how as secretary of education he has brought any of his power to bear on states who continue to perpetuate unfairness the most.

During Duncan’s watch, in fact, the equity situation in America’s public schools has gotten substantially worse. Poor children are now the majority in the nation’s public schools. The number of homeless children attending public school is at an all time high. Schools are more racially and economically segregated than they were 40 years ago. And every week brings yet another news headline about inner city schools being starved of essential resources like libraries and art classes, while big city bosses, like Duncan’s friend Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, impose public school closures disproportionately on communities of black and brown families.

Most states have dramatically decreased school spending, even as the economic recession has receded. The U.S. Congress has continued threats to cut off more school kids from free and reduced lunch. And what has Duncan’s response been?

Certainly the Secretary – who brags incessantly about his effort to coerce most states into taking on the expenses of implementing expansive new national standards, installing complicated new teacher evaluations, and promulgating vast new layers of standardized tests – could try to force at least one state to change its unfair funding formula, halt rampant school segregation, or come to the rescue of a financially starved school district.

But rather than having a conversation about inaction in the face egregious inequities, Duncan dodged with the familiar excuse that there were “no easy answers.”

He suggested the cure for inequity was in personnel issues in states such as California, where “nobody knows” who are the “top 10 percent” of teachers and who are “the bottom 10 percent.” Thing is, neither does Duncan, yet he has made this conundrum a cornerstone of his education policy.

Duncan concluded by surmising that perhaps the answer to America’s growing educational inequality was “technology,” which has become everyone’s shiny new bauble in the reform agenda, even though one-third of American households don’t have access to high-speed Internet.

Certainly a conversation about inequality was not something the secretary was prepped to dive into. And the silence from the representative from the conservative wing of the education policy establishment was deafening.

Fortunately, in a completely different venue, that conversation did take place.

Talking About Inequality

In the next video, the center of attention initially was Diane Ravitch, whose new book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools insists there is “a false crisis narrative” driving education policy that leads to public schools being driven into the hands of people who want to privatize them and, often, make money off them.

Segment one of the program posed that the “crisis” label pasted on schools is misplaced, and that the perceived problem with education doesn’t stem from the dysfunction of school teachers but the scourge of poverty.

Ravitch, prompted by Harris-Perry, drew from evidence laid out in her book to contend that policy leaders like Duncan and Hess urge, “Don’t look at poverty. And that’s wrong.”

Segment two of the program looked at how charter schools – touted by reform folks as, according to Harris-Perry, an “all-saving alternative to failing public schools” – are in fact making education disparity worse by capitalizing on the appeal of “choice,” a policy deriving originally from, according to Ravitch, “an escape route for Southern whites who sought to avoid court-ordered desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Joining Harris-Perry were New York University professor and author Pedro Noguera, who has written extensively about America’s growing “opportunity gap” in education, and MSNBC national correspondent Trymaine Lee who has reported on education disparities and mass school closures around the country.

Noguero explained how “mass unleashing of charter schools” has resulted in “disparities,” as a competitive system of education increasingly serves “more privileged children” while public schools have become places “disproportionately serving the most needy children.”

“We’re heading in the direction of recreating a dual school system,” Ravitch warned. “It’s as if the Brown decision [the landmark Supreme Court case that ended forced segregation of school kids on the basis of race] never happened.”

That remark prompted Harris-Perry to state, “It feels to me as if we don’t even take integration into account as part of how we define a quality school.”

Chiming in as a beat reporter who has seen the reality of education disparities, Lee brought up the example of Philadelphia where charters continue to “bleed” the local schools, state government “starves” the neediest kids of their education opportunity, and the result is “a mess … that is playing out across the country.”

In segment three, the conversation turned to the impact poverty has on education attainment. Lee told of schools in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Oakland where schools are left with “no counselors, libraries with no librarians” to serve the growing numbers of children subjected to debilitating levels of poverty and hunger. Lee asked incredulously, “These students are struggling yet we expect them to learn and flourish?”

Pointing out that while “poverty is not a learning disability,” Nogeura called poverty “America’s Achilles Heel.”

His real concern? “How little the president has done to address this issue.” He called it “a shame” that so little has been done “in the name of reform” for our neediest children.

“How do we shift the education narrative to addressing childhood poverty?” Harris-Perry asked.

Shifting The Narrative

For years, education reform, which seeks to impose on schools a governing methodology favored by business executives and policy technocrats, has sold its prescriptions of standardization, competition and choice as a means to end the vast inequities that characterize America’s system of public education.

Legend has had it that the purpose of “disruptive innovations” such as high-stakes standardized tests, charter schools and test-driven teacher evaluations was to “rescue” a poor black or brown child, one at a time, from a “failed” school.

Regardless of the intentions, those who’ve been chanting this narrative have taken us down the wrong path toward real progress.

Changing the false narrative of “reform” to a true discussion about how we mitigate education inequality and poverty is the first order of business now. That’s a conversation that can’t start taking place too soon.

Video: Melissa Harris-Perry on Education Reform

One: The Case Against School Privatization

Two: How Charter Schools Lead to Disparities

Three: Poverty and its Impact on Education



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ABOUT Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a Marketing and Communications Consultant for Nonprofits. He is a marketing and creative strategist with nearly 30 years of experience – the past 20 on his own – as a freelance writer, consultant, and SEM provider. He's written extensively about public education policy, most recently at OpenLeft.com and NationofChange.

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