Compassion?: Education Reform’s Separate and Unequal Agenda

When Michelle Rhee was asked if she had any compassion for the principal she fired on camera, she responded, “compassion?”, because she really did not know what that word meant.

“The most important civil rights battleground today is education, and, likewise, the most crucial struggle against poverty is the one fought in schools” says Nicholas Kristof in Wednesday’s piece for the New York Times. After reading this sentence, we are prepped to believe the person who wrote it is a defender of social justice. This impression is reinforced with the very next sentence: “Inner-city urban schools today echo the “separate but equal” system of the early 1950s.”

Basic progressive bromides that lead us to believe that the solutions proffered throughout the rest of the article are part of the progressive canon. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead, these are the tactics of the modern-day education “reformer”. An education reformer is a person who couches their rhetoric in progressive prose while pushing for retrograde policies. It is the reason why so many self-styled reformers are wealthy Democrats. Chiming in on the education debate allows them to brandish their progressive credentials while making apologies for the socioeconomic system that has blessed them with such great fortune.

Reformers love to cite the Brown case while totally ignoring its details. Thurgood Marshall, the esteemed NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court justice who argued Oliver and Linda Brown’s case, demonstrated to the Warren court how segregated schools reinforced notions of racial inferiority and violated the 14th Amendment. Black schools had underpaid teachers, dilapidated facilities and outdated materials when compared to their white counterparts. These were issues Marshall knew of on an intimate level. His mother was a kindergarten teacher at a black school who, by law, earned less than white teachers.

To the Warren court, as well as anyone else alive during the 1950s, it was pointing out the obvious to say that the nation’s black schools existed on a different plane than white schools, a plane of inferiority enshrined in law and tradition. The court ruled in 1954 that this state of affairs indeed violated the 14th Amendment. Historians since have pointed to the Brown case as the unofficial beginning of the civil rights movement. A year later, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama and a fiery young reverend named Martin Luther King, Jr. made his debut on the national stage.

For those of us familiar with urban public schools, we know that segregation is alive and well in all parts of the country. We also know that the solutions put forward by the reformers, represented in this case by Nicholas Kristof, have not only failed to ameliorate this segregation in any way, but have exacerbated it and promise to do so indefinitely.

For example, Kristof enthusiastically worships at the altar of value added. This is the idea that students should be tested several times a year so their scores can be used to hold teachers “accountable”. To make his point, Kristof cites the “Gold Standard Study” that makes the case for value added assessments. This was the study released earlier this year which “proved” that “bad teachers” in early grades could lead students to fail later in life, whether it means getting pregnant or dropping out of school. This “Gold Standard Study” has never been peer reviewed. It was funded by the reformer juggernaut Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its logical inconsistencies, obvious anti-teacher bias and junk science were ravaged from pillar to post, even while the New York Times was mindlessly repeating its findings. Even by the mushy standards of objectivity in the world of the social sciences, this “Gold Standard Study” has never passed muster.

What would have Thurgood Marshall argued in front of the Warren court? The crux of his case was that one set of standards applied to white schools and a totally different one applied to black schools. Kristof does exactly that. While the children and teachers of minority schools must submit to testing based upon junk science that has never been properly defended, justified or argued, the children and teachers of the Chicago Lab School, Sidwell Friends, Dalton and other schools for the rich do not have to deal with this at all. The motto for Sidwell Friends, the D.C.-area school attended by the Obama girls, is “let the light shine out from all”. The motto for everyone else’s schools is “pass these exams or suffer the consequences”. A rigorous curriculum of critical thinking, creativity and free expression for the wealthy. A narrow curriculum of bubble-in exams and endless factoids for everyone else.

It was not just the junk of value added over which Chicago teachers went out on strike. As Matt Farmer said in this great speech in front of the CTU, the reformers have aimed to get rid of art and music from public schools while reserving those programs for their own children. The new Common Core Standards, to which the schools of the reformers’ children will never be held, aims to squeeze out literary analysis and creative writing in favor of informational texts. In short, wealthy children will be free to develop and indulge the most abstract reaches of their minds. They will continue to be inspired to think creatively and see big pictures. Everyone else’s children will get the drudgery of standardized exams, the minutiae of factoids and the compartmentalized thinking that comes with a narrowed curriculum.

One group of children are educated to lead. Another group of children are educated to respond to prompts. This is the reformer agenda. While using the rhetoric of civil rights and the imagery of Brown vs. Board of Education, the reformers push policies that will enshrine segregation and inequality in law.

Perhaps the most revealing part of Kristof’s piece is when he says “some Chicago teachers seem to think that they shouldn’t be accountable until poverty is solved.” He says this while acknowledging “it’s true that the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn’t teachers’ unions, but poverty. Southern states without strong teachers’ unions have schools at least as lousy as those in union states.” He understates the case by saying non-union schools are at least “as lousy” as unionized ones, since non-unionized states have the lousiest school systems in the nation. South Carolina and Mississippi come to mind.  Yet, it is rare for a reformer to admit that poverty plays any role in a child’s education. After all, there are “no excuses” for filling in the wrong bubbles.

Again, let us take a look at what Kristof is actually saying when he writes that poverty is the biggest deciding factor in schooling. Poverty can mean many things in the concrete, including a child not having a home to stay in, malnourishment or undernourishment, sickness, lack of positive male role models, gangs, violence, dysfunctional family life, the list goes on. There are actual physical and psychological impacts poverty has on students, children that could be as young as five years old.   They can come to class everyday with their stomachs growling or feeling weak. They could have walked through gang territory to get to school or to get home, exposing them to all types of destructive behaviors or psychological trauma along the way. They could have been beaten by their parents the night before, or been in the next room while their parents did drugs. More often than not, it is a case of a parent neglecting them by failing to ask about their day or sitting them in front of the television all night as a way to avoid interaction. This is what poverty means in the concrete, no matter how much reformers like Kristof try to make it an abstract sideshow.

When I was in high school, my best friend was shot and stabbed right in front of me. He spent weeks in the hospital where he almost died. During that time, what did he or I care about school or the upcoming exam? It did not matter in the least. Growing up in my poor neighborhood, I went to the homes of friends where the television was on 24/7 and the parents were barely around. There was no dinner on the table and, oftentimes, there was no table. In this situation, what does testing matter? What did holding our teachers “accountable” matter? It would have had no impact or bearing over our lives.

What the reformers are saying when they want to hold teachers “accountable” is that they wish to hold teachers accountable for all of these circumstances, circumstances over which teachers have absolutely no control. They want to allow society to continue to damage our children, to make them physically and psychologically sick, and then lay the entire blame at the teachers’ doorsteps. They want to continue to push people off welfare rolls, off-shore jobs, cut back on the most basic social services, air mindless garbage through the media and then turn around to the teachers and say “you fix it”. This is what accountability means to Kristof and the reformers. These are the implications of their policies.

Kristof at least mentions poverty, but he still shrugs it off in the end. Every columnist and billionaire reformer does that because, to them, poverty is not real. They can only approach poverty in the abstract, as a curiosity, as a statistic, because they are so far removed from its actual meaning. This does not mean a dictionary meaning but a three-dimensional meaning, one that is felt in the flesh and lived in real time. They are billionaires, pundits and opinion-givers. They sit in their air-conditioned offices and luxurious homes while their bank accounts get larger without them even noticing or doing anything. They want for nothing. It is all too easy for them to say poverty is not an excuse, to brush it off as a non-issue, to treat it as an abstraction because that is exactly what it is to them. That is all it can ever be to them.

In reality, poverty actually means something. So does education. When my friend was in the hospital, I bought him Gza’s Liquid Swords album, which we had been anticipating for a long time. Classmates of ours brought in artwork they made to put up in his hospital room. I started reading poetry and philosophy as a way to get a handle on life and look for solace. These things: music, art, poetry, abstract thought, are the things the reformers want to deny the poor children of the United States today. These are the things that got us as poor children through trying moments and made us aspire to great things. They might be great for wealthy children, but they are necessary for children of the poor. These are the things that help people understand their role and purpose in this world, and the ones that bring us beauty in times of darkness. The fact that the reformers want to totally eliminate this for children of the poor and leave them nothing but facts, tests, bubbles and computers is tantamount to child abuse. It is a civil rights travesty, no matter how hard reformers try to pass themselves off as new-age civil rights crusaders.

This is why the teachers of Chicago were striking. Anyone who has never lived in urban poverty, or who lacks basic human compassion or empathy, can never understand the destruction education reform means for our school system. These qualities, compassion and empathy, are what the reformers lack. Through their horrid educational programs, they want to turn our children into microcosms of themselves.

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7 responses to “Compassion?: Education Reform’s Separate and Unequal Agenda

  1. Reading the string of ill-informed commentaries on the CTU strike in the Times this week– Nocera’s, Kristoff’s, Brooks’s and the paper’s editorial– was infuriating for those of us who teach. Thank you for writing such a smart takedown of Kristoff’s piece. Your blog and Anthony Cody’s should be must reading for all education reporters. And all celebrity columnists would do well do read you as well. I would love it if Kristoff was forced to respond to your critique in a subsequent column. But alas, these “pundits” and all the ignorant “experts” of
    the reform movement are accountable to no one.

    • Thank you very much. The education debate is so sterile in this country because people who have never taught, and probably never went to public schools themselves, feel free to offer their opinions on what education should be. What is amazing is how many of their ideas are wrong because they have never worked. But, unlike teachers, nobody is holding them “accountable”. Accountability for teachers and a free hand for uninformed talking heads, heads without brains.

  2. ‘One group of children are educated to lead. Another group of children are educated to respond to prompts.’ – chilling, and yet clearly presented as is. And what is most chilling of all is that it is orchestrated to be like this – as you say, the pursuit of deformation under liberal-sounding words.

    • What is wrong with the Anglo-American world, especially the American part? Have there been any teacher strikes over there in England that you can remember? The Chicago one was the first major one here in a long time, not counting Wisconsin. The American workers in general, and teachers in particular as represented by their union, live in fear as to what these deformers are capable of.

      • We have had a few one-day strikes during the last 4/5 years: pay freezes, workload, pension cuts. Two of the biggest teacher unions (NUT and NASUWT) are balloting for action-short-of strike as we speak. There has been talk of a broad-based General Strike against austerity cuts.

        Ironically what seems wrong with the Anglo-American world is a grotesque ‘hubris’ of striving to surgically rationalise whole areas of public service and social life all in the name of some ill-defined, easy-to-measure rubrick of ‘improvement’ (the crowning achievement of what you called ‘junk science’ in your article – what I would call just plain ‘stupid’ in my Philosophy classes) AGAINST and AWAY from the very humanistic and liberal education that leading politicians (maybe we should say ‘eduticians’) benefitted from themselves in the first place. ‘Improvement’, ‘progress’, ‘reform’ have all become fetishes for people who think to make a career for themselves because they think they can deliver MEASURABLE results. And we, the workers, are compromised because the only way we can get recognition and personal self-esteem as workers and professionals, is to be compliant in whatever myopic initiative we find ourselves in. If we indulge in – shock, horror – thinking and acting for ourselves, we do so at risk of being disempowered as workers and professionals … the ultimate Catch 22.

        Of related interest – I have just received a letter from my union calling for ‘action short of strike'; and interesting quote from it: ‘Surveys reveal that teacher morale is now in a very dangerous situation. Yet Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools in England, says “If someone tells you morale is at an all-time low you know you are doing something right”.’ Principled, thoughtful, caring teachers, it would seem, are the enemy to progress in education. As a profession we are coming under obsessive pressure to become accountable for every aspect of the process of what we do as teachers AT THE EXPENSE OF the craft and art of communicating. All – and this is the final irony – in the name of professional development. It is destroying teaching, we are living a monstrosity. I have never read the book but feel more and more sympathy with the premise of ‘Metamorphosis’ by Kafka, of waking up one morning and discovering that I am a giant insect in a world where this is what is needed, whereas I thought I was a human being.

      • I’ve just realised – I posted something about the interface of teaching and managerialism just this morning. Do you remember a cartoon character called Mr Magoo …

        http://ghostteachers.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/the-magoo-effect/

  3. Pingback: The Teacher vs. The Billionaire

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