So Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came dangerously close to calling New York City a “laggard” for failing to implement a new teacher evaluation system. His exact words, as quoted by the New York Times, were “New York has a chance to be a national leader, or a laggard…” Laggard was an early 1900s way of referring to a student who falls behind. Back then, the word had a similar function to the word “retard” today. In reference to students, it was not a nice word. In 1909, the book Laggards in our Schools: a Study of Retardation and Elimination in City School Systems was a popular screed of early education reform.
If there is a “crisis” in education, then look no further than at the top to the Secretary of Education. Arne represents everything that is wrong with education deform. He works for the lobbyists in Washington who want narrow national standards, standardized testing, charter schools and the ability to fire veteran teachers. The Race to the Top program he has been busy pushing requires any state that signs on, like New York, to implement these deformer policies on condition of receiving federal dollars. It is the quintessential “my way or the highway” approach that defines every effort at education deform. There are “no excuses”, as the deformers are fond of saying. If the teachers of New York do not want to abide by their new evaluation system, then we are “retards”.
Yet, if a teacher were to treat their students this way, there would be cries from every corner to fire them. Teachers get fired for saying the wrong thing on facebook or giving the wrong grade to the wrong kid. The Secretary of Education, on the other hand, gets a free pass when he threatens to withhold millions of dollars from the schools of millions of children, then stops short of calling the state in which those kids live “retards”.
People generally assume that schools are havens from the cruelty of the real world. The fact that so many people call for teachers’ heads on platters when they step out of the tiniest bounds of Puritanical ethics proves this. The reality is that schools are created by the real world and reflect the values of that world. It is a cynical world where an elite group of people can set all the rules, whether it is which test to give or what the labor laws shall be. If you fail in this real world, you are a “laggard” or a loser. There are no excuses, as the education deformers love to say. Your failures are your own fault.
People, hypocrites generally, talk about making our schools great. Yet, in all of the years they have had to make bold reforms, they have come up with no greater guiding philosophy than to bring the same mediocre mindset of the corporate world (the “real world”, that is) to schools. It is a lack of imagination to say the least and their standardized exams and Common Core Standards will ensure that their own utter dearth of creativity will be internalized by the current generation of students suffering through their “reforms”.
The truth is, you cannot have a great education system when you are guided by dogmatic ideologies. You cannot have a great education system when you have a Secretary of Education who is beholden to these ideologies. Punishment, name-calling and shame are not sound educational strategies. The crisis in education is a crisis of imagination and creativity at the very top of the system. Until we reform who the reformers are, we will never have great schools.