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Speaking Expert to Celebrity in 2011--The Education Reform Debate

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What would Carlin say about accountability in education?

When I was growing up, I was offered innumerable gifts by my parents, who were wonderful but far from perfect (which is often a key element in being wonderful). From my father I learned more than I can catalog here, but one of the greatest lessons is ironic because I came to embrace a philosophy opposite of one my father's frequent responses to my argumentative nature: "Do as I say, not as I do."

As an educator, I have learned and have tried to honor the value of being a model for those beliefs and actions that we expect of our students; in fact, I expect more of myself than my students--although, like my parents, I am not perfect.

Throughout 2010 as I worked as an educator and scholar--writing about and examining often the rise of the new reformers in education (Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee)--I have been reminded of my father's "Do as I say, not as I do," and more recently, I was struck by another formative influence on my life, George Carlin, specifically this rant from When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? :

I get weary of this zero tolerance bullshit. It's annoying. To begin with, it's a fascist concept; it's what Hitler and Stalin practiced. It allows for no exceptions or compassion of any kind. All is black and white--no gradations. But even more important, it doesn't solve anything. The use of such a slogan simply allows whichever company, school or municipality is using it to claim they're doing something about a problem when, in fact, nothing is being done at all ant the problem is being ignored. It's a cosmetic non-solution designed to impress simpletons.

Whenever you hear the phrase zero tolerance, remember, someone is bullshitting you.

Parallel to Carlin's distrust, I find the relentless calls for "accountability"--from student accountability at the beginning of the standards era in the early 1980s to the more recent mantra about "bad teachers" and teacher accountability--to be as hollow as "Do as I say, not as I do" because those calling for accountability are billionaires, celebrities, politicians, and political appointees--all of whom through their affluence and status tend to live outside anything resembling accountability.

In 2011, after a year of the new reformers speaking celebrity to the mythologies driving public opinion and masking evidence about the reality of U.S. public education and the reform that system does need, educators have an obligation to speak expert to celebrity by consistently addressing the following facts:

(1) Poverty is the overwhelming correlation with student achievement in the U.S. and throughout the world. Several studies show out-of-school factors account for 80-90% of achievement: The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown 86% of achievement is connected to conditions outside of the schools, Berliner has outlined six out-of-school factors overwhelming academic achievement, Rothstein places the hysteria about teacher quality in its proper context of social inequity, and even the faux crisis expressed about 2009 PISA scores has been exposed as greater evidence of the corrosive nature of poverty than the quality of U.S. schools.

(2) Teacher and school quality is, obviously, important (again, read Rothstein above), but there is no evidence that teacher quality is one of the main problems facing schools, but teacher assignment is impacting students negatively--since studies show that students living in poverty, students of color, and ELL students are assigned to teachers with less experience and who are often un- or under-qualified/certified. Public education should not be expected to cure poverty, but public education should be held culpable for stratifying students further by the conditions of their lives outside of school since schools-within-schools are a reality of many schools across the U.S. (view the HBO documentary Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later for a vivid insight into this phenomenon).

(3) The current new reformer calls are increasing the status quo, not changing it--accountability, standards, and testing have been tried for three decades in 50 separate experiments that have all hurt more than helped. Despite the persistent misuse of SAT data to demonize, label, and rank the quality of schools across the U.S., SAT data offers one vivid and valuable message that is almost always ignored: SAT scores are most directly correlated with parental income and parental level of education, and these students are among the most affluent and learning in the most rigorous classes taught by the best teachers.

(4) Critical educators and researchers are against the traditional status quo of public schooling, which is characterized by accountability, standards, testing, and stratification (the elements of "reform" proposed by the new reformers); we have been calling for educational reform for a century, highlighted by the work of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and an often ignored contemporary community of educators and scholars. We are seeking evidence-based and humane schools that support democratic principles above corporate and consumer interests--and that is the message that the corporate and political elite want to squelch. Education professor Gregory Michie captures the inverted reality of whose voice matters in the education debate: "Then again, I'm an education professor, so what do I know about schools? Maybe only this: If you really want to understand what's going on in them and the direction we need to be headed, don't ask Bill Gates or the Business Roundtable. Ask a teacher."

(5) The U.S., like the countries the new reformers claim have successful education systems, must make social reforms that support educational reform. Schools alone cannot change society; the evidence is overwhelming and clear on this. When Secretary Duncan speaks to Utopian expectations for education--"Education is still the key to eliminating gender inequities, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, and to fostering peace. And in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity"--we must acknowledge that schools have never and will never correct the inequity in society alone. Duncan's idealism is as corrosive as the 100% proficiency mandates of No Child Left Behind because they both assure the perception of failure. In short, celebrity reformers have the formula backward when they claim education can cure poverty. Instead, we should heed Martin Luther King Jr. from his "Final Words of Advice" (1967):

"I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective--the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income. . . . We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished."

(6) Accountability for accountability's sake misrepresents teaching and learning as an isolated and direct relationship between one teacher and one student. Teaching and learning are social and multifaceted human acts that are beyond simplistic views of "accountability" or causation. While new reformers often use international comparisons to demonize U.S. schools, they tend to ignore that countries such as Finland reject simplistic teacher evaluations linked to student test scores. Further, the weight of evidence, again, cautions against using students tests as evidence of causation about teacher quality.

2011 offers educators a chance to rise about false dualities of conservative/liberal and traditionalist/progressive, to speak expert to celebrity as radicals, as Howard Zinn implores in his memoir You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train :

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country - not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society - cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.
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An Associate Professor of Education at Furman University since 2002, Dr. P. L. Thomas taught high school English for 18 years at Woodruff High along with teaching as an adjunct at a number of Upstate colleges. He holds an undergraduate degree in (more...)
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