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MSPnet Blog: ““Education reform”: Rorschach test”

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posted June 5, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

I first came to TERC in 1986 (August first). In “school reform years,” this is many “waves” ago. In those days, long before the sound of the “www” was heard in the land, “reform” meant things like: developing pedagogy that reflects how children learn; remembering that teachers’ pedagogical wisdom is built through their own continuous learning; that in order to get a true estimate of the complexity of students’ learning, you had to use many methods….

But already, A Nation At Risk had opened the door to the Era of (selective) Accountability, in which we still labor.  (Aside #1:  ANAR sounds a range of notes, but interestingly it defines the aims of education pretty broadly, emphasizes the importance of personal and civil purposes as well as vocationl/economic purposes of education, advocates strong arts and language teaching as well as the “money subjects” that now receive so much emphasis.   It mentions international comparisons and competition, but does not speak about “market  solutions” or similar buzzwords later dominant in reform language).   (Aside #2:”Selective Accountability”  — enforcing accountability on students and teachers, rather than departments of education, school boards, or legislatures, who control so many environmental elements within which teaching and learning happen.)

Since then, “reform” has taken on myriad nuances and forms, and I watched with astonishment as people like myself were transformed into “opponents of reform.”   Putting aside hurt feelings, it is interesting to see how “reform” and “education” have been changed, in their “mainstream” forms, by a narrowing or restriction of application.  One such restriction is the definition of education (and indeed citizenship) in economic terms.

A related restriction can be seen in separation of schooling from the society within which it is situated (this is often paradoxically accompanied by a push for “anytime, anywhere learning,” if mediated by technology).

Case in point:  A recent blog post by Robert Pondiscio from the “Flypaper” blog of the Fordham Foundation expresses outrage that discussions about “education reform” have been invaded by issues of race or economic inequality.  Pondiscio writes:

At the opening plenary session of the New Schools Venture Fund meeting in San Francisco earlier this month, CEO Stacy Childress promised attendees that the meeting was going to “push” them to explore issues of race, equity, and education.

Pondiscio (and he is not alone) sees this as evidence that left-wing ideologues are pushing conservatives out of discussions of education reform:

Signs of the leftward lurch are unmistakable. Senior leaders within ostensibly mainstream reform organizations like Teach For America are comfortable publicly embracing controversial movements like Black Lives Matter. TNTP’s CEO Dan Weisberg wrote in a blog post last year claiming that “organizations like ours have not been vocal enough about the obvious—that issues of racism, poverty, justice, and education are interconnected.” Henceforth, he promised, TNTP would “speak up more loudly about the many barriers—inside and outside our schools —that stand in the way of success for too many American children.”

This passage provides a hint about Pondiscio’s diagnostic lens:  the problem is incorporating talk about social conditions, the societal context within which education occurs, as part of discussion about education.  The hint is confirmed by this further comment:

“There were moments when I wondered, ‘Are we going to talk about anything but personal narratives and how terrible structural racism is?’” asked [an] attendee, a senior executive at a national education nonprofit. “When are we going to talk about education?”

This blog post engendered many interesting responses, heated and otherwise. I note three of these voices here.  First, Marilyn Anderson Rhames wrote a powerful “open letter to white education reformers”.  She writes:

In your post, you referenced a recent piece I wrote about how the elite NewSchools Venture Fund Summit took a drastic turn this year by abandoning the rich, out-of-touch approach to education reform and instead empowered Black and brown leaders to address the systemic racism that ravages the education of students of color.I was inspired by this shift toward diversity and inclusion, a sign that you were finally open to hearing voices from the marginalized communities you purport to serve.

Nope.Instead, your leadership chose to squander this opportunity for racial unity to call me a four-letter word.  Left.

While being labeled a leftist isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, it’s not who I am. As the founder of a national nonprofit called Teachers Who Pray, I am not ashamed of my deep Christian convictions, even on controversial issues like religious rights, abortion, marriage and school choice.

Derrell Bradford, in a later Flypaper post, helps clarify some of the terms of the debate from a point of view that is sympathetic to Pondiscio’s.  For Bradford, a core element of education reform is in the reliance upon market mechanisms, rather than government mandates, which (apparently) are the hallmark of leftist solutions to inequity:

Back to Pondiscio’s original point: Does and should the market perspective—one focused on choice, pluralism, and opportunity as the prime drivers—continue to have a place in the education reform movement, effort, confab, or whatever you want to call it? The answer is yes. Competition and innovation are essential and may be the best way to level the playing field for kids of color. (I write this as a person who is deeply skeptical of government’s ability to create schools that liberate low-income black and brown kids from academic outcomes that ensure their economic servitude).

Pondiscio’s language suggests that “education reform” is to be a different discussion than “social reform.”  This comports well with the rhetoric of many reformers about schooling can compensate for any social or personal burdens that a child may bring into the school environment, as long as the standards are high and uncompromising enough, the teachers are consistently of the very highest quality (as determined by circular reasoning), and the Market is allowed to provide all the choices that educational consumers can desire.

But Bradford, sharing many of Pondiscio’s assumptions, nevertheless sees that “education” is linked to “society” because (my words) children are not one thing in a school, and other thing outside — they are whole beings, as their teachers and parents are, and so “education” and “the rest of the world” are part of one continuum.   This, it seems to me, is a wiser position to start from, in discussing ways and means.

Another voice from within the “mainstream” as Pondiscio would define it,  Erika Sanzi comes to his defense, and worries about “leftist” suppression of dissent (as if the “left” is the regnant view in our society), yet strikes a blow for reality, as she writes:

Race cannot be ignored when we talk about education in America. And racism is different from other “-isms.” My students, colleagues and friends have opened my eyes to the unique history, the unique pain, and the unique frustration of racism that could never touch me the way it has touched them. They don’t yet feel free in a nation that is supposed to be free.

Reading these debates among “conservative” (0r “mainstream”) reformers, I am reminded of the title and message of one of Eleanor Duckworth’s great papers (Alas, behind a paywall!!!): Twenty-four, 42, and I love you: Keeping it complex.

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Education reform: Rorschach test

posted by: Gordon Aubrecht on 6/6/2016 10:05 am

Thanks! The Duckworth article is available for free at ou.html

post updated by the author 6/6/2016

Education Reform

posted by: Arthur Camins on 6/6/2016 12:11 pm

I think part of the problem with debates about what has been labeled "education reform" is the failure to clarify apriori assumptions and goals. For example, four core assumptions of current education reformers are: (1) that the current public school system cannot be changed and must be disrupted; (2) that financial incentives and competition motivate positive change; (3) that poverty cannot ultimately be eliminated; and, (4) that democracy is an expendable utilitarian idea. I would challenge each of these assumptions. They are grounded in values, rather than what advocates for equity and democracy would consider evidence. So, the 'school only' version of education improvement has different values and goals that the 'life, work, and citizenship' version.

different values

posted by: Brian Drayton on 6/8/2016 7:13 am

Thanks, Arthur.
I agree for sure that "questioning assumptions" (which often begins with identifying them) is an essential tool for anyone seeking to critique ed reform, with an eye to making educational improvement more likely despite the reformers. Your listing assumptions 2-4 is interesting because these three items are not actually assumptions about education, but represent views about The Way Things Work. They also harmonize very well with an underlying assumption, or maybe it's broader than "an assumption," that the right model of society is one concerned principally with economic activities, or casts everything in terms of economic/monetary values.

Education is then defined principally in such terms, and then it can be narrowed, refined, and reformed with an eye to making it a more responsive and cost-effective factor for the production of wealth and stability. "Disruption" and similar terms in this context are rooted in this worldview.

You know all this better than i do! Given the real-world consequences for people (and planet), the challenge is to keep the philosophical debate alive at every level, since "levels" in regard of social activities are matters of attention, not essence -- one reason I've come to value Dewey's insistence on the unity of theory and practice...