Genuine dialogue feeds the essence of a free and democratic society as well as a classroom dedicated to human agency and democratic principles. But this foundational principle veers away from its fertile possibilities and toward corrosive results when the voices driving the dialogue stop being informed and slip into predictable patterns that fail all sides of the debate.
As a New York Times columnist, David Brooks is the steward of a privilege held by few, which makes his recent column on Diane Ravitch's role in the current education reform debate even more troubling.
Brooks is no amateur in the education market place of ideas, having spurred the robust charter school miracle narrative that is mostly ideology and public relations. Like his hasty and inaccurate claims of "miracle," Brooks' rebuttal of Ravitch fails for a recurring reliance on the strawman argument as well as sweeping and simplistic claims not supported by evidence.
Early in his confrontation of Ravitch, Brooks lets the reader know more about himself than Ravitch:
"She picks and chooses what studies to cite, even beyond the normal standards of people who are trying to make a point.
"She has come to adopt the party-line view of the most change-averse elements of the teachers’ unions: There is no education crisis. Poverty is the real issue, not bad schools. We don’t need fundamental reform; we mainly need to give teachers more money and job security."
Mixed in with his snarky tone, according to Brooks, Ravitch is not offering evidence-based commentary on education; she is simply a mouth-piece for the unions (a weak swipe for a journalist of his stature akin to putting babies and kittens in a TV commercial), a cherry-picker posing as a scholar, and a defender of the status quo that wants us to pay teachers more without asking for any school reform.
If any of his claims were accurate, Brooks would have captured the entire argument in the above passage, but the truth is a bit more complicated—primarily because he establishes a complex strawman in the above characterization in order to have an argument.
Setting aside the people involved in the education debate, Brooks is voicing the powerful but false talking points now driving the education debate:
• Anyone disagreeing with Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and company is a defender of the status quo. (The truth is that many passionate educators and scholars both disagree with the new reformers and are calling for significant and radical education reform.)
• Anyone acknowledging the primary influence on the lives and educational outcomes of children—poverty—is a shill for teachers' unions and those hordes of greedy teachers draining the U.S. as we speak. (Yet, a basic knowledge of the history of education reveals that public education has been demonized and under the weight of "crisis" discourse since the mid-1900s; and the evidence is clear that poverty outweighs teacher quality in student outcomes.)
• Public education is clearly a failure because we can identify charter schools that excel despite serving high-poverty populations. (Unless we consider the evidence that exposes charter schools—like private schools—produce a wide range of quality, just as public schools do.)
These talking points resonate with an uninformed public and have become powerful tools for our political leaders to keep anyone from considering deep education or social reform—radical reform that would confront the role our ruling elite has played in both the inequities of our society and our education system.
And we cannot discount the role of the media—including commentators such as Brooks—in perpetuating the status quo while claiming to be speaking against it, in speaking against ideology and shoddy use of evidence while being ideological and careless with claims of evidence.
Brooks has every right to challenge Ravitch; in fact, such weighty conflicts of personas and ideas have the potential to raise the debate and help insure that at some point we truly address social inequity and education failures. But we need Brooks to do his homework more carefully.
So here are some assignments.
Do accountability, standards, and testing produce the educational reform and outcomes we are seeking? (Read Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education.)
Are Hoxby's and CREDO's work on charters as simple and clear as Brooks claims? (Read "Review of How New York City’s Charter Schools Affect Achievement" and see the Hoxby/CREDO debate.)
While Brooks appears to have committed to the talking points coming from Duncan, Gates, and Rhee, we must give him credit for some abrupt and convoluted ingenuity toward the end of his piece on Ravitch: "If your school teaches to the test, it’s not the test’s fault. It’s the leaders of your school."
If we set aside the many careless errors in reasoning and evidence Brooks offers throughout his commentary, we must pause at this final comment and recognize that, again, Brooks is telling us way more about himself than Ravitch.
And what do we discover?
Like the entire crew of new reformers in education, Brooks fails this debate because he appears incapable of even imagining the life of educators who rise each morning and walk into real schools with real children and have to choose between doing what they know those children want and need or fulfilling state and federal mandates that promise only one thing—to label every person in every school a failure.
Like the entire crew of new reformers in education, Brooks fails this debate because he appears incapable of even imagining the life of anyone not benefiting from the life of privilege that he and the reformers themselves enjoy.
Poverty is no excuse, and teaching to the test is the work of shoddy administrators—who could have imagined it was all so simple?