I have been an avid cyclist for almost thirty years now, riding as much as 10,000 miles each year. For many of those years, I have also shaved my head, resulting in hours and hours outside in adverse weather conditions such as extreme cold, rain, and even sleet and snow.
When my mother-in-law was alive, she never failed to warn me about covering my head to ward off colds and all sorts of illnesses. I regret now that I often argued with her, explaining some times too harshly that we catch colds and other illnesses from germs, not simply being exposed (through our heads) to cold weather. I never budged her from her belief—or her genuine concern for my well-being: I was her daughter's husband and her granddaughter's father; she persisted in this argument out of love.
I often think of this dynamic when I read and discuss the state of public education in the U.S. and needed reforms to that system—especially when I read something as well-intentioned and wrong-minded as "If I Were a Poor Black Kid," by Gene Marks. Of particular note is the fifth paragraph:
"I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them. Or that the 1% control the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind. I don’t believe that. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia."
Marks offers a rallying cry to "poor black kids" that triggers many Americans' unwavering faith in rugged individualism: Everyone should try harder, especially those who find themselves at disadvantage. And he, whether intentional or not, reveals where his claim rests—on belief, "I don't believe that."
Reforming the Debate to Reform Education
This commentary from Marks is but one face and mindset among many, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and, more specifically, Amanda Ripley who has recently bogged, "Reality Distortion Field," in which she clarifies her blog argument in a response to my comment on her site:
"What I am arguing with generally is the simplistic idea that schools cannot mitigate against those factors to some degree—as they do in many countries around the world."
Marks and Ripley present essentially the two-pronged and misguided belief-driven basis of the current education reform narrative (rugged individualism and "poverty is not destiny"), revealing that in order to reform education, we must reform the debate itself first. Let's consider the pervasive claims and assumptions in the dominant arguments about the state of public education and the needed reform in order to separate belief from evidence.
Are U.S. public schools failures and in a state of crisis?
No. Claims of failure and crisis have occurred every decade public schools have existed, suggesting that whatever the conditions are of our school system, they are simply the status of those schools—not failure and certainly not crisis. The great irony of claims of failure and crisis coming from politicians, reformers, the media, and the public is that these claims mask the genuine problems inherent in our system. Public schools suffer three serious problems that should be addressed, but are almost never identified in the popular and political debate: (1) Public schools, despite our claims that they are essential mechanisms for social change and democracy, are powerful reflections of our society, including our inequities, and equally powerful mechanisms for perpetuating the status quo, (2) public schools, since they are publicly funded, are stifled by bureaucracy, and (3) public schools are entrenched in traditional views of measurement, labeling, and ranking that are counter-educational.
Are student outcomes the result of student effort and determination?
No. Student outcomes remain primarily reflected in testing, and standardized testing remains in the twenty-first century overwhelmingly a reflection of out-of-school factors (scoio-economics of the child's community, parental income, parental level of education) as well as biased toward gender and race. Many students who make little effort in school, excel, while many students who are burdened by lives they did not create or choose are labeled failures, and by implication, lazy. Our failure to understand both learning and how to identify learning is a profound and real flaw in our current school system. We need to reframe both how we identify student learning and how we view human nature, particularly in children.
Are student outcomes the result of teacher quality and effort?
This is one of the most complex and difficult issues before us because the answer is almost mind-numbing. If we persist in seeing student learning as only test scores, then the answer is "no" because dozens of factors other than teacher quality or effort dwarf the impact of the teacher. The reality of education is that teachers (their quality and effort) matter tremendously, but in ways that are nearly immeasurable and likely distorted or masked when we try to measure them.
What is the influence of poverty on student learning, teacher quality, and school success?
Here is the central point of argument in the current education reform debate, being driven by a corporate and bureaucratic faith in a "no excuses" ideology (as voiced in both commentaries by Marks and Ripley as well as repeated claims made by Duncan, Gates, and Rhee). As long as we rely on test data and other metrics to look carefully at students, teachers, and schools, poverty's influence will remain the dominant force resulting in seeing all as failures. To acknowledge the fact of poverty's influence on measurable student outcomes, however, is not an excuse, but a sobering understanding that education reform must occur within a wider social reform. Ripley's charge against the "simplistic idea that schools cannot mitigate against those factors to some degree" is a strawman argument currently being used to marginalize any educators or scholars who argue for social reform being an element of school reform.
Are schools suffering from weak or fragmented standards and a lack of adequate testing?
Starting in the early 1980s and over the next three decades, every state in the U.S. embarked on school reform built on accountability, standards, and testing. What has been the result of these 50 experiments? Not a single state has come to the conclusion that public schools are succeeding; test scores, test score gaps among races, drop-out rates, and college readiness are all lamented despite the use of accountability, standards, and testing. What, then, are we now proposing? Greater and wider accountability, national standards, and more testing—none of which can be found in those sacred other countries we often use to bash our schools.
How do U.S. public schools compare to private schools and charter schools?
This is an easy answer, but hard to grasp because it is counter-intuitive to the cultural narrative: Public, private, and charter schools all produce about the same range of quality; a fair claim to make is that the public-ness, private-ness, or charter-ness of any successful or struggling school is not the cause of the success or failure. Success and failure in education are hard to link to any single cause.
How does the U.S. compare internationally and how do our states compare to each other?
As the late Gerald Bracey warned week after week, once we commit to comparisons and rankings, we are likely misrepresenting and misleading. First, international and state-by-state comparisons are incredible difficult to achieve if we wish to make apple-to-apple comparisons; generally, simple comparisons and rankings (such as PISA) are distorting and essentially of no value. Again, this is hard to accept, but we basically should stop comparing and ranking as a source of evaluating our schools or reforming our system.
If some children can rise out of poverty and some schools can produce "miracle" results with high-poverty populations, then why can't they all?
Here is likely the most powerful stated and implied premise of many arguments about school reform, particularly coming from mainstream reformers. And this takes a little more care to understand. The primary failure of this argument is making normal what is by definition exceptional. If (and I am not conceding the exceptions are true) the exceptional exists (individuals who rise out of poverty, schools that succeed with challenging populations of students), then we must come to understand that "elite" and "normal" are statistical realities that result from comparisons. In other words, if we do somehow shift populations from the norm (or below) and toward the elite, all we do is create a new population within which we re-identify the elite and the normal. Normalizing the exceptional is a flaw of logic and a distortion of reality (all of which can be alleviated if we simply stop measuring, labeling, and ranking).
Telling children in poverty just to try hard because one or two people tried harder and succeeded is cruel and misleading; it is like telling all young athletes to try hard to be Michael Jordon or Aaron Rodgers, and if they don't reach those heights, those young athletes didn't try hard enough and are failures.
Instead of the "no excuses" mantra that places all responsibility on the individual and acknowledges no social realities, we should be instilling in young people a much more nuanced view of human existence: Yes, we should all find that which we want to pursue, and we should give ourselves fully and seriously to those things, but we must also recognize that certain types of success are not necessarily going to follow. There is supreme value in the doing, regardless of the result.
But, beyond the logic (or illogic) of normalizing the exceptional (expecting everyone to meet the standard of outliers) is the misleading claims of "miracles" schools and countries who do what we fail to do in our schools (again, see Ripley's strawman argument). The short point here is that the miracle schools don't exist and that countries simply don't accomplish the simplistic things many people claim.
Again, many of the claims of "miracle" schools and successful international schools rest on raw and decontextualized test scores, a failure to examine populations of students, pedagogical practices, purposes for schooling, or the possibility of scaling those schools to different areas or the entire nation (see Joe Bower's unraveling of this concept by comparing Finland and Norway).
What is the purpose of public education, and is it primarily to create a world-class workforce?
This is the root of all education reform debates, but one we rarely unpack. We must begin to look skeptically at what corporate America wants when they call for "a world-class workforce"—cheap labor and compliant labor. Accountability, standards, and testing are powerful tools for training children and creating compliant humans, but they are antithetical to democracy and human agency. The great issue that faces us as a people is whether or not we are genuinely committed to abandoning democratic ideals for corporate interests. The current education reform movement is about corporate interests, not democratic ideals or human agency, happiness, and kindness (all of which are at the core of society and schools in Finland, by the way).
Like my mother-in-law, many well-intentioned people are weighing in on the education reform debate, but good intentions are often mired in blind belief not drawn from evidence, and as a result, create far more harm than good.
People in privilege telling children and adults in poverty just to work harder takes a great deal of audacity, but this tactic works because Americans, regardless of social class, have been conditioned to embrace rugged individualism and "poverty is not destiny" as foundational cultural narratives by those in privilege, by the 1% who seek to remain at the top. These narratives are not truism, but Madison Avenue marketing designed to keep the American workers and consumers right where the 1% want them.
As a result, we are currently destroying our public schools, we are ruining the lives of our children, we are dehumanizing and demoralizing the teachers who have chosen public service as their careers, and we are perpetuating the flaws of our society through the exact schools we claim can change our world for the better.
It is not an easy thing to step back, examine, and accept that a set of beliefs is flawed, but it is something we must do. Until we reform the education debate and the cultural myths that drive that debate, we will fail the education reform agenda—and the result will be a continued widening of the gap between the 1% (who do control the world, Gene Marks, no matter what you believe) and the 99% who make the 1% possible through our belief that being compliant workers will win us the lottery into that 1% club.