Common among writers is the occasional (or often) distrust of the value of words against the possibility of action. William Shakespeare embedded in his works this angst, powerfully and with humor in A Midsummers Night's Dream. Recently, I wrote a poem about this fear and drew on two works of literature—Shakespeare's Hamlet and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
In Hamlet, Polonius is taunted by the troubled Prince when Polonius asks, "What do you read, my lord?" Hamlet responds with "Words, words, words."
For Faulkner's Addie in As I Lay Dying, the message is much darker and direct: "That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at."
These literary truths bode poorly for politicians, pundits, and scholars/academics because they all share one quality—the proclivity to function in the world of ideas as expressed through the medium of words, spoken and written.
The education reform debate that has developed during the Barack Obama administration has entered an Ouroboros stage—public debate about the public debate. While the symbolism of the snake eating its own tail can have positive implications, I fear that this self-consuming debate about education reform is likely to keep everyone entertained by words-as-sideshow while our education system and the children that it serves remain ignored and outside the tent with the teachers.
And so I am trapped, myself an academic compelled to add words to the smouldering fire, prompted by Michael J. Petrilli's discussion of the recent Diane Ravitch/ Jonathan Alter/ Secretary of Education Arne Duncan battle of words as well as Rick Hess's two-cents about a debate between Deborah Meier and Terry Moe.
In Petrilli's response to the Ravitch/ Alter debate, Petrilli appears to step out of his camp to side (somewhat) with Ravitch and take issue with Alter's discrediting of Ravitch and reformers who stress the impact of poverty on education outcomes. Petrilli takes issue with the new reformers like Alter who insist on a "no excuses" ideology about poverty that suggests scholars like Ravitch are preaching "defeatism" (a qualification offered by Petrilli). About Alter's argument, Petrilli rebuts:
"That would be swell. But it’s not exactly true. Remember the old adage, actions speak louder than words? The No Child Left Behind act is still the law of the land, and it most definitely rests on the principle that poverty is 'no excuse' for low achievement. And it absolutely punishes schools for bad test scores alone."
This endorsement of Ravitch—"Diane is on firm ground"—appears to reflect in Petrilli a willingness to set aside partisanship and rise above the flaws of debating about debates. Until we look closely at the rest of his discussion.
While Petrilli should be commended for confronting and discounting the corrosive nature of codifying 100% proficiency among school children entirely under the jurisdiction of the public school system, his olive branch offered instead must raise additional concern: "Rather than get defensive at Diane’s defeatism, we reformers should clarify the ends that education reform can achieve. If not 100 percent proficiency, then what?"
As we should expect, Petrilli's solutions include a laundry list of assumptions that are nothing new, and more troubling, these reform measures have almost thirty years of evidence showing that they simply do not and cannot work.
Instead of 100% proficiency goals, Petrilli offers more reasonable goals, discounting that federal or state mandates do not make anything happen merely by codifying a goal. As well, to suggest a reasonable goal—seeking "9 percent instead of 4 percent," for example—is the solution again falls into the trap of believing that words equal action while also ignoring that placing a goal on one group of students based on a different population of students inherently discounts the very real flaw of comparing apples to oranges (4 percent for population A, for example, may have been truly exceptional while 9 percent for population B may be an utter failure, but comparing B to A gives the appearance that A is a failure and B is a success—the perfect picture of why words fail us if we ignore reality).
[The error here—the simplistic faith in goals and numbers—is recurring over and over in the media; consider this misleading, yet again, international comparison, this time Germany. Germany is succeeding in education reform because they focus on PISA? Nope, once again, it's poverty. When poverty is considered, the U.S. has higher PISA scores than Germany, which has a child poverty rate half of the rate in the U.S.]
More broadly, and this is where at least one portion of the education debate seems deaf and blind, Petrilli maintains the new reformers' focus on in-school reform only. His concession to out-of-school factors is brief (mere words, words, words) and absent in his reasonable reform alternatives.
On balance, however, I believe Petrilli's big picture here is commendable, especially his closing comment:
"Is this making you uncomfortable? Good. If we are to get beyond the '100 percent proficiency' or 'all students college and career ready' rhetoric, these are the conversations we need to have. And if we’re not willing to do so, don’t complain when Diane Ravitch and her armies of angry teachers say that we are asking them to perform miracles."
If the new reformers listen to this, then we may be hopeful about the debate-about-the-debate moving from words to actions. But the Hess blog about Meier and Moe suggests any hope gained here must be tempered.
While Ravitch and Alter sparred over poverty and education, the Meier/ Moe debate focuses on teachers unions, prompting Hess to blog: "To me, it looked like two key fault lines ran through the discussion. One was the notion of 'reform unionism' and professional voice. The second was how to judge whether schools or teachers were doing well."
Hess's work has been inspected recently as concern has grown about Bill Gates's influence on the education reform debate—influence through his words and his enormous wealth. This debate about how the debate is shaped is central to the characteristics of Hess's blog about Meire, Moe, and teachers unions.
First, to suggest a simple duality of positions as personified by Meire and Moe (or Ravitch and Alter) is to ignore a central warning from John Dewey about either/or thinking. But this approach to public discourse and education reform reveals a pattern—epitomized by Fox News and its claim to "fair and balanced"—of masking imbalance as balance.
This is hard to grasp and it certainly causes discomfort in our free society that claims to embrace democracy and freedom of speech, but some times, only one side is credible.
There may be two sides to debates about the Holocaust or slavery in the U.S., and while all sides have the right to voice their positions, one side remains credible. And this is the case in education reform debate as well.
Hess has every right to portray Meier and Moe as "equals" in the debate over unions, but, on balance, I find accepting Moe's stances as credible impossible:
"Yesterday, Moe sketched the book's argument, saying, 'Teacher unions are the most powerful force in American education...from the bottom up and the top down.' He said that fully understanding this dynamic is essential to making sense of why education policy 'has been such a disappointment for a quarter century,' because schools are organized like they are largely due to the pressures exerted by teacher unions."
Hess will never fully confront the corporate challenge to unionization because Hess has an abiding faith in market dynamics, but to place Moe's arguments in an equal context with Meier's here is, again, to suggest that all perspectives are credible, and Moe's isn't.
U.S. public education has been criticized as a failure for over a century, from at least the 1890s and the work of The Committee of Ten. Unions have been the root cause of that failure all that time?
More damning to the anti-union drumbeat, however, is a much more obvious fact: States most often identified as typical of the failures we associate with our public schools are non-union, right-to-work states where teachers do not have tenure and teacher working conditions and contracts are not negotiated by unions (South Carolina, for example, my home state and a perennial target of the "worst schools in the country" mantra).
If teachers unions are "the most powerful force in American education," as Moe (and Waiting for "Superman") claims, then how are these non-union states among the proclaimed worst-of-the-worst?
And this, like a snake eating its own tail, circles back to the same issue uncovered in the Ravitch/ Alter debate: The most powerful force in American education is poverty.
And why do we have more than 20% of children living in poverty in the U.S.? Because the ruling elite, at best, tolerate it, and at worst, want it.
This is not an excuse, but a fact. And this is not defeatism or an endorsement of the status quo. We need real education reform and we need it now. But not without serious social reform that addresses poverty in the lives of children and their families.
And the school reform can't be statistical goals, mere words and numbers, but must be actions taken to ensure that our schools stop reflecting the inequities in our society and directly model for a children and our country the equity that every human deserves in a country honoring words such as "freedom" and "justice."
Otherwise, we are left with Addie's lament: "[W]ords dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at."