In a recent commentary on whether or not education reformers on all side have accepted the powerful impact of poverty on the educational outcomes of students, I suggested that the reform debate appears to be a struggle between two perspectives (although I again concede within each perspective there remains a good amount of nuance): "No Excuses" Reformers and Social Context Reformers.
In the responses to this commentary, jkaa1 offered a comment I think worth considering:
"While I can agree with the thrust of the article--it fails to answer the fundamental question--What can we do? If we can all agree about the corrosive effect of poverty on educational outcomes--then how do we address it? If we can all agree that standardized testing is a flawed instrument to measure student achievement and teacher quality, what is the alternative? Until social context reformers develop a reform model that can be put in place, it will always be unable to win the argument."
Two points should be acknowledged based on jkaa1's view: (1) "No Excuses" Reformers currently own the education reform debate because this ideology is at the center of the elitist position from which the "No Excuses" Reformers speak (political leaders, political appointees, billionaires and millionaires), and (2) Social Context Reforms have, then, remained on the defensive, and when they have offered models, those models are ignored or simply too complex to be effective in public discourse.
Despite the likelihood that this too will go unnoticed, let me try once again to appease jkaa1's important claim.
Social Reform: Choosing Evidence over Cultural Myths
"For more than two centuries," explains Sawhill and Morton, "economic opportunity and the prospect of upward mobility have formed the bedrock upon which the American story has been anchored—inspiring people in distant lands to seek our shores and sustaining the unwavering optimism of Americans at home." For Americans, meritocracy is not an ideal to which we aspire as a people, but a reality of the American way of life:
"Historically, Americans have believed that hard work and talent bring a just reward, and that our society is, and should be, constructed to provide equality of opportunity, not to guarantee equality of outcomes. The belief in America as a land of opportunity may also explain why rising inequality in the United States has yielded so little in terms of responsiveness from policy makers: if the American Dream is alive and well, then there is little need for government intervention to smooth the rough edges of capitalism. Diligence and skill, the argument goes, will yield a fair distribution of rewards." (p. 2)
Sawhill and Morton, however, explain that "[i]ncome inequality has been widening for nearly three decades in the United States" (p. 3). The U.S. is in fact far less equitable than most democracies throughout the world. As the gap between the top 1% (and the further delineations within that 1%) and the 99% who produce the wealth of those elite at the top increases, we have ample evidence that the accident of any child's birth is the most powerful influence on that child's full life:
"The United States Has Less Relative Mobility Than Many Other Developed Countries. Data on relative mobility suggest that people in the United States have experienced less relative mobility than is commonly believed. Most studies find that, in America, about half of the advantages of having a parent with a high income are passed on to the next generation. This means that one of the biggest predictors of an American child’s future economic success—the identity and characteristics of his or her parents—is predetermined and outside that child’s control (emphasis added). To be sure, the apple can fall far from the tree and often does in individual cases, but relative to other factors, the tree dominates the picture." (p. 4)
The first step to education reform, then, in the U.S. is to acknowledge some sobering realities about our society as we move further into the second decade of the twenty-first century:
• Childhood poverty in the U.S. (about 22%) is both relatively high when compared to other countries similar to the U.S. and inexcusable in the wealthiest society of all human history.
• Upward mobility in the U.S. has not materialized, and remains something to which we should aspire—but is not something we have achieved.
• The economic and equity gap between the top 1% and remaining 99% is growing, and thus threatening our goal of meritocracy. That 1% maintains disproportionate control over wealth in the U.S. and by extension disproportionate control over politics, commerce, and (most significantly) public discourse. The 1% must perpetuate a faith among the 99% in meritocracy as a reality to preserve their status.
• Childhood poverty is a subset of adult poverty, employment, and wages. Even if we decide to address childhood poverty and the conditions of those children's lives, to ignore adult and family conditions is to ignore childhood poverty still. As Martin Luther King Jr. urged in 1967: "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."
Education reform in the U.S. must begin by shifting our cultural narratives away from making the inaccurate claim we live in a meritocracy and toward a national plan to achieve equity. That shift should begin with the conditions of children's lives that we know directly impact all children's ability to learn:
"(1) low birth-weight and non-genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics." (Berliner, 2009)
These are tangible conditions that public policy can address, but first we must acknowledge their reality and then take action that addresses those realities.
But social reform is not enough, and Social Context Reformers must support wide-scale education reform as well.
Education as Social Reform?: Then Schools Must Be Unlike that Society
In my commentary, I made this argument against the "No Excuses" Reformers: "If we are to embrace and support public education as a vehicle for social reform, then we must create schools that are unlike our society." And here is where education reform must begin, like social reform, as a shift in how we view teaching and learning. Schools, then, must be experiments in equity that allow children to achieve and perpetuate the meritocracy we claim to be seeking.
• The current accountability paradigm (a competitive dynamic driven by prescriptive standards and testing that perpetuates stratification) must be ended (because it has failed in some form for almost a century, but distinctly over the past three decades) and replaced with a culture of collaboration and cooperation. Measurement, labeling, and ranking—the norms of U.S. public education—can only increase stratification and are thus counter to the goal of equity and meritocracy. Teachers must be transparent in their work, but no longer held accountable for conditions beyond their control; students must perform holistic and authentic acts that combine learning with receiving ample and expert feedback from their teachers, but no longer measured and labeled in ways we can predict before that child even enters the classroom.
• We must rethink curriculum, rejecting the standards movement and instead embracing knowledge and learning as interdisciplinary. Literacy and numeracy are complex human abilities that exist within all types of content; the view of school as distinct content areas and separate courses fails our students and our pursuit of meritocracy and individual empowerment. We persist at isolated courses and content areas because that lends itself to the efficiency of standardized testing, but that commitment distorts what matters and sacrifices equity for efficiency.
• Learning and growth are not linear and are rarely sequential in predictable ways (although in retrospect, each appears to be). We must rethink grade assignments as well as how and when students move forward in their learning. Again, our current system is a reflection of our obsession with efficiency, not learning (or even human dignity).
• School funding must also be addressed since in 2011 schools remain a reflection of the coincidence of the community within which they sit. That is not a lever for creating social change, but a guarantee to maintain inequity.
• Teacher recruitment and education as well as the conditions of the profession must be reformed. Yes, we need bright and sincere people to enter the profession, and yes, teacher education must be challenging and thorough. But neither will occur if we continue to deprofessionalize teaching through commitments to Teach for America and increased accountability and bureaucracy—which appear to be the trend we are pursuing today. Teacher education is failing because of bureaucracy, not from a lack of standards, credentialing, and accreditation.
Here, I have suggested places to start with social and school reform—not to suggest this hasn't been proposed before (it has, and often) and not to be exhaustive (this is just a broad start), but to explain this is why the Social Context Reform movement has failed to gain traction.
True reform is uncomfortable and complex. And the truth is that political leadership has been trained by the public to avoid both the uncomfortable ("Read my lips, no new taxes") and the complex ("You're either for us or against us").
2012 needs leadership and a public committed to the uncomfortable and the complex—or the status quo will remain both in the inequity of our society and the failure of our cultural myths to acknowledge reality over ideology.