Fix the Mitten, an excellent blog hosted by Nick Krieger, recently had a post that decried the ability of local journalists to report on educational issues. Nick uses the post to point out that the word “reform,” when associated with education, has become code for “destroy.” As Nick eloquently puts it, “It is a code word for experimenting with poor kids and promoting private enterprise at the expense of urban public school districts.”
I want to pick up on this theme and explore it a little bit more. I am a bit shocked after all of these years of education reform, that “reform” is still given as an alternative to the “status quo.” Fix the Mitten shares that local Detroit Channel 4 reporter Devin Scillian, a reporter with a relatively solid sense of educational issues (again, something all too rare in today’s reporting) tweeted that, “If the opposite of reform is the status quo it’s hard to argue against reform.” The argument that the “status quo” needs to be reformed has actually worked to allow for a free market disruption of the common good at the expense of our children in order to create private profit. Knowingly or not, Scillian’s comment functions to promote the free market narrative of competition as the means towards reform, a narrative that has become so insidious that it is part of our language.
I would like to suggest that the opposite of reform, in fact, is not the status quo. Rather, the opposite of reform (as it is used in education currently) is actually investment and support.
Let’s take a very brief look at Detroit and see how this so-called reform has worked to date.
- Detroit Public schools has had democracy put on hold with the imposition of an Emergency Manager. During that time, its debt has increased by over $100 million.
- At the same time, unchecked charter growth has exacerbated the drain from DPS of needed resources. DPS enrollment is predicted at just over 38,000 for fall of 2016, down from almost 96,000 in 2008-09.
- The lowest performing schools in the state were taken from DPS and instead placed in the Education Achievement Authority, a state-wide district that isn’t actually state-wide (limited to DPS schools) and has proven by all accounts to be a colossal failure.
“The Governor’s Education Agenda: Disruptive Innovation
In April 2011, soon after assuming office and just two months before announcing the EAA, Governor Snyder issued a special message setting forth his agenda for public education (Snyder, 2011). Noting the mediocre performance of Michigan’s public schools by several measures and the need to compete on a world scale, the governor called for sweeping changes in the provision of educational services. The plan offered a hopeful vision of educational innovation, entrepreneurship, and markets that would usher in improved models of instruction and student outcomes across the state. The policies would disrupt the prevailing complacency and mediocrity, ‘jettison the status quo’ (p. 2), and move Michigan ‘from school systems to systems of schools'(p. 8)”
This market imposition has created a weird dynamic, one which, as researcher Dan Cohen writes, has established a competition between traditional public schools and charter schools (a majority of which are for-profit) for state money: “The result: what are essentially two separate school systems — one traditional, one charter — in direct competition for students and state funding.”
All of this is intentional. This “disruption” ripens public education for profit and plunder in a state that has the greatest percentage of for-profit charter schools in the country, in a city that is isolated by a history of structural racism and ridden with poverty.
It hasn’t seemed to work too well for anybody except the share holders of charter schools.
So, what really has occurred here, is that a fairly stable system (though one that was in need of investment and the support that educating within a context of poverty requires) was completely and intentionally disrupted by “reform.”
Which is bad enough.
But now, to have that disrupted system referred to as the “status quo” in need of reform is incredibly ignorant, or disingenuous, or just plain mean. It is victim blaming at its worse. DPS has been taken over by the state, charters have drained its resources, it has been ravaged by privatization, all to the point that mushrooms have been growing in its classrooms, and this is the status quo that needs reform?
All of this amounts to a refusal to look at the context of poverty and race. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, “…nationwide about three-fourths of both African American and Hispanic young people (compared to about one-third of white students) attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as low income. The analysis expands on that national portrait to examine the extent of economic isolation at the city level. That assessment points to one overwhelming conclusion: economic isolation and the concentration of poverty among students of color afflicts not only a few struggling cities, but virtually all cities—including many that have seen the most robust growth in jobs, incomes and population since the Great Recession…these factors have left most African American and Hispanic students marooned in schools where economic struggle is the rule and financial stability—and all the social and educational benefits that flow from that—is very much the exception.” (Emphasis added)
You want to really reform education? Reform economic isolation and the concentration of poverty.
Or do you want to make a profit? Then keep up this “reform” and pretend it’s for the kids.
(Cartoon from Weapons of Mass Destruction web-page. Check it out!)